The road to Bastar is paved with horrifying stories of loss and trauma. Loss of the loved ones, memories of mutilated bodies and infinite bundles of unanswered questions.
In a “historic” encounter, as was reported by the DIG, Anti-Naxal Squad — DM Awasthi, 15 “Maoists” were shot dead in Sukma by the District Regional Guards (DRG) in the early morning of August 6, 2018. However, the villagers have a completely different story to tell — stories of haunting memories of the past and terror of today.
Bastar, one of world’s most militarised zones
In the backdrop of lush green Dandakarnya forest, one begins to lose count of the number of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and police camps that fall in the approximately 80 km stretch from Sukma to Konta of Sukma district. The frequency of the camps increases as we approach closer to the end of motorable roads. One can see the well-built CRPF men coming from all over India marching along the roadside with an INSAAS rifle slung on their back — an explicit reminder that one has entered a war zone. Regular noting down of names and phone numbers, sometimes asking for an identity proof and clicking photos leaves behind an acute feeling of being watched and being in the wrong place.
According to Hindustan Times report, the CRPF has about 31 battalions deployed in Chhattisgarh at present. A CRPF battalion has over 1,000 troops. This also includes the elite Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) — the jungle warfare squad. The Bastariya Battalion, comprising poorly trained Bastar Adivasis, was also formed in 2017 to understand the terrain and “culture” of the Maoist affected areas. Seven more battalions are to be deployed by the end of August 2018. Without divulging much detail, the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh on May 21, 2018 announced that Chhattisgarh would get its own specialised anti-Naxal combat force called “Black Panther” on the lines of the Greyhound unit of Andhra Pradesh.
Chhattisgarh is one of the most militarised zones in the world — a fact that does not evade anyone who visits the region.
Gompad village, Mehta Panchayat
Gompad has no motorable roads. The roads end at Konta, beyond which is where the Maoists operate. Gompad is a long 20-25 km walk from the last motorable point, traversing through dense lush green forest. The 20-25 km walk for a non-local takes six hours in the monsoon, crossing innumerable nalas and rivers, paddy fields, forested areas and sludgy roads. Felled trees are a common sight, indicating the presence of the Naxalites. Less than five kilometres from Gompad village is Nulkatong, a village close to the site of the alleged encounter.
Out of the 15 alleged encounters, six were from Gompad, six from Nulkatong, one from Vellpocha, one from Kinderpad and one from Etagata — all of them falling within Sukma District under the jurisdiction of Konta Police Station. The alleged encounter took place at a site close to Nulkatong, 20-25 kms away from Konta. Claiming to be one of the biggest anti-Naxal operations, DM Awasthi, Special DG, Anti Naxal Operations, said in a press conference: “The teams reached their locations late on Sunday night, and a little after 7 am there was an exchange of fire that lasted for close to an hour. Once the exchange of fire broke out, we sent another team as reinforcement from Bhejji. We recovered 15 dead bodies from the encounter, and 16 weapons including one 12-bore and one 315-bore rifle.” Abhishek Meena, the Sukma Superintendent of Police, speaking to The Leaflet, said: “There were 170 security personnel in total. Three parties left from Bhejji and one from Konta. Three parties were District reserve Guards (DRGs) and one was the Special Task Force (STF).”
The villagers, however, have a different tale to narrate. They claim that this alleged encounter was fake and those who died were ordinary villagers, many of them children.
August 6, 2018: A Day Gompad shall not forget
The security forces in the region are a sight of terror for the villagers. By late morning on August 5, news was floating around that the forces had entered the villages in and around Gompad. As is common practice, the men ran away from the villages into the forests or to other villages to hide from the security forces for the fear of being targeted, shot at and mostly getting arrested under the false allegation of being a Naxalite. This fear is entrenched in the psyche of Bastar.
It must be said here that the experiences of the local women in Bastar differ considerably from the men; for when the force enters their village, the women remain and guard the village, houses, children, elders, livestock and whatever little they have. A mother of a one-year-old in Nulkatong recounts how the security force men come and abuse them. “They touch women and young girls inappropriately. When we get the news that the force is coming, women from the village huddle together and try to protect each other. The force barges into our houses and takes away the money, kills our animals and cooks in our kitchen.”
On that fateful day, 10-11 men and their sons ran from Gompad to Nulkatong village, alleged Sukka, a resident of Gompad. This narrative was backed by other villagers, both from Nulkatong and Gompad. Sukka and his son Karti Ayata were among them. “We came to check if the force had left at night. They were still in the village, so we went back to Nulkatong village and slept in the laari (huts) in the fields. There were men from other villages too.” Few men from Nulkatong and Ettegata had also fled their villages in fear of the forces. One came from Vellpocha to Nulkatong as his wife belongs to the village. In total, according to the villagers, there were around 40 men. In the wee hours of the morning, “we sat there talking like we are talking here”, Karti Kosa, another eyewitness who escaped, said. “Some went to freshen up and some were just sitting and talking and suddenly the force surrounded us,” Karti Kosa added. “We raised our hands to show we were unarmed. First they started beating us up with sticks and batons and then opened fire at us,” Karti Kosa said. Continuing in the same thread, Sukka said, “I ran from there. I forgot to take my little son with me. A bullet hit my leg as I ran. My son was running behind me. A bullet hit him and he succumbed to it. I could hear them following me. I assumed they were following the trail of blood from the bullet. I saw a river. I jumped into it and washed the blood. They lost me like that. But my son died.”
Karti Ayata, an alleged 12-year-old boy, was one among the six from Gompad village who was shot and killed. The villagers say that other five were middle-aged men with families and children. Among them was also Soyam Chandra, father of a one year-old and the Ward Panch. Eyewitnesses claim that while police opened fire on them, he kept shouting, “I am the Ward Panch”. Nobody heard him. He also had an Aadhaar card, which said he was born in 1997. Eyewitnesses said he was the first to be shot by the security forces after which they smashed his head with a shovel. Others who were shot dead from Gompad village were Soyam Seeta, Karti Hidma, Madvi Nanda and Madvi Deva.
Sukka has still not received any medical treatment. The bullet was removed using traditional adivasi medicines. He fears that even if he walks to the closest hospital in Konta which is 20- 25 kms from village, he will be arrested by the police as a naxali.
Sitting under the shed which is meant to be a classroom but has borne witness to no teacher, someone from the crowd of the gathered villagers added, “Karti Aayta was in the third standard last year in the Porta Cabin school in Konta”. He, like many other young children had quit school because the nearest school is in Konta which is too far from their village.
There is no sign of any healthcare facility, school, anganwadi, electricity in any of these villages. Many have no identification cards to prove their citizenship. They have never voted. Some have recently got Aadhaar cards made. Soyam Chandra was one of them.
Nulkatong, the village closest to the site
Muchaki Sukri, the mother of Muchaki Mukesh aka Mucca, a 13/14-year-old, who is one of the alleged “militia member” to be shot on August 6, remembers the Salwa Judum, which claimed the life of her husband. She remembers how she ran to the forest with her two children leaving behind her husband whose stomach was hurting. He had promised that he will join them soon. That, however, was not meant to be as the force took him away and shot him. She never found the body and the last burial rights were denied to the family. Now, Muchaki Sukri has lost her son, and this fresh loss has reopened the scars of the violent past.
Aljazeera reports the incident of October 2, 2009, where “central government security forces attacked the village of Gompad, based on information that an armed Maoist squad was nearby. They killed nine people, including an eight-year-old girl, cut the fingers off an 18-month-old baby, brutally tortured and killed his mother, and shot dead his grandparents, leaving their bodies in a heap of corpses in a small open pathway. On the same day, another police patrol caught two young men, one from Nukaltong and the other from Vellpocha, and shot them dead on their way back to the police station.” According to Scroll.in, the death toll was 16.
Muchaki Sukri was one of the petitioners who moved the Supreme Court in 2009 against the the atrocities committed by the Salwa Judum. The case continues to drag on. Remembering the case, she says how P Vijay, supremo of Salwa Judum, had kept her captive for a month and coerced her into changing her statement before the court. He told her to say that she did not know whether it was the naxals or the security forces who killed her husband. Today, despite the looming threat she wants to go to the court and fight for her son’s right. In Nulkatong, the villagers claim that out of the six killed, five were minors.
Abhishek Meena, the Sukma SP, in a telephonic conversation, told the The Leaflet, “Everybody was above 17. When the personnel bought the bodies back, 13 were clearly adults and did not require medical check-ups for affirmation of majority. Only two were borderline cases: 17 to 19. But still we got the medical check-ups done without any demand from anyone to be sure. We got the medical report now and the X-ray examination of their bones. According to that they are 18 to 20-year-olds. But it is borderline and we cannot be very sure.” He further insisted that the parents and the Maoists were saying the same about the ages of those “borderline cases”. However, their parents had a completely different story to tell us.
Meena further said that the ration cards of the deceased also proved that they were older than what the villagers were now claiming. However, the two ration cards accessed by The Leaflet reveal the following information:
Muchaki Mukka, the son of Muchaki Sukri, was 8, and Muchaki Deva, the son of Muchaki Sanni, whose name is recorded in the ration card as Shanti, was 7 — when the ration cards were made. According to the Chhattisgarh websites, the cards were registered in 2013 in Nulkatong and 2014 in Gompad.
Muchaki Sanni, whose name has been recorded as Shanti in the ration card she holds out, is the mother of Muchaki Deva | Photo Credit: Kritika A, The Leafelt
Ration card of Muchaki Sanni/ Shanti | Photo Credit: Kritika A, The Leaflet
Hidma, another boy who according to the villagers was a 14-year-old, was the caretaker of his family. His father, Lakhma is blind. Breaking down into tears Lakhma said, “When he heard the force was coming, he ran away to the fields with others. They killed him. He was my only hope to carry on living.” The younger son held the stick directing the road to the blind father as they walked away. Madkam Unga said: “Even after being shot, Hidma was alive and asking for water. The security force did not give him water.”
Lakhma, Hidma’s father| Photo Credit: Kritika A, The Leaflet
Madkam Lakhma was also killed in the alleged encounter. His mother is blind too. Villagers allege that he too is not more than 16/17 years old. His brother’s wife said: “[When we saw his body] there were no lower legs.” “His entire lower legs were smashed,” Lakhma’s brother told us. The ration card of Sanni, mother of Muchaki Deva, another young boy who was killed in the encounter, records her name as Shanti. She alleges that he is not even married. How is he old?” Some two-three years back, he too studied in the Porta Cabin School in Konta. But eventually dropped out, said a friend of his. Muchaki Lakhma is around 30-years-old, alleged the villagers, making him the only grown-up person among the six dead from Nulkatong village.
Madkam Lakhma aka Tinku’s Mother, Budari | Photo Credit: Kritika A, The Leaflet
Abhishek Meena, the Sukma SP, further alleged that Soni Sori, the Adivasi school teacher, who is an Aam Aadmi Party leader from Dantewada, and has been long campaigning for human rights for the denizens of Bastar, along with the lawyers visiting from Andhra Pradesh (petitioners in the Supreme Court Petition) had “intimidated and influenced” the villagers. He said the villagers are scared to even talk to the Congress-led fact-finding team that visited the villages the day before (August 22). However, as a part of the team, we did not see any such intimidation by Soni Sori or from the lawyers team from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
The police had initially detained four villagers on August 6. However, in his press statement, DM Awasthi mentioned the arrest of only two: Dudhi Budri, a woman who was hit by a bullet and Mardam Deva, an alleged Maoist leader of the area with a bounty of Rs 5 lakh on his head.
Talking to The Leaflet on the phone, Abhishek Meena said, “As per the estimates of the personnel, there were 25-30 militia members present in the site.” On asking if all of them were militia members, he added: “All, barring two: Anda and Lakma.” He alleges they were Sangama members. “No case was registered against them as they were not big time naxals. So we let them go.” He further added Anda was staying with someone called ‘Deva’ that night and Lakhma was crossing the site to go to his field. Instead of running, he stayed there when he heard the firing.” Anda and Lakma, have been released.
This raises some serious questions. How did the personnel ascertain that only these two were not militia members? On asking about the bounty on Mardam Deva — the wanted Maoist — Meena responded that there was an error there. The security personnel took the arrested Deva as another Deva from Gompad village. Meena alleges that the arrested Deva is from Nulkatong and has also been a member of Revolutionary People’s Council and is wanted. Although there is no bounty on him.
On hearing gunshots, the women from Nulkatong ran to the site in large numbers. If they had not done so, the security forces would have continued with the firing and the death toll would have been far higher, notes Hidme, the sister of Muchaki Mukesh. Lingaram Kodopi, an adivasi journalist, posted on his Facebook page about how women were beaten up by the security forces. One, among them was pregnant.
Soni Sori alleges that the encounter is fake as the villagers were unarmed. “There might have been a few Jan-militia members but those who died are innocent villagers. I have spoken to the families. At least 6 of them were children. How do we speak about the Constitution when there is no semblance of the rule of law?”
Soni Sori, adivasi activist | Photo Credit: Kritika A, The Leaflet
Members of the Jan Militia are the primary base force, whose role is to protect the Janatana Sarkar (a parallel government set by the Maoist party). They are generally in their late teens and twenties. They carry traditional weapons like bow and arrow and sometimes loaded guns, locally known as bharmaar. They perform the roles of “protecting” the villages from security personnel and acting as informants and doing small chores for the Maoists.
Another day at Nulkatong
Deserted village: All the villagers were forced to leave Nulkatong | Photo Credit: Kritika A, The Leaflet
Nulkatong village is deserted save for three families who recounted tales of how on the previous night of August 18, 2018, they were threatened by the force to empty the village and go to Duma, a nearby village. They were told that the force was privy to information and that Naxalites were coming to the village, so they would be opening fire. If they loved their lives, they should run away to Duma and not go to Gompad.
Agreeing to the presence of security forces in Nulkatong, Abhishek Meena, in a phone conversation with The Leaflet, said, “They were supposed to go deeper inside, but because of the rain they could not.” He further added that they had asked the force to not even enter the village. “We were in anticipation that Naxals would come along with Soni Sori and team. We sent the force for that only.”
When the few families returned, the forces had eaten their rice and lentils. One woman claimed they had taken away her hard earned Rs 600. It was only by the next morning that the families started coming back. Soni Sori, who accompanied us, claimed: “This is a new phenomenon. Beating up the villagers is a common thing here. But they have not been chased away. This is a stark reminder of the Salwa Judum times.” Madkam Unga, brother of Madkam Lakma (one among the six shot from Nulkatong) had just returned to the village on August 20. He said that he told the force his wife was ill and that he could not possibly flee to Duma. The security personnel said they would start firing at night. They didn’t care.
Madkam Hidme’s ‘unblemished uniform’
Gompad village has witnessed a long history of violence. A chill runs down one’s body on hearing the tale of Madkam Hidme and her mother Madkam Lakshmi. The village remember the incident like it happened just yesterday. According to them, on the morning of the incident of June 15, 2016, security forces entered Gompad. Madkam Lakshmi was threshing the wheat while her daughter Madkam Hidme was sleeping when they grabbed the sleeping Madkam Hidme, and forcibly dragged her to the nearby jungle in front of the entire protesting village. The villagers allege that she was wearing a lungi, blouse and gamchha, bangles and nail polish. The villagers allege that she was raped and shot. However, when the family received the dead body, the young girl was nude and wrapped in in plastic. The pictures released by the cops show her wearing the patent black shirt, black pant Maoist militant uniform. The uniform looked new, freshly ironed, oversized and with less holes than the bullet injuries on her body. Senior journalist Rahul Pandita had then questioned how could Makdam Hidme’s uniform be so “unblemished” if she was an alleged Maoist killed in an “encounter”?
Villagers allege she was tending to paddy in her village Gompad when she was taken by police, raped, and then shot in cold blood +
— Rahul Pandita (@rahulpandita) June 15, 2016
The uniform is brand new and crisp. Can the uniform of a guerrilla killed in an encounter be so unblemished? +
— Rahul Pandita (@rahulpandita) June 15, 2016
Madkam Lakshmi’s fight began that very morning of June 15. A petition was filed by her in the High Court of Chhattisgarh seeking exhumation and re-postmortem, interim orders which were granted. The High Court appointed an Amicus Curiae in the case and ordered for judicial inquiry which is now complete. The report has been submitted before it and the decision remains pending.
