India’s anti-Maoist operations are under fire again.
It appears that 19 “hardcore Maoists” who the government claimed were killed in an encounter with the Chhattisgarh police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) on the night of June 27-28 were in fact unarmed civilians. About a dozen of those killed were below 16 years of age, and at least one of them just 12.
What officials jubilantly declared at first to be one of the biggest successes of India’s war against Maoists was described by a social activist, Swami Agnivesh, who has acted as a government-appointed interlocutor with the Maoists, as “cold-blooded murder”, the worst massacre of civilians in the nation’s post-independence history.
The incident happened at Sarkeguda, 400 kilometers from Raipur, the state capital, in Bijapur district in the eastern Indian state of
Chhattisgarh, which is the epicenter of the ongoing military operations against the Maoists. Chhattisgarh is rich in minerals but the tribals who live there are among India’s poorest. They have borne the brunt of the war between the security forces and the Maoists.
There are different versions of what happened that night.
In the early hours of June 28, the CRPF said, “19 hardcore Maoists” were killed in an encounter in Bijapur’s dense jungles. But soon after, accounts – quite at odds with the police narrative – began trickling out of those dense jungles. These accounts drew attention to the horrific killing of villagers by the police that night.
Realizing that their “encounter” was snowballing into a major controversy, the CRPF quickly revised its version, claiming that “Maoists and their sympathizers” had been killed in the “encounter”.
Sarkeguda, Kottaguda and Rajpeta are three small tribal settlements consisting of fewer than a hundred huts altogether. These were among the villages that suffered terrible violence in 2006 when government-created local militias called Salwa Judum killed people and looted and burned down their homes. More than 600 villages were emptied out as terrified tribals fled into neighboring states. It is only after the Supreme Court ordered the disbanding of Salwa Judum – it continues to exist in other forms and different names – that the villagers slowly returned. They were rebuilding their lives – constructing their homes, cultivating their land and sending children to school – when terror returned in the form of the CRPF to Sarkeguda, Kottaguda and Rajpeta.
The three villages are separated from one another by a small clearing. It was in this clearing that the villagers had assembled at around 8pm that night for a meeting. The meeting began late. At around 11pm, the villagers say, they were surrounded by police who began firing at them. The firing went on for hours.
CRPF sources say they had come to know of a Maoist meeting that was to be held on the night of June 27 at Silgerh near Sarkeguda. An operation was planned to strike at the Maoists. According to the plan, about 800 troops stationed at Basaguda, Chintalnar and Jagarmunda would converge from three directions at Silgerh.
Troops from the CRPF camp at Basaguda are reported to have set off that night at around 9pm. As they advanced toward Silgerh, they came upon a congregation of people at Sarkeguda.
According to the CRPF, Maoists at the meeting opened fire and the police retaliated. An encounter ensued in which “Maoists and their sympathizers” were killed. Six CRPF personnel were wounded, four of them suffering gunshot injuries.
CRPF director general Vijay Kumar told the media that the police had been ambushed by the Maoists and that they had retaliated as per the standard operating procedures.
“We had to protect ourselves after so many [police] were injured in open fire,” he said. Expressing concern that the Maoists had used the villagers as human shields, he claimed that twice his troops “retreated on seeing women and children in the front”.
Villagers insist there were no Maoists at the gathering; neither had the Maoists called the meeting. They say they had gathered to discuss an upcoming festival related to the sowing of crops.
However, 12-year-old Chhotu Hakka of Sarkeguda, who was shot in the knees, told news channel NDTV correspondent Sreenivasan Jain that there were three or four Maoists present at the meeting that night. In hospital and isolated from others in his village, Chhotu appears in the news clip to be unaware of the line his village has taken – or was made to take by the Maoists – that there were no Maoists around that night.
CRPF officials have pointed to bullet injuries sustained by their personnel as evidence of an encounter. While The Hindu has reported one villager as surmising that the police might have accidentally shot one another when they surrounded the village, the latter have countered that by pointing out that the bullets that caused injury were of the kind the Maoists use.
Piecing together the various accounts, it seems that the CRPF operation was based on faulty intelligence. When troops from Jagarmunda reached Silgerh that night, they found no Maoists there.
It does seem that Maoists called a meeting of villagers at Sarkeguda and lay in ambush there. When troops from the Basaguda camp passed Sarkeguda, the rebels fired at them, knowing well that the trigger-happy CRPF would retaliate and end up shooting into a crowd of innocent villagers. The CRPF walked into a Maoist trap that night.
What followed was a massacre.
It is hard to understand why the CRPF fired as it did. Surely it was aware that village meetings here are often of “indeterminate nature”, writes Shoma Chaudhury in the Tehelka newsmagazine. “They know villagers are often summoned by Maoists for public hearings: These are orders that cannot be refused. If they didn’t know whom they were firing at that night, why did they not retreat rather than shoot to kill at random?”
Had the government simply admitted the terrible mistake the next morning, it might have limited the damage. Instead, a cover-up operation followed, adding salt to wounds.
The manner in which serious charges appear to have been fabricated and slapped on some of the dead to prove that “Maoists” were indeed killed that night has fueled outrage.
Home Affairs Minister P Chidambaram, under whose charge the CRPF falls, has defended the operation, as has the chief minister of Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh. Interestingly, the two belong to rival political parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) respectively.
Chidambaram has come under criticism not just from activists and civil society but also from his own colleagues in the Congress party. Federal Tribal Affairs Minister Kishore Chandra Deo has described the operation as a “fake encounter”, and Congress politicians in Chhattisgarh have described it as a “botch-up”. A report by the Congress’ Chhattisgarh unit has listed and named seven children among those killed. No Maoists figure in this report. This is in sharp contrast to the statement issued by the home minister last week wherein he claimed that three Maoists were killed and, barring one 15-year-old boy, the dead were all adults.
Neither the state nor the Maoists have come out looking good from the incident at Sarkeguda. Clearly, both have little regard for the tribals they claim to be liberating or for the young lives they have snuffed out.
Two of the “top Maoists” who were killed that night were Kaka Nagesh, 15, and Madkam Ramvilas. They lived in a government hostel for schoolchildren and had come home for the summer vacation. Being among the villages’ few educated boys, they were tasked with the responsibility of figuring out how much each villager had to contribute for the seed festival. Nagesh and Ramvilas were present at the meeting to share those figures.
Earlier this year the two were among three students of Kottaguda village selected to visit the port city of Visakhapatnam for an educational tour. Their experiences at Visakhapatnam left a deep impression on the boys. It fired in Nagesh a dream to become mariner. As for Ramvilas, “He wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up,” his sister says.
Given their excellent performance in the government school they attended – the two were said to be the brightest in the school – they might have indeed achieved their dreams.
On the night of June 27-28, the CRPF and Maoists ensured that those dreams died young.