THE family of one of the two alleged Maoists killed by security forces in Dantewada district in May has claimed that he was a minor, only 15 years of age, and has gone to the Chhattisgarh High Court demanding an inquiry.
Rishu Istam and Ramsingh Alami a.k.a Maata were killed on May 21, following an “encounter” near their village, Pidiyakot. The Dantewada police says both were senior Maoists, facing several cases, with cash rewards of Rs 8 lakh and Rs 1 lakh in their name. According to them, while Istam was “deputy commandant” of Platoon No. 16, Maata was Pidiyakot Janmilitia “commandant”.
Istam’s elder brother Gopi denies the allegations, showing an Aadhaar card where Istam’s age is mentioned as 15. Sobbing, Istam’s mother Palo says that forget a gun, her son didn’t know how to use even a bow and arrow. “He rarely went out, and was busy with farming work and household chores all day,” says Palo, 58.
Pidiyakot village sarpanch Umaram Kawasi also contests the claim that Maata, 32, who was the village ‘Perma (tribal priest)’ and a father of three, was a Janmilitia member. “He was arrested long back, during the Salwa Judum movement, as a Naxal. However, they had to release him after two years as they had no evidence against him,” Kawasi says, adding that the police never came asking about the two in the run-up to the “encounter”.
Dantewada Superintendent of Police Abhishek Pallav said they had recovered weapons as well as 5 kg IED from the two. He added that having not raised any questions for two months, the villagers were now protesting under Naxal pressure. “The family members and local representatives accepted at the time that both were Naxals. Their issue was that we could have arrested and not killed them. But our men came under fire, and in retaliation, both men were killed,” he said.
On claims that Istam was a minor, he said, “It is a Naxal strategy, to put a fake date of birth when making Aadhaar cards so that the cadres can get away by claiming to be minors.”
Sarpanch Kawasi says that on the day of the encounter, Istam, Maata and some other villagers were returning from Chote Tumnar, 40 km away, after collecting PDS rice, when they were apprehended by security personnel right next to Pidiyakot. One of the villagers who claims to have witnessed the arrest, Manki Berta, says the security forces had their faces covered and “carried plastic gunny bags, which had guns”.
Berta says Istam and Maata’s faces were covered with a cloth and they were led into the forest.
Maata’s wife Jilo Alami says she and two other women followed the men, staying hidden, and then heard the gunshots that went on for almost 15 minutes. “I knew my husband and Istam were dead,” she says, her eyes fixed on her youngest daughter, a toddler.
Gopi says the family’s lives had earlier been destroyed during the vigilante anti-Naxal Salwa Judum campaign. “Our house in Pidiyakot was razed. We lived in Kasuli camp for seven years, after which my parents and one of my sisters moved to Pidiyakot, while I, my family and Rishu stayed in Tarlapal,” he says, regretting having convinced Istam to move to Pidiyakot last year.
“Our aged parents couldn’t do farming any more. So, Rishu helped them,” Gopi, a paddy farmer, says.
According to the Dantewada police, they had got inputs regarding movement of Maoists in the area, and that during an operation, their men had come under heavy fire. SP Pallav said they had proof to show Istam and Maata were Maoist cadres. “There are several cases against them, their names are in statements of surrendered cadres.”
Asked about details of the cases against the two, the police said they could not share the same as the matter was subjudice.
Pallav added that a bone ossification test had put Istam’s age at around 18, and that he was likely to have been older. “In Bastar, due to malnutrition, bones are underdeveloped sometimes, so it is clear that he was at least 20-21 years old.”
Bastar IG P Sundarraj said, “This is propaganda by the Naxals to demoralise and defame security personnel. We have records that both men were part of Naxal dalams for six-seven years. Maata had been arrested earlier and was out on bail.”
Gopi says they are afraid of retaliation now over their decision to go to the high court. “Recently, some policemen came to my village and asked where I was. I am afraid.”
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines