Following media reports that eight adivasis and a CRPF constable had died in an alleged encounter on the night of May 17, 2013 at Edesmeta village in Bijapur district of Chattisgarh, a team of the Human Rights Forum (HRF) from Andhra Pradesh visited the area on May 25, 26 to elicit facts. The team spoke with residents of Edesmeta as well as police officers at Gangulur. There are 67 households in Edesmeta located in six paras (hamlets). The village is in Burgil panchayat of Bijapur block and falls in the jurisdiction of Gangalur police station.
The following is a brief report of the fact-finding team. A more detailed report will be put out in due course:
It is the HRFs view that contrary to the police version of an encounter with Maoists, there was no exchange of fire at Edesmeta on the night of May 17. Eight adivasis, including four minors, all of them male, and the CRPF constable died as a result of indiscriminate and unilateral firing by the CRPF. None of the deceased eight adivasis are Maoists as the police initially claimed. The eight did not die because the Maoists used them as human shields as an improvised police version put out a day later stated. They were killed in gunfire unleashed by a specialized anti-naxalite unit of the CRPF. There was no provocation whatsoever for the firing. Four more adivasis including a minor were injured. This callous brutality is chillingly similar to the slaughter of 17 adivasi civilians (including six minors) at Sarkeguda, also in Bijapur district, on the night of June 28, 2012.
This one-sided firing by the CRPF took place upon a gathering of adivasis of Edesmeta who were performing the beej pondum, the seed festival normally held this time of the year before the rains arrive and sowing begins. About a 100 adivasis had gathered around a small structure containing their dieties known locally as ‘gaama’. The beej pondum on May 17 (Friday) was the last of the four-day long festivities that were held during the evening-night. The adivasis had congregated at the place which is an open field and about a 10 minute walk from the village. The area is ringed on all sides by fairly thick forest. That the adivasis were unarmed civilians would have been clear to the naked eye from a distance since they had going a large fire.
A huge contingent of security forces from Gangulur consisting principally of CoBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action, a specialised anti-naxalite guerilla unit of the CRPF) commandos numbering well about 150 personnel surrounded the area from three sides. The CRPF men caught hold of three young men Punem Sukku, Karam Budra and Karam Lakhma who were going towards a chelimi (a water hole) to drink water and also fetch some for the others gathered at the pondum. The CRPF men roughed them up. The terrified three, however, managed to wriggle out and ran into the forest in the direction away from the gathering. The villagers noticed the presence of the CRPF men when the three young men started running. They stopped dancing and almost immediately the CRPF started firing at the gathering. It was about 10 pm.
The initial burst of firing was from the north and it hit Karem Somlu(35), Punem Somu (30) and the beej pondum pujari Karem Pandu (37). They died on the spot. As soon as they heard the shots and saw these men falling, the adivasis began to scream and run with most of them heading south towards the village. The firing continued, this time from the west killing the four minor boys Karam Guddu (10) Karam Masa (16), Karam Badru (8) and Punem Lakku (15). It is entirely credible that the CoBRA constable Dev Prakash was hit by the gunfire unleashed by his colleagues from the west. His body lay next to that of Karam Masa’s. Villagers of Edesmeta the HRF team spoke with stated emphatically that there were absolutely no Maoists in the area and the CoBRA constable was hit in the same burst that felled Masa.
In fact, a few adivasis who managed to survive this massacre and were hiding in the bushes or behind some boulders said they overheard some of the CRPF men shout “stop firing, one of our men has been hit”. After the firing stopped, the CRPF lit up the area with flare guns. They also slapped and beat up a few adivasis. They left about an hour later carrying with them the bodies of Karam Masa and the constable Dev Prakash. They also took away three survivors Karam Aiytu, Karam Manga and Karam Lachhu. All three were beaten enroute Gangalur and at the police station also.
