The stand-off between Patthalgarhi supporters and Jharkhand police in Khunti district turned violent Wednesday leaving one person dead during a search operation for three abducted policemen at Ghaghra village. The three men, abducted from Khunti BJP MP Karia Munda’s residence at Anigada-Chandih Tuesday, are still missing.
According to police, Pattalgarhi supporters had abducted three policemen posted as security guards at the BJP MP’s house. They were abducted three days after police announced the arrest of two men accused of gangraping five women in Kochang village on June 19. The police had alleged that Patthalgarhi were involved in the sexual assault.
After the arrests, police had also acted against the alleged leader of the Patthalgarhi movement, Yusuf Purty, in his native village Udburu, and attached his property, but Purthy managed to escape. Sources also said that Purthy had organised a Patthalgarhi protest at Ghaghra village and supervised the burning of Aadhaar and Voter ID cards.
Patthalgarhi, a traditional tribal practice to commemorate ancestors, has been used as a form of protest by some in Jharkhand, who claim that the gram sabha is the supreme power and dissuade people from acknowledging the government.
The stand-off began Tuesday afternoon after police surrounded Ghaghra village. Officials said that they had leads that the abducted personnel were here and believed they were safe. Trouble began the next day when police tried to enter the village but were stopped by Patthalgarhi supporters. The police force spent the night outside the village even as senior officials attempted to negotiate with villagers to allow the search.
On Wednesday morning, forces from Bokaro, Simdega, Chaibasa and other districts were brought in along with RAF and SSB companies and several villagers were detained in the morning. They were let-off after questioning later in the day. When talks with villagers failed, police lobbed teargas shells, fired a few rounds in the air and used baton charges to push protesters back before entering the village to start searches. According to the police, villagers had used bows and arrows to target the police and several vehicles parked outside the village.
Despite a house-by-house search, the police were unable to find the abducted security guards – Subodh Kujur, Vinod Kerketta and Suyon Sureen.
A relative of BJP MP Karia Munda witnessed the clash. “The security forces were close to our house when they began asking Patthalgarhi supporters to stop following them and go back to Ghaghra. The group did not budge. Then, the policemen lathi-charged them and the group disintegrated,” the relative said requesting anonymity.
The relative also claimed that Patthalgarhi supporters barged into the house. “They began shouting asking us where the policemen were hidden. They searched the entire house and caught hold of the three jawans. When I told them that they are not part of the force, but our security guards, they did not pay heed. They also picked up their weapons,” said the relative.
“I told them that they were from the government and they retaliated saying you know who is ‘sarkar’? Gram sabha is the only sarkar.”
South Chhotanagpur Inspector General of Police Naveen Kumar Singh was at Ghaghra village. “We are aware that time is being taken. But this is because we want to be ultra cautious and avoid any collateral damage. We have observed utmost restraint and used minimum necessary force. We have leads about the whereabouts of the jawans and are conducting raids. We hope to get them released soon,” he said.
Singh also said that the abduction seemed like an attempt at a trade-off of sorts with police. “The police took action against Patthalgarhi supporters after we had information about two of them being involved in the Khunti gangrape incident. They too initially offered to talk. Even at this stage, we are ready to talk to anybody. But, we have to deal with people, who are insistent on taking the law into their hands,” he said.
Asked about the death of one person, Singh said: “An unidentified man began using a bow and arrows to target our men. When our men charged him in retaliation, he began running away and seemed to have sustained injuries during a fall. He was seriously injured and rushed to Ranchi.” The man later succumbed to his injuries.
Forces continued to remain stationed at Ghaghra and fresh troops were sent in to replace tired personnel, who went without food for almost 12 hours. During the night, a tanker of water and some food from a nearby CRPF camp was supplied to them.