By C Vanaja
“We received information that 100 to 150 Naxals had gathered deep in the forest and constituted a search party of 100 and went in search of them. When we found the armed and uniformed Naxals in equal or more numbers than us, we shouted for them to drop their weapons and surrender. But not heeding our appeals they fired, intending to kill us and snatch our weapons. To defend ourselves we opened fire and the Naxals retreated into the jungle. After the firing there were ten uniformed Naxals lying dead.”
This is a routine story that regularly emergesfrom the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, particularly the Bastar region, dominated by Adivasis and a stronghold of Maoists, more commonly calls ‘Naxals’. Every time such a story of an ‘encounter’ between armed rebels and the security forces appears in the media, eyebrows are raised and some human rights activists cry foul. Some might ask how not one of the police personnel was injured when armed Maoists supposedly fired first. Almost no one believes the story, but no investigations are done. The ‘encounter’ story goes down as the truth. The ‘Bodga encounter’as the Bijapur police called it,was one among these.
This ‘encounter’ happened on 7 February 2019.The photos of the dead released by the police generates deep discomfort. Colourful dresses are barely covered by hastily dressed and unbuttoned new Maoist fatigues are not new for reporters covering these encounters. More disturbing is to see that the faces of all ten deceased look young, most in their early teens.
Two questions arise: First, was it a real encounter? Second, how did so many minors die in what the police termed as a ‘huge’ armed group of Maoists? Why did the-100 strong Maoist battalion not protect the minors?
In search of answers, I joined a team of journalists to visit the encounter site deep in the forest. It is not a place to which you can book a flight, train, bus or car and land up unannounced. It took a while to get in touch with people around the encounter site – the location of which was itself in dispute.
The First Information Report (FIR) registered by the police on the Bodga encounter says that the encounter site is 60 km from Bhairamgarh police station. We learned that the site named by the police was incorrect. Village Bodga or Bodga nala as mentioned in the FIR had nothing to do with the site of the incident.
This forest is separated from the plains by the Indravati river. There is no public transport from Bhairamgarh to the river, but one can somehow manage a private vehicle. The river allows people to walk across at some points during summer when the water level is low. We choose one such point to cross. The encounter site is more than 20 km from the river and one needs to walk all the way. It took two days to reach the spot as we soon realised that almost all the villages along the way were affected by the encounter.
Adivasi forest paras or hamlets have little in common with villages in the plains. They do not have streets, and 10 to 30 houses are spread in a 3-4 km area with a few hundred metres between one house and another, with no shared fences. The horrific story began to unfold in the first para itself and we walked, crisscrossing from one home to the other and one para to the next, listening to tales of terror. We lost count of how many miles we walked to reach the site the next day.
Kho Kho… Kabaddi Kabaddi
In the first village on the banks of Indravati, we first met a group of teenagers, both boys and girls. When we enquired about the ‘encounter’ they all said they were all present. They told us that they had run away and also that they had seen their friends being shot. Puzzled, we asked, “Why were you there in the first place?”
“We were playing kabaddi and khokho”. Almost everyone said that. “I was playing kabaddi when I heard the firing”. “I was running in Khokho to catch when I heard the firing”.“My turn was over and I was just watching the game”. They related how some of them finished playing kabaddi and joined khokho and vice versa when they heard and saw the firing.
A group of ten teenagers from that para in village Utkal travelled the night before to a village called Tadballa for the sporting event organised for the surrounding five villages. They all started on Mangalwar (Tuesday) evening that is 6 February and stopped at a village on the way in the night and reached Tadballa on Wednesday morning. By then, the games were in full swing. Around ten children from the host village got their turns to play immediately. Five of them were killed in the firing.
One deceased’s house to lead another and one para led to another.“Kabaddi-kho-kho” : the words echoed in every house. Teenagers who had managed to run away from the site graphically described how their friends were shot while they were playing the game or watching it. Some of them witnessed their friends fleeing with them falling down after being hit by gun shots. Sukki from Utkal village didn’t fall down in the firing. She fell down as she couldn’t see a bump on the path. Her friend who was with her ran away and turned back to see Sukki pulled up by her hair by forces. She didn’t seen whether she was shot immediately. But her nude body arrived two days later not only with bullet wounds on the upper body but also with wounds from rifle buts on her thighs and on her private parts.
