Friday, Jun 02, 2023

Chronicle Of A Forgotten 'Encounter' In Naxal-Hit Bastar

Chronicle Of A Forgotten 'Encounter' In Naxal-Hit Bastar

Nine years after eight Adivasis were shot dead by CRPF in an anti-Naxal encounter in Bastar, six months after the judicial probe report--confirming that the claim by other locals that innocent non-combatants had been killed--was submitted, it has been tabled in the state assembly. Will there be any justice?

A forgotten 'encounter' in Naxal-hit Bastar
A forgotten 'encounter' in Naxal-hit Bastar Ashutosh Bhardwaj/Outlook

The Chhattisgarh government placed a probe report in the state assembly on Monday about the May 2013 incident in Ehadsameta village of Bastar in which eight persons were killed in the CRPF firing. While the security forces had then claimed that the deceased were Naxals, the probe commission headed by retired high court judge VK Agrawal says that all the killed persons were Adivasis. It was an unarmed gathering of Adivasis and the firing by the security personnel was not in self-defence, the report says. As the commission indicts the forces for firing in “haste”, let’s revisit that summer afternoon.

Of all my reporting about the mutilated bodies and blood puddles in Dandakaranya, the Ehadsameta killings remain the most gruesome State action I was a witness to.  

It was the afternoon of May 19, 2013. The corpses were lying under the merciless sun in the jungle. On Friday night, 17 May, the forces fired at a gathering of the Adivasi festival of Beej Pundum in Ehadsameta village of Bijapur district. Among the deceased were Karam Joga and his 13-year-old son Badru, Karam Pandu and his 14-year-old son Guddu.

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Mutilated bodies lying in the scorching sun in the middle of the jungle where they were sliced open | Credit: Ashutosh Bhardwaj/Outlook

But the agony did not end with their killings. The bodies should have been handed over to the families, but were lying in an open field for a mandatory postmortem, under 45-degree sun, decomposing, badly swollen and emanating an unbearable smell. CRPF men, face covered, guarded them with X-95 and AK-47 rifles with an Under Barrel Grenade Launcher.

I stood before the corpses, with a notebook and camera. 

Jara pet par chira laga (cut the stomach open),” government doctor B.R.Pujari said. His face was covered. An Adivasi, Suklu, came forward and cut open a naked body. Red worms protruded out from the stomach with a sound. “Dead bodies become like balloons. When you cut them open, they produce a sound like flatulence,’ a CRPF soldier explained. As relatives held the corpses and turned them sideways and upside down, the doctor examined them, poking and prodding with a twig he had picked up from the ground, and made a record in his register.

‘Don’t you have another blade?’ Dr Pujari asked his colleagues. The doctor had not touched any corpse so far. Suklu, in his torn green vest and blue underpants, had made several incisions in five corpses with two blades. The doctor suddenly thought of changing the blade. But there was none, let alone any other medical equipment. Suklu was given only one pair of surgical gloves for the whole process. Without changing gloves, he slit open bodies, inserted his hand into the stomachs, pulled out the innards to enable the doctor’s examination, before shoving them inside again. The bodies were facing the sky, mouths wide open, teeth darkened. The villagers watched the public spectacle of their relatives’ bodies.

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Bodies are handed over to relatives after taking their thumb imprints on 'government paper' | Credit: Ashutosh Bhardwaj/Outlook

One corpse wore blue underpants, its torso naked. Remove the underpants, a government officer said. A man, perhaps his brother, came forward and pulled it down. A deceased, stark naked, his genitals ghastly, like an inflated black balloon.

It is mandatory under the law to conduct the post-mortem of people killed in an encounter with security forces, and to prepare an official report on the cause of death. A post-mortem, the Supreme Court mandates, must be conducted by two doctors in a district hospital. Videos and photographs should be taken to ensure that fake encounters are detected. The police may claim that it was an ‘encounter killing’, which denotes crossfire, but the post-mortem might show that the person was killed from a very short distance, with a pistol to the head. The killer may lie, the corpse may turn silent, but the wound will reveal the trajectory and the angle of the bullet.

Dr Pujari admitted that it was against the law to conduct post-mortems in the open, and that they should never be done in the presence of the police. ‘Under certain conditions, an officer with the rank of SDM and above can give permission to conduct it otherwise,’ he tried to explain.
SDM Virendra Bahadur Panchbhai said, ‘The only requirement for a post-mortem is adequate light. Other things can be relaxed in special situations.’
An hour later, the bodies were handed over to the relatives who carried them on cots to Gangalur police station, a few kilometres away. The women relatives of the deceased had been protesting at the thana, having screamed their lungs out for hours and still wailing. They hurled stones at the police station and nearby CRPF camp. They knew only Gondi and Halbi but managed a few Hindi abuses. “Wapas jao… wapas jao..,” they shouted at the CRPF camp and tried to break open its lock.

A forest funeral following the 'encounter' | Credit: Ashutosh Bhardwaj/Outlook

Their men somehow persuaded them to return. After all, those who had left would have to be given farewells. And then began a several hour journey through the difficult terrain with corpses tied to cots. Other villagers had prepared pyres at the outskirts of Ehadsameta. Father and son, Joga and Badru, were laid down on one pyre. ‘It’s not unusual among Adivasis. When a person loves someone a lot, we cremate them together,’ a villager told me.
Soon after the incident, following my series of investigative reports about the killings, the then BJP government had ordered a judicial commission. The report, submitted to the state government in September 2021, has now finally been tabled in the assembly. The report emphatically says that the security forces mistook the Adivasis to be Naxals and underlines that “there was no imminent danger to the life of the security personnel”, and hence the firing “was not in self-defence”. They opened fire “erroneously, in haste, and out of panic”, says the report.

About the death of a CRPF personnel in the incident, the report says that there was no evidence to show that Adivasis had firearms, and the constable perhaps sustained the injury “due to cross-firing by his own squad members”.

The report has come after a long ordeal of the villagers who had to travel several hundred kilometres to record their testimony before the probe commission. It now needs to be seen what action will be taken against the security forces.