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'What wrong have we done?'

By Geetashree

On January 9, 2009, police in Bastar announced a historic victory over the Maoists. They had killed 19 of them in an encounter. Geetashree travelled to four villages of Dantewada district and was told a different story – of 19 tribal men randomly rounded up and shot

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The Dantewada Superintendent of Police (SP) Rahul Sharma is a very happy man these days. With great pride he recounts his team’s success to hordes of mediapersons thronging his office.  

“We have achieved the biggest success in the history of Bastar by gunning down 19 Maoists on January 8 this year,” he says, beginning to recall every possible detail he can of the “encounter”; how the police team took a Maoist camp by surprise and managed to seize huge amounts of arms and ammunition from them.  

Sharma does not forget to remind journalists that this was a rare operation because the Maoists were at the receiving end and lost 19 of their men. 

Cut to Danteshpuram village of Dantewada, located on the border of Andhra Pradesh. 

There is complete silence in the village. The streets are empty. The houses look as if they were hastily abandoned by their occupants. Across the fields, the crops await harvest.  

The silence is broken by the howling of a pack of dogs roaming the empty streets in the afternoon. 

Sitting on the edge of his farm away from the village, Veko Hidme asks: “Will someone tell us what is it that we have done wrong?” 

Not far from Danteshpuram, the residents of Kosurguda ask the same question. And a little further in Singavaram and Meilasur too.  

At some places no questions are asked, only the tears roll down. 

Not long ago, these ordinary people from Danteshpuram, Kosurguda, Singavaram and Meilasur lived normal lives. The majority of men and women kept busy working the fields. Children played in the open while the elderly stayed at home.  

Everything was normal till January 8, 2009, they say.  

Madvi Lakhme of Danteshpuram recalls: “My husband and I were in the fields the previous day. We were talking about our children, when around 100 to 150 armed SPOs (special police officers) and others from the Salwa Judum approached us. They started dragging my husband away from the fields, hitting him with their rifle butts. Scared, I started crying. I requested them to release my husband. I offered to go in his place. But the SPOs kept on beating him and took him away.”

Madvi Lakhme also recalls seeing the SPOs forcibly lead other people out of their village. She spent the night praying for her husband’s well-being. 

The news arrived the next day. A young man from the village told her the SPOs had killed 19 tribals including her husband near Singavaram. 

Among those killed were five men from Kosurguda, four from Singavaram, one from Meilasur and the rest from Danteshpuram. One of the dead could not be identified.  

Madvi Dule of Kosurguda says: “Both my young sons Konal and Hidma were in the fields. The SPOs took them away saying they would be employed as head-loaders. When I heard the news the next morning and went near Singavaram, I found their dead bodies lying in an open ground.” 

The residents of Singavaram feel they should have vacated their village when the Salwa Judum asked them around two years ago. But then most of them didn’t wish to live in the Salwa Judum camps.  

Holding her newborn child, the wife of one of the deceased, Karam Lachcha, says: “If we had agreed to go to the camp, they wouldn’t have killed my husband.” Her father-in-law Karam Mutta, who tries to console his daughter-in-law, cannot hold his own tears back.  

Hemla Hunga of Danteshpuram also believes that the Salwa Judum and the SPOs were unhappy with them because they refused to go to the camp.  

Hemla Hunga and his brother Hemla Sukda were bathing in a stream on the day of the incident. Some SPOs accompanied by Salwa Judum supporters came by and accosted them. One of the armed SPOs said they were looking for someone to carry their heavy luggage to nearby Bhejji police station.  

The brothers did not suspect anything because the SPOs had some other tribals of the village along with them. In all, eight tribals were taken from Danteshpuram. They were led to the forests of Golapalli near Singavaram. On the way, they were given uniforms to wear. On reaching the forests, the men from Danteshpuram realised some 24 people were already held there.  

But it was too late. All those held there were led to an opening inside the forest and asked to stand in a row with their heads bowed, and the armed men began firing at them.  

Hemla Hunga was standing at the end of the row and scooted towards the forest. Shots were fired at him, but he somehow managed to escape by disappearing inside the dense forest.  

Late in the night, he made it back to his village and informed the others about the firing incident. Next morning, he went with some other villagers to the place where the firing took place and found the dead body of his brother along with the others.  

Hemla Hunga still regrets he could not save his brother’s life.  

According to Sukhdev of Adivasi Chetna Ashram, a Gandhian organisation working in the tribal areas of Bastar for the last two decades, “When the government launched Salwa Judum in June 2005 against the Maoists, its members were completely focused on getting villages vacated. Some villages where people refused to move were burnt down, forcing many to migrate to Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Maharashtra. In recent times, the Salwa Judum members have started targeting those villages which still aren’t vacated by the villagers. The people from Danteshpuram, Kosurguda, Singavaram and Meilasur were taken out to the forest, given uniforms normally worn by the Maoists, and shot in cold blood.” 

So this is what happened on January 8 this year? 

Government officials -- from Dantewada district headquarters to the state’s capital in Raipur – completely deny this version coming from the people of the villages. 

“Lie. This is a lie,” says Chhattisgarh’s home minister Nanki Ram Kanwar in Raipur.  

“This is a lie,” says Deputy General of Police Vishwaranjan, sitting in a revolving chair at the Police Headquarters in Raipur. 

“This is absolutely untrue,” says SP Rahul Sharma, sitting in Dantewada. 

Then what is the truth? 

Police Superintendent Rahul Sharma claims that on January 8 a police team returning from patrolling the area came face to face with the Maoists and the encounter ensued. All those killed in that incident were Maoists, he reiterates. 

But why didn’t the police take possession of the dead bodies of the Maoists after the encounter? 

Rahul Sharma explains: “Our officers were tired. So we took some pictures of the bodies at the encounter spot and came back. Next day, even before we could reach the spot, residents of nearby villages had taken away the bodies. We had apprehended that these questions may rise and so have demanded a magisterial probe into the entire episode.” 

The SP displays a few pictures of the bodies from the January 8 encounter. Interestingly, the pictures were taken on a digital camera dated December 25, 2008.  This anomaly too will be probed by a magistrate.  

The Maoists are known to carry the bodies of their dead colleagues from encounter spots, but here the bodies were left till the villagers arrived the next day? 

Also, initially there were reports of three SPOs being injured in the encounter, but when their names and addresses were sought by the media, the police were clueless? 

Such media queries will have to wait till the magisterial inquiry is completed.  

Meanwhile, many frightened villagers have hidden themselves in the jungles since the “encounter”.  

They simply want to know what they did to invite the ire of the Salwa Judum. 

They are worried the Salwa Judum and government security forces may return, find and kill them.  

(Geetashree is a Delhi-based journalist who writes mainly on social issues and women’s rights. She is currently Features Editor of Outlook Hindi. This is the fourth in her series on the tribals of Chhattisgarh researched as part of the Infochange Media Fellowships 2008) 

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009