Guneet Ahuja (HNLU)
Sudha Bharadwaj is the General Secretary of PUCL Chhattisgarh. She is the founder of Jan Hit and is associated with Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha. She is also a civil rights and trade unionist lawyer.
This interview seeks to highlight the case of the civilian killings in Kotteguda and the controversies that surround the CRPF’s battle for internal security.
Can you, for the benefit of our readers, give the brief facts about what happened in Kotteguda and Basaguda on 29th June?
Fortunately in the case of this incident, which is extremely rare in cases of police action in the Bastar region, there have been several independent reports – from the national as well as local media; from the Congress Party and the Adivasi Mahasabha; from a team headed by Nandini Sundar, as well as the most detailed one from the Co-ordination of Democratic Rights Organisations being a joint report of several civil liberties groups. So there is not much controversy regarding the basic facts. I am quoting a few excerpts from the CDRO Report:-
“All three villages are small settlements located close to each other and in the jurisdiction of the Basaguda police station which is located about a km. away. There is a CRPF camp at about three km from the three villages. While Sarkeguda with 25 households and Rajpenta (12 households) are in Korsagudem panchayat, Kottaguda with 30 households is in Cheepurupatti panchayat. Most residents of the three villages belong to the Dorla Koya tribe.
About 60 adivasis of these three villages assembled from around 8 pm on June 28 in an open area between Sarkeguda and Kottaguda. Such meetings where decisions have to be taken collectively are usually held during the night since adivasis are busy with work most of the day. As the sowing season was upcoming, the meeting was held to discuss several issues related to farming including fixing the date for the traditional seed sowing festival known as bija pondum- (this was to have taken place a few weeks earlier but was delayed because the pujari who conducts the ritual had died), distribution of land for tilling, lending help to those families who were without cattle, deciding the amount of rent for using the new tractor they had brought and how to raise fish. Arrears of Rs 10,000 due to the adivasis since two years for tendu leaf collection were paid only recently and they also wanted to discuss what use to put it to. It was a fairly cloudy night and visibility was poor. All those in the gathering were adivasi residents of the three villages and unarmed.
While the meeting was going on, a large contingent of CRPF personnel and CoBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action, a specialised anti-naxalite guerilla unit of the CRPF) commandos numbering well over a hundred, cordoned off the area. According to the villagers, at about 10 pm there was gunfire without any warning. The first burst was from towards the west and it hit three adivasis who died instantly. This was quickly followed by firing from three other directions. Terrified villagers began screaming and running. Most ran towards their respective villages. Some tried to hide in a hay-storing enclosure. Those who were fleeing for their lives were also fired upon. The firing continued for about 30 minutes after which, as if to survey the dead, the CRPF forces fired two flare guns that lit up the area. The forces stayed on in the area.
It was clear to the fact-finding team that a peaceful gathering of adivasis, none of whom carried any firearms, was surrounded by the CRPF and without any warning fired upon indiscriminately. As a result of this firing, 16 adivasis died — 15 that night and Irpa Suresh (15) in Bijapur hospital the next day. Six of the dead were minors, including a 12 year old girl Kaka Saraswati, daughter of K Rama. She was hit while fleeing towards her house in Kottaguda. Of the other five minors, two — Kaka Rahul (16) and Madkam Ramvilas (16) — were studying in class 10 at a school in Basaguda. Both stayed at a hostel in Basaguda and had come home during the summer vacations……..”
“According to the villagers, those who did not die from the bullet wounds were killed by the police with axes they picked up from the village itself. Several eyewitnesses from outside the village, including mediapersons who saw the bodies before they were cremated, referred to some of them as having been brutalised with deep hacking cuts on the chests and foreheads……..”
“The 17th victim of this senseless butchery was Irpa Ramesh, husband of I Lachmi and father of three children. After the firing began, he ran and made it to the safety of his house and stepped out at dawn at about 5 am to survey the area. He was fired upon immediately and though he was hit, managed to get back inside his house. The CRPF men followed him in and clobbered him to death with a brick in front of his family members. According to Ramesh’s father Irpa Raju, the CRPF men also stole Rs 5,000 from their house. The same night the police also stole Rs 30,000 from Irpa Narayana’s house in Rajpenta as well as Rs 2,000 from the house of Madkam Nagesh.”
