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Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Chhattisgarh: Story of another ‘encounter’

On June 28, 2012, 17 people were killed in Chhattisgarh in what was then called “the biggest Maoist encounter”. With a judicial commission now punching holes in the official version of the incident, The Indian Express travels to Sarkeguda and finds that while much has changed in these years, some things haven’t — the memories of that night, and the wounds that refuse to heal

Written by Dipankar Ghose | Updated: December 8, 2019 2:56:03 pm
Chhattisgarh 2012 encounter, Chhattisgarh encounter, Chhattisgarh encounter June 2012, Chhattisgarh 2012 encounter probe, India news, Indian Express Kamla Kaka, in grey kurta, with villagers whose relatives were among the 17 killed

Those who remain remember everything, even the sounds of the ‘encounter’ — of gunfire, constant and terrifying, of muffled screams of family members outside, cries of pain as some were shot at, of feet running as fast as they could.

When the gunfight ended an hour later, the night turned to day as the security forces threw up a “para bomb” to illuminate the area. Still, they stayed inside their homes, cowering in fear. The next morning, the villagers finally emerged from their homes, and walked to Basaguda police station, three kilometres from their village Sarkeguda in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district. There were 16 bodies in all, mangled and still, lying in body bags. One more was killed that morning, the toll now 17.

Seven-and-a-half years after what the then UPA government at the Centre and the Raman Singh-led BJP government in the state called the “biggest Maoist encounter”, a one-member judicial commission of retired Madhya Pradesh High Court judge Justice V K Agarwal has submitted a report that’s a damning indictment of the security forces.

In its report — the contents of which were reported by The Indian Express on December 1 — the commission has said that there was no firing by the villagers; there is no evidence to suggest they were Maoists; the villagers were assaulted and killed from close quarters; security forces may have fired “in panic”; and one of the victims was shot in the morning, several hours after the encounter at night. It went on to say that the primary defence of the security forces, that six of their jawans were also injured in the “gunfight”, does not ring true, as records of those injuries are inconsistent, and even if true, their nature seems to indicate “friendly fire”.

Also Read | Chhattisgarh ‘encounter’ report in House, Bhupesh Baghel says guilty won’t be spared

Deep inside Bijapur, a district hit by Left-wing extremism, lies Sarkeguda, 53 kilometres from the district headquarters and 469 kilometres from the state capital of Raipur. In the past seven years, much has changed in the village. Back then, the road from Bijapur to Sarkeguda was unpaved, more stones and dust than the black tar that carpets it today.

The buses were few and far between then, and there were none of the dish television antennae that now adorn the roofs of almost every home in Avapalli en route. The fields have changed too. Over the years, residents have built culverts to rein in water for paddy. An electricity pole that stands in the middle of the field came up last year.

Explained

Hope for justice after 7 yrs

the justice Agarwal Commission’s report has backed the residents of Sarkeguda, who have been fighting for seven long years to seek justice for the death of their family members in the 2012 encounter by the security forces. It has brought hope in this region that such actions will not go unpunished.

What has not changed though is the disdain for the police story that went like this: On the night of June 28, 2012, teams of the CRPF, accompanied by the Chhattisgarh Police, received information of a group of armed Maoists camping in Silger in Bijapur district of the state.

Acting on this information, three teams of security forces moved towards Silger, one of those from the Basaguda police station, 15 km away. This team was led by CRPF DIG S Elango and — according to their version of events that matches the text of the FIR filed immediately after the incident — somewhere in the forests between Sarkeguda, Kottaguda and Rajpenta, they heard the sounds of “suspicious activity”. According to the security forces, as they were passing this forested patch, they heard cries of “police, police”, and “fire karo”, after which they “came under fire from armed Maoists”.

In the “retaliatory fire”, the CRPF and police officials told investigators, 17 people, several of them allegedly Maoists, were killed, and 10 people injured.

The villagers of Sarkeguda, Kottaguda and Rajpenta, all falling under the Sarkeguda gram panchayat, however, had a very different story. The meeting that was called that night, they said, was not a Maoist meeting, but a congregation to discuss the modalities of “Beej Pandum”, a local tribal festival.

They said nobody was armed, and there were no Maoists. Besides the 16 who were killed at the encounter site, one more person was dragged out of his home near the encounter spot the following morning and killed, the villagers said.

Chhattisgarh 2012 encounter, Chhattisgarh encounter, Chhattisgarh encounter June 2012, Chhattisgarh 2012 encounter probe, India news, Indian Express There were 16 bodies in all, mangled and still, lying in body bags. One more was killed that morning, the toll now 17.

Kamla Kaka, a resident of Sarkeguda who is among those who led the fight for justice, points all around her and says, “If you stand here and do nothing else, talk to nobody else, you can tell the police were lying. They told the judge this was a forest between two hills. This is a field, and always has been a field. The encounter took place in summer, so even the paddy you see now wasn’t there.”