As we walked to different homes and paras the story was repeated by teenagers, some of whom had ben injured. They identified their friends from the photos released by the police. When we handed over the phone with the photos of those killed, they all gathered and had a long look, reluctant to give the phone back. It was their last and only chance to look at their friends’ faces as none of them had photographs except on Aadhar and ration cards. It was heart-breaking to see them grouping around the pictures of their friends’ dead bodies. Almost everyone knows everyone else.
These were youngsters with government-issued Aadhar and Ration cards, far from being armed combatants. All except two were minors.
We travelled till the midnight, rested a few hours and started out early in the morning and reached the ‘encounter’ site close to village Tadballa by afternoon. By then, villagers from the villages we passed along the way had gathered there. They solemnly walked us to the site. A clearing in the forest where the bushes were cleared to make spaces to create kabaddi and khokho courts. As it was close to two months since the incident occurred, it was covered with fallen leaves.
We persisted in asking about the sporting event . Why were they playing games that are known mostly in the plains? We were told that in many Adivasi belts even Bastar Adivasis have the concept of spring festival where boys and girls who reach puberty gather once a year in the beginning of spring to sing, dance, drink and choose their mates, unfettered by caste, dowry and matching of horoscopes. However, there has been a slight change over the last 100 years. After the heroic revolt against the British in 1910, the Adivasis of Bastar celebrate Bhumkal Divas in the first week of February, to coincide with the spring event. After the Maoists entered the area, they modified the event with their traditions from the plains, introducing games like Kabaddi and KhoKho. It has evolved into a three to four day event where the boys and girls of surrounding four to five villages gather and play games, culminating with a meeting on Bhumkal Divas and finally with the teenage favourite of song and dance.
This event is organised annually across the area. Four to five villages come together at each event, and people start congregating a day before to organise and most other participants who are teenagers arrive a day later. The event is organised where there are taller trees with more place to play around and a stream close by for water to drink and bathe. Bushes are cleaned, courts are marked. A kitchen is set up and all the participating villagers bring food grains. Cooking is done in turns by groups of volunteers. Places to keep clothes and other personal belongings are kept in marked areas called deras, or places under the trees where it is convenient to sleep.
While walking us to the site the women with us paused midway and told us that the police stopped them at gun point and prevented them from going to the site while the firing was going on. On Wednesday morning the games started as usual at around 8.30 am. The time was indicated by pointing at the position of the sun in the sky. There were around 70-80 teenagers at the site who were playing or waiting for their turn. There were equal numbers of people from villages who came to either organise, help the event or watch. None of them was an elder. They were all in their 20s. In the Adivasi belt, the life span is low due to malnourishment and malaria. Not many people cross 50 years. So those in their 20s and 30s are the organisers and helpers of the event while all the minors were participants.
Women who pointed out the place where they were stopped from going to the site said that some of them had only just returned from the event after watching for a while. It was around 10.30 am according to the position of the sun. They heard gun shots and screams and all of them ran back towards the site which was 300-400 metres from the last house of Tadballa village. They heard continuous screaming from the site but they were not allowed to move. This continued till around 2.30 in the afternoon. When the security forces left, they all rushed to the site and found broken utensils and burned clothes. Utensils were from the kitchens and clothes were of the people who came to the event. We saw remnants of burnt civilian clothes spread over the site at many places even after close to two months of the event. By then, people from all the villages gathered as they heard about the incident from the people who had fled. They ran behind the police force and met the forces at the river to find 10 bodies being carried away, tied in plastic sheets.
A crying corpse
Of the 10 dead, eight were minors and one was just 12. Twenty-four-year old Paramesh Barsa had two children, and another adult was 20 but single. Villagers did not know who was tied in the plastic sheets, and rushed to the scene because it could have been their own son or daughter. They demanded that the police show the dead bodies. But the forces did not budge. They loaded the bodies onto the vehicles waiting on the other side of the riverbank. That was when Paramesh’s wife felt that one of the bodies tied in the plastic sheet was crying with pain and she thought it might be her husband. She demanded that they open the sheet .In response, the police drowned the wrapped body in the river before they pushed her away and took away the body.