Those killed are:
- Kaka Saraswati (12), daughter of K Rama
- Kaka Sammayya (32), farmer, husband of K Nagi.
- Kaka Rahul (16), student of Class 10 at Basaguda, son of K Narayana.
- Madkam Ramvilas (16), student of Class 10 at Basaguda and classmate of Kaka Rahul, son of M Butchaiah.
- Madkam Dileep (17), studied upto Class 8 at Pamed, assists his father M Muttaiah in farming.
- Irpa Ramesh (30), farmer, husband of I Lachmi, father of three children.
- Irpa Dinesh (25), farmer, husband of I Janaki, father of four children, is younger brother of Irpa Ramesh.
- Madkam Nagesh (35), farmer, also a professional dholak player who performed during festivals, husband of M Sammi, father of two children. His wife is pregnant with their third child.
- Madkam Suresh (30), farmer, husband of M Sammi and father of two children, is younger brother of Madkam Nagesh.
10. Irpa Narayana (45), farmer, husband of I Narsi, father of four children.
11. Irpa Dharmayya (40), farmer, husband of I Bheeme, father of five children.
12. Irpa Suresh (15), studied upto class 5, son of I Chandrayya. Died at Bijapur hospital on June 29.
13. Sarke Ramanna (25), farmer, husband of S Somulu, father of three children.
14. Apka Meetu (16), son of A Sukhram, helps his father in farming.
15. Korsa Bichem (22), son of K Gutta, worked earlier for a borewell firm at Hyderabad, came home a month ago to help his family in farming.
16. Kunjam Malla (25), farmer, son of K Lakmadu.
17. Madvi Aithu (40), farmer, husband of M Kamli and father of four children.”
“Six adivasis were injured in the firing. Four of them, Kaka Ramesh (11) and Kaka Parvathi (10), Irpa Chinnakka (40) and Abka Chotu (16) were admitted to hospitals in Bijapur and Jagdalpur and have since returned home after treatment. Madkam Somayya (30) and Kaka Senti (19) were taken to a hospital in Raipur and are still undergoing treatment but are out of danger. Among the injured Kaka Ramesh (13) and his younger sister Kaka Parvathi (11) escaped narrowly. After the firing began, they ran in the direction of their house in Kottaguda and sustained bullet injuries on their left arms. Irpa Munna (26) and Sarka Pullaiah (20) who were also injured were not taken to the hospital by the CRPF. They are being treated with traditional medicine by their fellow adivasis in Sarkeguda and Kottaguda respectively. A few cattle also died in the firing.”
The civil society and the media, has made a lot of noise ever since the killings. But in this fight against Naxalism, collateral damage is bound to happen. Don’t you think the civil society is over-reacting?
We should be very careful in using a term like “collateral damage” in a loose or casual manner, because it has a very specific meaning in international humanitarian law. ‘Military necessity of an action’, ‘distinction (that is distinguishing between combatants and civilians)’ and ‘proportionality (that even if civilians have to be harmed unavoidably then the incidental civilian injuries should not be in excess of the anticipated military advantage)’ are three basic principles in international humanitarian law which govern the legal use of force in an armed conflict and determine whether the outcome could be considered to be justifiable collateral damage, or otherwise.
In the circumstances of the Kotteguda case:-
(i) There was obviously a total lack of military intelligence in regard to the meeting of villagers which took place a mere1 km away from a police station and 3km away from a CRPF camp, and the ‘military necessity’ of the action as claimed by the security forces is not convincing.
(ii) The conflicting figures of “Maoists” which came from various authorities, and the fact that many so-called “Maoists” were found by the media to be resident villagers with valid legal identities, and later admitted to be civilians, shows that proper ‘distinction’ between combatants and civilians was not actually made while carrying out the police action which appears indiscriminate. Particularly the acts of following villagers to their houses and injuring them with axes, or battering in one person’s head the next morning were clearly neither acts of self defence, nor carried out against armed combatants, nor even acts carried out after some preliminary enquiry, and cannot be justified under any circumstances.