On August 19, 2018, Makdam Lakshmi returned the Indian national flag to Soni Sori in Gompad. Two years back, in August 2016, on Independence Day under the leadership of Soni Sori, people from across the country had marched for 200 kms to hoist the tricolour in Gompad, which is known to be a stronghold of the Naxals. The flag was hoisted by Makdam Lakshmi. Hoisting the national flag in Gompad village was historic in the sense that it signified that the villagers were citizens of the democratic republic who were to be treated with the rights that the Constitution of India bestowed upon them. Returning the flag, Makdam Lakshmi told Soni Sori that the flag had done no good to them. “Not only has the violence has not stopped, but it had rather intensified. The advasis are not recognised as the citizens of India. Justice has still not been delivered to her daughter Hidme as the case remains pending and now the state has so casually claimed the lives of 15 people, and has end up destroying many more lives, just because it can,” she said.
On August 19, 2018, Makdam Lakshmi returned the Indian national flag to Soni Sori in Gompad | Photo Credit: Kritika A, The Leaflet
In another instance in Gompad, Soyam Rame, a 35-year-old woman was allegedly shot in her thigh when she was returning from fishing in the pond with four other women in December 2017. The women narrate that Soyam Rame was randomly shot at by security personnel. The police alleged that she was a Naxal and was shot in an encounter. As there are no adequate health facilities in Sukma, her husband Soyam Kama, along with other family members, took her to Bhadrachalam in Andhra Pradesh. Ferried from one hospital to another, Rame remained with a bullet in her thigh for more than 20 days in Jaya Bharti Hospital, where she told activist Soni Sori and others that she had been intimidated and threatened by the police to say that she had not been shot at by the security personnel, but had rather hurt herself while chopping wood. Meanwhile, the police held a press conference in Sukma declaring Soyam Rame a Naxalite who had been shot at in an encounter operation. After her treatment, Soyam Rame and husband Kama have gone missing. Villagers are convinced that she still has not returned to her village out of the fear of being arrested by the police. Their three children have been left behind.
District Reserve Guard: Another Salwa Judum?
District Reserve Guard (DRGs), first raised in Kanker and Narayanpur districts in 2008, were instituted in Dantewada in 2015. DRGs subsequently spread in the other districts of Sukma, Kondagoan and Bijapur between 2013 and 2014. They are adivasis appointed by the police to weed out the Maoist movement. DRGs known as the “son of soil” are mostly comprised of local youth and surrendered cadres of the Maoists in Bastar division. Explaining the rationale of creating a group staffed by local youth, the infamous ex-Inspector General of Bastar SRP Kalluri told PTI in April 2016 as reported by Scroll.in: “They are emotionally attached to the region as they belong to this place. They are familiar with the culture, ethos and language of people. Having a bond with the tribals, they are better mentally-conditioned to handle them. They are fighting Maoists efficiently because of their inherent motivation for doing so.”
Speaking to The Leaflet on phone, Abhishek Meena, the Sukma SP, said there are more than 600 DRG personnel in Sukma currently. “Depending on the need of the operation, we keep changing the composition and numbers of DRGs varying from 10 to 200.”
According to Soni Sori, the DRGs are similar to the SPOs (Special Police Officers) as were instituted in Bastar during the Salwa Judum movement and are held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Nandini Sundar Vs. State of Chhattisgarh. Soni Sori says, “Names have changed but their roles remain unaltered. By changing names can you change the mentality, you can’t.” Many of the villagers said, “we don’t want the DRGs.” The DRGs have been a notorious lot and have perpetrated gross human rights violations against the Adivasis — their active involvement in the mass sexual violence in Bijapur District, in October 2015 must be recalled here.
The Civil Liberties Committee of Andhra Pradesh Telangana has filled a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court asking the court to take cognizance of what they claim to be a “fake encounter”. The Supreme Court has directed both the petitioners and the respondents to file additional information. The case is listed for the next hearing on Wednesday, August 29.
[Editor’s note: Kritika Agarwal was a part of a group of journalists accompanying Soni Sori on a fact-finding mission to Gompad village and Nulkatong, near the site of the August 6, 2018 ‘encounter’.]