When we met Paramesh Barsa’s wife at her home she showed us her husband’s ration card and Aadhar card,but she was not willing to talk about the incident. She had turned into stone due to the trauma. She sat and stared at nothing. But others around her told us what had happened. Paramesh had fever on the fateful day and was sleeping at the first dera. Forces entered from the same dera and shot him while he was lying on the ground. Then they proceeded to the event and opened fire, said eye-witnesses.
Not only Paramesh’s wife but many of the parents and elders of families of deceased were not very open in talking about the encounter, while the teenagers explained what had happened in graphic detail. Were the parents afraid to talk? We don’t know. But clearly, they were traumatized and completely heartbroken.
When the police took away the bodies the villages gathered at the river, walked to Bhariamgarh by evening and sat on dharna at the police station demanding that the bodies be shown to them. But the bodies were taken away to Bijapur district hospital. They proceeded to Bijapur the next day and identified their daughters and sons. En route, they registered a huge protest in town,raising slogans that it was a ‘fake encounter’ and that those killed were civilians, and that too, minors.
Despite the identification by the parents, one deceased’s name and identity was announced wrongly. It was Palo from Tadballa village who was just 12 years. She went there since the event was a few 100 metres from her house. The enthusiastic girl she even played kho kho. The firing happened in the midst of her kho kho game. Her parents left the event a few minutes before the firing after watching her and many others playing. They too ran to the spot fearing the worst. They were stopped midway and heard screams from the site for time eternal. Later they found that their child was one of the dead but the police announced her as Rami from some other village with different parents.
Vigilantism and open war
All the bodies in the pictures released by the police were clad in Maoist uniforms and the police claimed the seizure of 11 barmars (country-made rifles). Undoubtedly, Maoists are omnipresent in the area. We didn’t find them in person but we saw many ponds already built and being built. We crossed almost half a dozen ponds while going to the ‘encounter’ site more than 20 km from the riverbank. The Maoists also ran schools. There were some schools run by the government in that area before 2005. But during Operation Salwa Judum, the government closed down all the schools. The schools and development activities are now carried out by local bodies of governance designed by the Maoists, called Janathana Sarkar or the ‘people’s government’. “Sab ka Vikas, Sab ka Suraksha” (Development and security for all) is the key slogan.
After the launch of Salwa Judum in 2005, one thing has changed drastically in the area. Earlier it was impossible for police forces to reach places like the Tadballa firing site, because it was not possible for non-Adivasis to navigate the forest. The building of roads was a strategy to allow more penetration of non-Adivasis into the forests. K D Kunjan, District Collector of Bijapur gave us a list of roads laid in his term. He strongly believes that roads will help bringing Adivasis to development. When asked about schools and healthcare, he said they would do that too. But roads are the first priority to carry on developmental works. But the Adivasis were sceptical about roads as they bring more forces to the area.
TheSalwa Judum operation was planned only after making some inroads into the Adivasi belt by recruiting Adivasi youth as Special Police Officers (SPOs). It was an operation to cleanse the forest of Maoists. Villagers were evicted by burning their houses and stores of grains so that they could not survive even if they stayed back. Human rights violations including killing and rape were rife but no complaints made to being written as FIRs. When the Judum forces stomped into the villages,villagers fled deeper into the jungle and some left with the police to the camps set up on the highway. There was a divide between the people who stayed in the jungle and who went to camps. The state recruited more people as SPOs from the camps whose families became enemies with the families that stayed behind in the forest. It was Adivasis against Adivasis.
In July 2011, the Supreme Court in the Nandini Sundar & Ors V. State of Chhattisgarh delivered a ground-breaking judgement, prohibiting the use of SPOs in the armed conflict in the state as it was a clear violation of human rights. However, this historic judgement did not herald the end of vigilantism. The Chhattisgarh government changed the name of the forces from SPOs to District Reserve Group (DRG) and floated various outfits such as AGNI and Samajik Ekta Manch. It is the same DRG forces that participated in the ‘encounter’ at Bodga. The villagers who were held metres away from the site and hundreds of people including teenagers who fled from the firing site said that all the forces were made of Adivasis and they were shouting “kill, kill”in the Gondi language. They even identified some of the DRG personnel from the same villages as those killed. Talking to the team, Govardhan Thakur, Superintendent of Police (SP) of Bijapur, confirmed all 400 personnel in DRG unit of Bijapur district were Adivasis and some of them are surrendered Naxalites. DRG is the group responsible for combing operations.