(iii) The injuries and deaths of civilians in this case obviously outweigh any military advantage that might have been sought to be gathered and violate the principle of proportionality.
But it is often said that the civil society keeps mum when security force personnel are killed by Naxalites or tribals are given inhuman punishments in Kangaroo courts. Are human rights only for Naxalites?
This is far from the truth. Rather it is one of those Goebbelsian lies, which when repeated endlessly start seeming like the truth, and is actively promoted by the State only to discredit civil liberties organizations and silence their legitimate critique of the actions of the State.
When security force personnel are killed, FIRs are lodged by the State, the police acts to arrest and jail suspects, special and stringent laws are invoked, trials are conducted, the entire society condemns the incident, the families of the security personnel are condoled and compensated, memorials are held, editorials are written.
I can say with personal knowledge that on such occasions the statements issued by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties – both at the National and the State level – expressing grief at the death of security personnel, condemning the politics of abduction, and making it absolutely clear that the PUCL does not support violence, are either deliberately suppressed by the media or mocked at, so that such allegations can continue to be made.
But let us remember that the task of a civil liberties organisation is a much more difficult one, like swimming against the tide – that of protecting the civil rights of citizens enshrined in the Constitution when they are violated by the State itself, and that too in a situation where the State uses all means at its command to prevent such violations from being exposed i.e when there are no FIRs, no arrests and it is the complainants rather than the culprits who are harassed and threatened. This explains why the civil liberties organizations are so very unpopular with the Government, the police and the corporates; and in situations of fascism, hatred is whipped up against them in the media by insinuating that they are unpatriotic or anti-development.
A civil liberties organisation tries to respond to citizens – usually the marginalized – who complain of police atrocities like custodial death or rape or fake encounters precisely because, if citizens are pitted against a mighty State, where else can they seek redressal? And then how would we uphold Article 21 of the Constitution? We have to perform this difficult task even if we are bad- mouthed, foisted with false cases, or even face threats to our lives as a consequence. Many of you would not be knowing that seven lawyers belonging to the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee were murdered in the past three decades only because of their work as human rights defenders..
The demands made by the civil liberties organisations are absolutely legal, constitutional and in accordance with the International Covenants to which India is a signatory. Often we are only demanding the implementation of guidelines already laid out in Circulars of the National Human Rights Commission.
As regards any form of abduction, summary execution of police informers, or others forms of torture indulged in by any non-State actors – whether insurgents, Naxalites, or other militants – the PUCL and other civil liberties organistions equally clearly and unequivocally condemn them. Cases such as the Jamui mass killing in Bihar or the beheading of policeman Francis Induwar or the killing of Niyamat Ansari in Jharkhand were collectively condemned by civil liberties organizations. These organizations also believe, however, in conducting independent probes when such incidents are alleged, and not merely believing police versions blindly. I have personally investigated an incident of killings of teachers and students in Village Golapalli, then district Dantewada and now district Sukma, by the police and security forces which had first been reported as killings by Naxalites, and then as deaths in crossfire.
The other thing that has to be appreciated is that in many parts of our country today, situations of insurgency or civil war are going on, there are armed combatants on both sides, and ultimately de-escalation of violence has to be through politically addressing the underlying causes. Often human rights violations in the name of “area domination” by security forces has led to entire populations becoming hostile and perceiving the State as an “occupying force”, so actually civil liberties organizations do a service to the State by reinforcing Rule of Law and redeeming its human face.
The consistent demand of the civil liberties organisations has been that, in areas where there are prolonged armed conflicts and civil wars, all parties to the conflict – and certainly non-State actors are included – must abide by the Geneva Protocols established by the United Nations in their treatment of non-combatants, civilian populations and prisoners of war.
You would again be surprised to know that the official stand of our government, which has deployed lakhs of army and paramilitary personnel against its citizens in several parts of the country for decades and calls Naxalites the greatest internal security threat, is that there is no internal armed conflict in the country! Indeed, otherwise, it would have to permit international observers of the United Nations and international humanitarian agencies like the International Red Cross, Journalists without Borders, Amnesty International etc. access to these areas to monitor human rights violations.