The spot — which security forces called a forest — has six trees in an area the size of a hockey field. The Agarwal report, in fact, says that during his cross examination, DIG S Elango, when shown the GPS coordinates of the field, “admitted” that the spot was a “clearing between villages and not a forest”. “Their lies begin here,” Kaka says.

Sarkeguda is a microcosm of Bastar, a place of untamed beauty hit by one calamity after another, none of them natural. In the years after 2005, as the State-backed vigilante force, the Salwa Judum, destroyed villages in Bastar in an ostensible drive against Maoists, several residents of Sarkeguda and its surrounding villages abandoned their homes and left for Telangana.

“From farmers who grew our own crop, we became people who had nothing. We lived in Cherla (Khammam district, Telangana), where we worked as pluckers in chilli fields,” says Mahesh Irpa, whose cousin Irpa Narayan was among the 16 killed in the encounter.

By 2010, organisations such as Himanshu Kumar’s Vanvasi Chetna Ashram and local politicians had motivated villagers to return to their homes in Bastar. “We had just about come back, built our homes, and started farming again when the encounter happened. After that, for months, the police constantly came to our villages. We couldn’t step out for risk of being beaten, and couldn’t even go to the forests to graze our cattle,” adds Mahesh.

For those in Sarkeguda, the passing of time has done little to heal wounds.

Ratna Markam, who is now the village mitanin (a community health volunteer), speaks of her brother Ram Vilas Markam and Kamla Kaka’s nephew Rahul Kaka — both 15, students of Class 9 at the government school in Basaguda, and “best friends”. “They went together everywhere. They were both excellent students too. Rahul kept saying he wanted to be an engineer. Ram Vilas hadn’t decided, but wanted to travel the world. We used to tell them not to dream so big. But somehow, when they spoke, we also dreamed along with them,” she says.

Next to her, sitting cross-legged and hunched, Irpa Rama reaches into his pocket and draws out a small passport-sized photograph of his daughter. Over the years, those in Sarkeguda have learnt to keep photographs at the ready. Rama speaks Dorli, the language of the dominant Dorla tribe, but knows four words in Hindi: “Woh toh bachchi thi (she was a child)”. Saraswati, as they called her at home, was 12 — the youngest of the six minors killed in the encounter.

If that night of 2012 left behind a trail of dead, it also tore apart the lives of the living. Irpa Arun was 10 years old when the encounter happened, and remembers staying huddled under a charpai with his two brothers, both then under five years old. His home is closest to the field and his memory is vague, but he remembers his father arriving home that night. He remembers falling asleep, when the guns fell silent.

And yet, in the morning, he recalls another gunshot. It was his father Irpa Ramesh — the 17th victim, who, as the commission held, was killed the next morning.

Villagers remember Ramesh peeping out to gaze at the field, when he was allegedly dragged out of his compound and shot dead. That incident triggered a series of events that forced Arun to turn provider for his brothers, and lost him his childhood. Unable to provide for three young children and her heart full of melancholy, his mother soon left and remarried in another village.

“I studied till Class 7 and then dropped out. There was nothing to eat for me and my brothers. So I started to till the land. Both my brothers go to school, and I need to work so they can grow. There is no other way,” says Arun.

Kaka Chenti was even closer to the gunfire. He was one of those at the meeting. As the security forces surrounded the meeting and began to fire, Chenti ran as fast as he could. But just as he was about to find refuge behind a tree, he felt a searing pain in his left thigh — a bullet had pierced it and exited near his buttock. His memory after that is faint, clouded by physical pain.

He remembers an ambulance, and then a helicopter, and being treated in a Raipur hospital for 25 days. On the 26th day, he found himself in jail in Jagdalpur, accused of being one of the ‘Maoists’ who had allegedly ‘opened fire on security forces’. Chenti remained in jail for five years until 2017, when a Jagdalpur court acquitted him of all charges. “I was 20 years old then. I am 28 years old now. I lost five years of my life in jail. Who will return those to me?” Chenti asks.

As they recount their stories in a clearing outside Kottaguda, suddenly, the sound of a video rents the air. It is a video that the villagers watch often — one that speaks of the anger that existed in the days after the encounter and the efforts of the state to mollify the villagers.

In the video, taken four days after the encounter, an irate Kamla Kaka stands at the head of a group of men from the village, shouting at administration officials who have arrived to offer ration and supplies.

Kaka is seen screaming at the officials, including a Sub Divisional Magistrate: “You say we are all Naxals. Do you offer ration to Naxals? There was a 12 year old girl (among those killed). Was she giving a speech that you killed her first? We don’t want your help.”