Karam Soma (35) managed to survive as he ran quickly and hid behind a boulder pretending he was dead. Karam Joga, who was hit by a bullet fell close by. Joga pleaded for water a few times and then passed away. After the firing stopped, the CRPF men found Soma and beat him up before leaving.
Those killed in this senseless carnage are:
- Karam Pandu (35), the village pujari.
- Karam Somlu (35) husband of Somli.
- Punem Somu (30), husband of Boodhi.
- Karam Joga (36), husband of Somli.
- Karam Guddu (10) son of Karam Pandu (killed in firing).
- Karam Masa (16), son of Karam Lachu and Somli.
- Punem Lakku (15), son of Punem Lakku (late) and Borru.
- Karam Badru (8), son of Karam Joga (killed in firing) and Somli.
Injured: Karam Somlu (40), Punem Somlu (20), Karam Somlu (25) and Karam Chotu (10). All four spent well over as day in pain before being given treatment. They are now recovering at the Maharani Government Hospital in Jagdalpur.
As soon as news of the firing and death of their relatives reached the village, the women rushed to the spot. In fact, an old woman Karam Lakki reached the place even before the CRPF men had left. On seeing the bodies of the adivasis, she screamed at the CRPF. She was slapped a couple of times by them before they hurriedly left. After the other women arrived, they carried the seven dead bodies and the four injured back to the village.
Women relatives of Karam Masa and those of the three men picked up by the CRPF after the firing went to the Gangalur police station the next morning (May 18). They pleaded with the CRPF to let their men go. Masa’s body was handed over to his mother after a post-mortem and the three were let off towards the evening.
The same day meanwhile, another large contingent of security forces came to the village from towards Cherpal. On seeing them, most of the adivasi men fled into the forest fearing they would be subjected to violence. Weeping women shouted at the CRPF men saying “you have butchered our men and children”. The CRPF men, who were on their best placatory behavior, told the women that it was not them but another party from the Gangalur and Bijapur side that had taken part in the firing the night before. It took a long time for them to convince the women to allow them shift the dead bodies for post-mortem. Many women from the village followed the CRPF men as the bodies were carried to Gangulur that evening.
A post-mortem was conducted by a panel of doctors at the Community Health Center, Gangulur the next morning (May 19) after which the bodies were handed over to their relatives. Angry villagers, most of them women, then placed the bodies between the Gangulur police station and the CRPF camp located opposite it and abused the local police as well as the CRPF and threw stones at the police station. That adivasi women pelted stones on a police station in an area where even the presence of the police is highly intimidating to the average citizen speaks volumes. The police merely watched on. Would they have been silent if their conscience was clear and there really was an exchange of fire? The women later took the bodies back to Edesmeta and cremated them the same evening.
According to the villagers, on Monday (May 20), another huge contingent of the police went to the village. A few of the officers addressed the adivasis where the firing took place and apologised for what had happened on the night of May 17. In turn, the villagers told the police that they wanted those who were responsible for the killings punished. When we asked the Gangulur inspector PK Sahu about this he denied that the police had even gone to Edesmeta on Monday.
In the face of this terrible brutality, the security establishment continues to maintain the fiction that the Maoists had fired upon the CRPF men and the latter had to therefore, retaliate. In this version, the fact of the dead adivasis being unarmed civilians is conceded, but the averment is that they were felled by Maoist bullets or they were a tragic outcome of crossfire in which they were used by the retreating Maoists as “human shields”.
The police assert that a special CoBRA unit from Gangalur enroute Pidiya to launch an offensive against the Maoists came under hostile fire near Edesmeta village following which they retaliated in self-defence. While one of their men was killed in the fierce encounter, they managed to kill an extremist and apprehend three suspects. It was only the next morning that they discovered some bodies which could be those of civilians and had evacuated them for post-mortem. Even senior officials in the security establishment touted this falsehood initially. When media reports emerged that a number of civilians including minor boys were killed, the version quickly changed to ‘Maoists used adivasi villagers as human shields to make good their escape.’ Senior officials in Raipur maintained that the CoBRA was a specially trained elite force and that the CRPF had put in place additional precautionary measures after the Sarkeguda incident last year. In effect, what is being conveyed is that the CRPF men exercise maximum restraint and only engage in exchange of fire. Civilian fatalities resulted because of Maoists firing recklessly while retreating!
