It began as a love story, the banned organisation they were part of forming the backdrop. Kiran was a ‘commander’ of the Malangir Area Committee of the CPI (Maoist). Zareena was his deputy. They wanted to marry but were told to wait. In May 2015, Kiran, who had been growing disenchanted with Maoist ideology, surrendered, on the condition that police would try to get Zareena out too. Later, he kept trying to reach out to her. Six months after Kiran had surrendered, Zareena was killed in an alleged fake encounter.
On January 20, announcing Zareena’s death, Bastar IGP S R P Kalluri talked about how Kiran wanted police to help Zareena surrender too. And that she had died as “cowardly Maoist leaders from outside Chhattisgarh use Adivasi women as… security cover”.
However, The Indian Express has found, the circumstances of Zareena’s death raise several questions.
The surrender of Kiran, 27, had been a big success for the Chhattisgarh Police, given his alleged involvement in the Jhiram Ghati attack of May 2013 that wiped out the Congress leadership in the state. Zareena, who was in her early 20s, had been part of the attack. When she died, he came to know about it on the news.
The village of Tumirgunda is located deep inside Bijapur’s forests. A new metalled road goes only till Kuttru, 20 km away.
Only 17 families live in Tumirgunda. Each agrees that Zareena was a Naxal, and that she had been sent home as she was ill.
They are also unequivocal that, on January 19, when police came, there was no encounter. An unarmed Zareena was picked up in her nightgown and taken away alive, the villagers say.
D M Awasthi, Special DG, Anti Naxal Operations, who took charge on January 30, says he doesn’t have all the details since the incident happened before he joined. “But if the villagers have all this evidence, they should give it to the magisterial inquiry that is on.”
R K Vij, who was ADG, Anti Naxal Operations, when the alleged encounter took place, says, “This incident has not come to my knowledge.” The Supreme Court’s guidelines make it clear that every encounter must be probed, he adds. “If anyone is found guilty, action should be taken against them.”
Naresh Vakko, Zareena’s brother, says she joined the Naxals in 2006, when she was just 16 or 17. “She returned home early this year because she was very sick. Naxal cadres escorted her back. She told us she could no longer do physical work, and was leaving the organisation. I don’t know exactly what position she held, but I think she was a commander,” he says.
Vakko remembers that at least a hundred policemen came to get Zareena. “They didn’t say anything, they came straight to our hut, outside which Zareena was cooking, and took her away. We couldn’t say anything because of the number of men around. Besides, we cannot deny that she was with the sangathan. We thought she was being taken to the Bedre police station.”
Raju Majhi, talking to The Indian Express at the home of village ‘patel’ Irpa Pungeti, says the officer who led the forces that morning, Bedre police station in-charge Manoj Singh, had come a few days earlier too looking for Zareena, but left after not finding her.
“In 10 minutes that day, they took her and left. She had no weapons,” says Majhi.
Just over 10 hours later, says Vakko, “We received a message that Zareena was brought to the Bedre police station at 9 pm, dead. People told us she was shot near Wayanar (in Bijapur district).”
The brother says he urged the local police to give them at least her body. “I was told they had buried it.”
The Indian Express has found that teams led by Bijapur SP K L Dhruv and ASP, Anti Naxal Operations, I K Elsela, were heading an operation to the north of the district, bordering Maharashtra, at the time of the incident. Apart from these two teams, there were three “covering teams”, including one led by Manoj Singh.
Singh’s team went past Tamirgunda and picked up Zareena, with clear information on her whereabouts already with police. While no officer talks on record about this, the Express has seen operational details to this effect. The SP and ASP claim to have heard about the encounter only two days later, when they emerged from the forests on the other side of the border with Maharashtra.
Says Dhruv, “We were out of coverage area that day. Later, we did get to know that a Naxal had been killed. By the time we came back, all official procedures had been completed.”
He adds that he instituted a magisterial inquiry as per procedure, but had not received any complaints from villagers.
Elsela also cites the ongoing inquiry to say all allegations could be directed there.
Their operation near the Maharashtra border, Dhruv adds, “didn’t have any success”. The Indian Express has found that no Naxals were captured or killed by the teams.
Sub-Divisional Magistrate C D Verma says he “could not recall the case details as he was on leave”. “This case does not come to mind at all. I will only be able to tell you the details once I get back.”
Manoj Singh sticks to the claims of an “encounter”, saying he was the “party commander”, and that an FIR was registered later at Bijapur. “I was coming back with a party. The Naxals set up an ambush. Both sides fired. When the firing stopped, we found Zareena’s body and a rifle.”
Singh says he can’t tell “how many Naxals were there”. “We could see 20-25 Naxals. You can’t tell when firing is going on.”
IGP Kalluri didn’t respond to messages.
Senior police officials also admit that they knew Zareena’s position within the Naxal hierarchy had changed because of her illness, with the last documented mention of her being under “Vakko Zareena, 22, Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangh (KAMS)”. The document also listed her as “unarmed”. The banned KAMS is the political and social women’s wing of Maoists.
At least five officers, at different levels, in either the range police or who are part of anti-Naxal operations, confirmed to the Express that there was “no shootout”, and “something incorrect” had taken place in Zareena’s death.
Says one officer, “Zareena was involved in a Maoist attack where four policemen were killed in the same area. That is one possible reason (for the killing), but it is largely guesswork. People know it wasn’t an encounter, but no questions have been asked.”
Kiran recalls that Zareena and he fell in love over many conversations they had as Malangir Area Committee members. “She would laugh a lot. Bahut saahas nahin tha usme, ladna achcha nahin lagta tha. Lekin saath mein log hon, toh ladti thi (She wasn’t very brave, didn’t like fighting. But if there were people with her, she would fight).”
Zareena had been ailing for the past few years due to “a worm in her brain”, Kiran adds. “She had become really thin. Three times, the leaders sent her to a hospital, but she didn’t get better. So they shifted her first to KAMS, and then sent her home. I sent her letters asking her to surrender, but she didn’t respond. Then I heard in the news that she had been killed.”
Senior police officers say they also tried to get Zareena to surrender. “We gave her family money twice, and a phone too. In case they wanted to surrender, they could walk up to Bedre and call,” a senior officer says.
Tumirgunda villagers accept that they haven’t registered a complaint so far, but as village head Irpa Pungeti says, “Where will we go to file a complaint? Bedre? Personnel from there were involved in picking Zareena up. Moreover, she was a Naxal, and even if they killed her in cold blood, no action will be taken.”
However, they wonder why Zareena had to be killed if taken away unarmed. “You will not find a single person in our village who will say she was not a Naxal. We also cannot say we don’t listen to the Naxals, because they are the only leaders we know. The only government we have is the one anganwadi worker who comes erratically. There is no school, electricity, healthcare centre here. Police for us is the government,” says Raju Majhi. “But doesn’t democracy or law say she should be arrested and courts decide what would happen to her?… If the government doesn’t itself believe in democracy and kills people, doesn’t it make what the Naxals say against the sarkaar right?”
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