With her anger an incessant volley of piercing words, more women emerge in the video, pushing their children forward. They ask the officials about their future, say, “kill them too, if that’s what you want”.

Now, as the video plays on, Kaka laughs and admonishes those playing it. “Why do you keep playing this video? Bas karo,” she says, before quietly adding, “But it is this anger that has led to what happened this week… the commission’s report.”

For Kaka, the fight has been long and arduous. Once the judicial commission was constituted, villagers had to travel to Jagdalpur, then Raipur and even Bhopal for hearings. “The first time we all had to go to Jagdalpur, everyone wanted to go. So we had to arrange for food and lodging.

Over time, a lot of people could not go because travelling so far means letting go of the day’s earnings. So it became me, Ratna Markam and Rita Kaka (another resident of Sarkeguda) who would go for most hearings. Whenever we came back, we told the villagers what happened (at the hearings),” she says.

Then the village mitanin, Kaka went on to study a nursing course and is now posted at Geedam in Dantewada district, 140 km from her village. “It has been difficult, but we have never wavered. Even when I was studying, I would go for the hearings. The commission took care of our travel expenses, but there were other things to take care of. I used to sell bangles at the local market to get by,” she says.

When Kaka and the others went to Raipur for the first time to file an affidavit before the commission, the officials refused to accept their papers. “They said we didn’t have proper identification documents. Our lawyers told the commission that we had come from very far and that it was hard in these parts to always have documents at short notice, but they didn’t listen. Finally, our lawyers told the judge and he understood,” says Kaka.

Shalini Gera, who was one of the lawyers for the villagers, says, “There were logistical challenges, of course, but beyond that, when the security forces brought their witnesses, mostly surrendered Maoists, to these hearings, they would throw around allegations. That is difficult for anyone to face.”

Kaka says she vividly remembers those hearings in court. She remembers the anger that bubbled up inside her when she was repeatedly asked if the people who died were Maoists. “It angered me so much, but it made me speak clearly.

After that, though nobody threatened me directly, I began getting calls from local people I knew. They told me to leave the village and Chhattisgarh itself, that my life was in danger. My parents kept telling me, what if we lose you too? But we fought, and that is why a judge (Agarwal) has now said that what happened was a fake encounter,” she says.

If Sarkeguda has been left with a deep sense of tragedy, there is also gratitude for those who fought for them. Villagers speak fondly of politicians such as Manish Kunjam, the multi-term CPI MLA from Konta, and activists and lawyers such as Himanshu Kumar and Yug Chaudhry. But while there are men who have contributed, most battles for justice have been led by women, both from the village and outside.

Even after the judgment, it is the women of the village — Kamla Kaka, Ratna Markam and Rita Kaka — whose words carry the most weight. When they talk, everyone listens, like in the video from 2002.

Kaka nearly always carries a child in her arms, her practised hand checking their limbs for strength and mobility, as she now quietly tells a mother, “This is a strong child. Make sure he gets enough milk.”

“I’m not sure why it is always women who are fighting for justice. Maybe because we are mothers. Or maybe because we are less afraid to speak, to fight. The pain of our children being killed burns us from inside. Even among our lawyers, people like Shalini Gera and Sudha Bharadwaj did so much,” says Kaka.

Vindicated they might be, but the events of the past seven years have left Sarkeguda with a deep mistrust of the State — the kind that electricity poles or mobile networks haven’t been able to cure. Reports of the Congress government in the state allegedly sitting on the commission’s report for over a month have not gone unnoticed. They look at the state government’s initiative to send the Agarwal commission report to the law department with suspicion, despite assurances by Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel that “the guilty won’t be spared”.

Still, this week is an improvement on last week, Kaka tells the group of 15 villagers listening to her. This week, the country knows that they were not lying, that their children were not Maoists, that they did not open fire. “We must keep that memory alive,” she says. One person in the group proposes that a memorial for the 17 dead be built in the field.

Another says that they should build both a memorial and a garden with fruit trees and flowers. Kaka agrees: “This way, anybody coming to Sarkeguda will know the truth. We can all pool in money, ask for help from villages around us as well.”

From one corner though, there is a quiet note of dissent. The land — the spot where the encounter happened — belongs to Irpa Mahesh. It is where he grows his paddy. Mahesh communicates this hesitatingly to the audience.

Those in the gathering tell him that he will be given land somewhere else, that he will forever be remembered as the man who gave his land for the memorial, that his name will be on the plaque. Mahesh says nothing, his eyes downcast. There is something that is left unspoken — his fears that a memorial to the villagers on his land might make him a marked man.

Kaka speaks to the fear in his eyes: “We have come this far because we are brave. We fought when so many others gave up halfway. We are not done fighting yet.”

17 who died: 

Kottaguda village

1. Saraswati, 12: youngest victim. No Naxal record. Father Kaka Rama is a marginal farmer, grows mostly rice and tamarind.