Not unexpectedly, the hostility created after Judum operations in the area pushed more Adivasis who stayed back in the forest to join Maoist squads. It is common to find many all-Adivasi squads with Adivasi leaders, as the area committees of the Maoist party are also headed by Adivasis. The absence of state-sponsored development and increased repression raised strong need for “sab ki Vikas, Sab Ki Suraksha”. There are village committees for development and militia for protection. Even at the event at Tadballa there were three people from the party who were overseeing the event, said some teenagers who participated. When the police opened fire, they tried to send as many as away from the site asking them to run, before they too retreated into the forest, eye-witnesses said.
Anyone familiar with guerrilla warfare tactics and particularly that operating in Bastar area would know that If there are 100 Maoists in uniform, security will be very high and there will be many sentry points around. Gatherings of 100 uniformed Maoists happen only on rare occasions and the security arrangements will be completely different. It is almost impossible for not only police forces but also paramilitary forces to reach the spot without being noticed. If the Maoists with automatic weapons opened fire first as per the police version, there would have been a huge number of causalities among the police force.
As for the ‘armed’ rebels, the six barmars on the site were carried there in case of bear and cheetah attacks, the villagers claimed. “They are useful only to injure when an animal attacks. Not made to kill people. You can do nothing with them if the forces come with automatic weapons,” villagers said, refuting the police version of 11 barmars seized from the site. “They planted the remaining barmars. They brought them along with newly stitched fresh uniforms that were put on the dead bodies later,” they said.
Reign of the hawks
Unable to get an appointment with the chief minister, we met his political advisor Vinod Varma, a former journalist, who once reported on the same conflict area. He was one of the 14 journalists arrested by the Chhattisgarh government in 2017. “We are not going soft on Naxals. They continue to be the state enemy, and there will be no peace talks,” he said categorically. “There were only guns talking in the area all this while. We are trying to talk to people with development,” he adds. Then how does the encounter in which minors were killed fit in the new narrative of development? Varma says he is not competent to talk about it but said “it is not easy to change the mindset of the officers who are used to other kind of working style for decades.”
Bijapur MLA Vikram Mandavi, hailing from the same community as the victims, insists that the ‘encounter’ was fake. “The people in Raipur and Delhi, the IAS and IPS officers who are outsiders to the area see only Naxals and police. They don’t see there are people in between.” He claims that the district Superintend of Police was transferred due to the controversy over this encounter. The new SP of Bijapur, Govardhan Thakur however, claimed that the transfer of the previous SP was routine and had nothing to do with the encounter. He was unwilling to talk about the encounter and maintained that he was not the SP when it happened.
A MagisterialEnquiry into the ‘encounter’ is ongoing, but such enquiries are routine in such incidents and there are ten such enquiries at the moment in Bijapur district alone. The magisterial enquiry officer A R Rana is also a government employee working out of the District Collector’s office. Referring to the Bodga/Tadballa ‘encounter’, he said he had finished taking evidence from the police and was waiting for the villagers’ evidence. Summons have been sent to the villagers with personnel from the Bairamgarhpolice station, the same police station involved in the ‘encounter’. Some of the family members of those killed told us that they were taken away from weekly market on the riverbank to the police station and made to sign on blank papers and were asked to bring the remaining families too. That may constitute the evidence og the families later for the judicial enquiry.
The current DGP of Chhattisgarh D M Awasthi who headed anti-Naxal operations before he became the head of the state police force, admits that Adivasis are harassed by the forest and police forces. “We can’t eradicate Naxals through security forces.” He also concedes that many violations had taken place and many such personnel were also punished. “Criminals in uniform are not tolerated, we are determined to weed out the criminals in the police,” he asserts. Aren’t monetary rewards and promotions linked with the surrenders and encounters, and were they not promoting fake surrenders and fake encounters, we asked. He agrees. But they will be given rewards and promotions only after the “judicial enquiry” clearances, he said.
These kinds of incidents are not new to Bastar especially in the last 15 years after both the state and central governments have been determined to ‘weed out” the Maoists from the jungles of central India. Despite widespread speculation after the change of the state government from BJP to Congress that the new government would have a different policy which might be softer than earlier one, this incident doesn’t give that impression. On the contrary, the experience in many conflict areas suggests that as long as monetary benefits and promotions are linked with killings and surrenders, a hawkish approach will prevail and the excesses will continue.