These assertions fly in the face of facts. The plain truth is that the CRPF personnel opened fire without any provocation upon a gathering of unarmed adivasis celebrating a traditional festival. Edesmeta residents stated repeatedly that the CRPF men could easily ascertain that there were no Maoists in the area and that it was an unarmed gathering of villagers but they fired nevertheless. Several villagers who are still in grief and anger told the HRF team: “They want to finish us off”.
Attacked By Salwa Judum:
Edesmeta village has been subjected to violence during the early months of the Salwa Judum campaign. In the winter of 2005, Salwa Judum vigilantes and the police raided and set the entire village on fire. Three adivasis Karam Budru, Karam Latchu and Karam Lakku were caught by the Salwa Judum on that day. They beat up and inflicted knife and axe injuries on all three. Budru and Latchu died but Lakku managed to survive. This is reflective of the brazen manner in which a combination of the Salwa Judum and State instrumentalities committed illegalities during that period. On that occasion, the adivasis got wind of the impending raid and fled deeper into the forest to save themselves. They managed to survive for about two years after which they returned to the village and rebuilt their homes and lives. All of them are subsistence farmers who also go to the border mandals of Khammam district in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh to work as farm labour during the mirchi plucking season for about 2 to 3 months every year.
The State government has awarded a compensation of Rs 8 lakh to each family of the deceased adivasis of Edesmeta. The villagers of Edesmeta are in open contempt of this largesse. They told the HRF team: “We do not want this blood money. We want those responsible for killing our people punished”. A judicial enquiry has also been ordered by the State government to be headed by VK Agarwal who is also probing the Sarkeguda massacre of last June.
Time and again we have pointed out that the government’s policy of treating the Maoist movement as an outbreak of mere criminality and seeking to “wipe it out” by deploying more and more special forces is deeply offensive of the Constitutional scheme and democratic sensibilities. As has been elucidated in the report of the Expert Group of the Planning Commission in 2007, a detailed and democratic response to the sources of discontent that is at the root of Naxalism is the way forward instead of a ‘law and order’ quick fix. This would per se include viewing and treating the Maoist movement as a political phenomenon and devising political means to address it. It is not our contention that the police apparatus must be a mute spectator to violence committed by the Maoists. They must meet that violence but in a manner that is respectful of the law and the rights of the people. They cannot overstep the boundaries of the law much less indulge in ‘administrative liquidation.’ Otherwise, immense injury would be done to the ‘children of our republic’ as the Supreme Court so poignantly put it.
A judicial enquiry is no substitute for a criminal prosecution. The law of the land and the Constitution will not have it any other way. We demand that:
1. CRPF personnel who participated in the unilateral and unprovoked firing upon unarmed adivasi civilians at Edesmeta village on the night of May 17, 2013 must be charged under Section 302 of IPC relating to murder and other relevant provisions of the penal code as well as provisions of the SC, ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 and prosecuted.
2. The investigation into these cases must be handed over to the CBI.
3. The Central and State governments must stop the ongoing policy of trying to suppress the Maoists by increased deployment of Special Forces. It must address that movement politically.
4. Governments must respect the Fifth Schedule mandate in letter and spirit and the adivasis’ right to land, forest and other natural resources in their region. Protective legislation meant for the adivasis must be implemented in letter and spirit.
Members of the fact-finding team:
VS Krishna (HRF State general secretary)
G Mohan (HRF State secretary)
SK Khadar Babu (HRF Khammam district president)
K Sudha (HRF Visakhapatnam district committee member)
Bela Bhatia (Researcher, Bombay)