2. Kaka Samaiyya, 35-40 years: No Naxal record. Survived by four children and wife Kaka Negi. His sister Kaka Sarita was the first girl in the region to study beyond Class 12.

3. Kaka Nagesh alias Rahul, 15: Class 10 student at a government residential school in neighbouring Basaguda. In his press conference after the encounter, then home minister

P Chidambaram called Rahul an “important Naxal”. He faced two cases. One, on October 24, 2009, when he was 12 and, according to the police, fired at security personnel near the Talperu river. Second, for allegedly firing at a police party in December 2011 near Timapur, a nearby village.

4. Madkam Ramvilas, 15: No Naxal record. He was Rahul’s classmate. His family said he always got a first division, was good at English.

5. Madkam Dileep, 22: Studied up to Class 8. Police said then that Dileep had fired at a police party near the Talperu river on October 24, 2009.

6. Irpa Munna, 23: No Naxal record. His father Irpa Raju said he had climbed up a tree to save himself during the firing at night. As he came down in the morning, the police fired at him.

7. Madkam Suresh, 35: He was arrested with his mother Shanta during the days of the Salwa Judum in 2007 when thousands of tribals were sent to jails. Shanta was released later. Suresh managed to escape during the Dantewada prison break of December 2007 with other 298 inmates. He then returned to his village, married and had two children. Besides the jailbreak case, he had four cases against him — one in January 2007, three in April 2007. All have the same charge — firing at police parties with an intention to kill them.

8. Madkam Nagesh, 32: He played his dholak during village festivals. He and Madkam Suresh were brothers. Their wives share the same name —Madkam Shammi. He was booked in a September 2006 case for firing on a police party.

9. Irpa Dinesh, 35: Police called him Irpa Somulu, a Naxal, and claimed his identity was dubious. Villagers said there was no Irpa Somulu in any of the villages. He lived with wife Janki and three children. Both the Chhattisgarh Police and the CRPF said he was a prominent Naxal but he did not figure in the list of Naxalites that the Chhattisgarh Police prepared after the encounter.

Sarkeguda village

10. Sarke Ramanna, 25: No Naxal record. He was a marginal farmer; survived by his wife and a daughter.

11. Maadvi Aayutu, 33: Survived by his wife Kamli and four children. He was booked for two cases — killing a Special Police Officer in July 2007 and looting villagers in July 2010.

12. Korse Bichham, 18: His parents had died years ago and he lived with his brother and sister-in-law. He had two cases against him — from October and December 2011 — for allegedly attacking a police party “with an intention to kill”.

13. Irpa Narayan, 45-50 years: Survived by his wife Sita and four children. He was booked in a December 2011 case for attacking a police party.

14. Kunjam Malla, 17: No Naxal record.

15. Apka Mitthu, 17: A school dropout, he was a marginal farmer.

16. Irpa Dharmaiyya, 40: No Naxal record.

17. Irpa Suresh, 18. He was among the seven injured the police party took with them for treatment. Suresh was shifted to Bijapur district hospital where he died. No Naxal record.

Incidents in Bastar

Tadmetla, March 2011: Over 160 homes were burnt by security forces in the villages of Tadmetla, Morpalli and Timmapuram, and three women were raped and killed, allegedly by security forces.

The Supreme Court handed over the investigation of the case to the CBI, which, in a status report in 2016, contradicted the police version that Maoists had burnt the villages and held security personnel responsible for the incident that saw seven special police officials being chargesheeted. A commission of enquiry, headed by retired Justice T P Sharma, was also instituted in May 2011.

Jhiram, May 2013: 27 people, including senior Congress leaders Mahendra Karma, Vidya Charan Shukla and Nand Kumar Patel, were killed in a Maoist attack on a Congress convoy. The NIA was given charge of the investigation, but filed a closure report. A one-member judicial commission headed by Justice Prashant Mishra is still in operation. In December 2018, the new Congress government also announced an SIT into the attack.

Edesmeta, May 2013: One CRPF personnel and eight alleged Maoists were killed in an alleged encounter. Villagers maintained that there was no exchange of fire. A commission of enquiry under Justice V K Agarwal, who also adjudicated the Sarkeguda case, was instituted, and is still to conclude hearings.

Nulkatong, August 2018: 15 people were killed in an encounter with security forces in a Sukma village. Claiming this was a fake encounter, the Civil Liberties Commission filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court which is still pending.

Pedagellur, October 2015: Over 30 women alleged that they had been sexually assaulted in Pedagellur and Chinnagellur villages in Bijapur district. Taking cognisance of a report in The Indian Express, the NHRC took suo motu cognisance and in January 2017 issued an interim report where it said that prima facie it seemed that 16 women had been sexually assaulted, ordering that the statements of 20 others be recorded.

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