After the killings did Mr. Raman Singh or any one from the Union Home ministry visit Kotteguda or Basaguda?
Not to my knowledge, no.
The Sub Divisional Magistrate did visit with a truck load of rations which the villagers angrily refused saying, “If we are Maoists, then why are you giving us rations?”
What has been the opposition’s response to the incident?
The State Congress Party sent a fairly large fact finding team of senior leaders to investigate the incident and the Report was submitted to their National leadership, However, while Shri Charan Das Mahant – Minister of State for Agriculture – who hails from Chhattisgarh, and Shri Kishore Chandra Deo – Union Minister for Tribal Affairs condemned the incident in no uncertain terms, the Union Home Minister Shri P. Chidambaram continued to insist for many days after the incident that the security forces had indeed shot down Maoists, and he only made a very reluctant and partial apology later that if those villagers had “nothing at all to do with any Maoists” , then he was sorry! Thus while the Congress raised the issue vociferously in the Vidhan Sabha, it could not make the Union take any effective steps.
The Adivasi Mahasabha and the CPI conducted a fact finding and had a massive protest on 17th July at Bijapur. Broadly the left parties protested the killings nationwide.
Thousands of adivasis protested at Bhopalpatnam, and when adivasis from Narayanpur had been gathering to protest, some 700 to 1000 of them were lathicharged as Naxalite supporters.
The Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan – a loose platform of 21 mass organizations were stopped near the Raipur Jail when marching to the Vidhan Sabha in protest on 16th July.
And of course civil liberties organisations, a small but determined force, raised their voice all over the country. Unfortunately two members of the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee along with some villagers of the affected area were arrested on 15th July 2012 under the Andhra Pradesh Special Public Security Act when they were planning to come to Delhi to file cases in this regard.
The CDRO has come out with its report which does establish death of civilians. What has been the state government’s and home ministry’s response so far?
There was a Special Investigation Team by the State Government constituted which apparently has admitted that 7 persons killed were villagers.
The Report of the Magisterial Enquiry, routinely instituted in cases of police action, has not yet been made public but as reported in the media, no villagers appeared before the Magistrate, This is despite the fact that there are explicit guidelines of the NHRC that in such Magisterial Enquiries the relatives of the deceased must invariably be involved.
I believe the government has set up a judicial probe to look into the incident and so has the CRPF. What’s been happening with those inquiries so far?
The Government had announced a judicial enquiry by Retd. Justice VK Agrawal of Madhya Pradesh in the month of July, which was to be preferably concluded in 3 months, but to the best of my knowledge, the process of enquiry has not yet begun.
An in-house enquiry by the Central Reserve Paramilitary Force led to guidelines being framed for so-called Special Operations in Naxal affected areas.
There have been reports that this was not the first time that Kotteguda was attacked. Is that so?
Kotteguda was one of the villages which was attacked in the early days of the Salwa Judum (2005-6) and had been emptied out during that period. Most of the villagers had been forced to migrate to Andhra Pradesh. It is only in 2008 that they came back and attempted to resettle being emboldened by the successes of Village Nendra and Lingagiri which had been helped by the NGO Vanvasi Chetna Ashram to resettle. Even today many Kotteguda residents are yet to return and the villagers had been planning on facilitating this eventually.
Indeed, this less known aspect of the Kotteguda situation makes the police action even more reprehensible, particularly in the face of specific interim directions of the Supreme Court to the Chhatisgarh Government to resettle the adivasis internally displaced by Salwa Judum. It also discloses a possible motive for an action that otherwise defies logic – namely ground clearing.
Is there normally any Naxal presence in Kotteguda, given the fact that it was the second time the village was attacked?
I do not think that the fact that the village was attacked is proof of there having been Naxal presence. The Naxals have very dispersed though not continuous presence in many parts of Bastar region and make occasional forays right upto the town of Dantewada, would that justify a police action there?
What is the response of the villagers who survived? There have been reports of migration to Andhra Pradesh.
Yes, I had also seen newspaper reports quoting the Sarpanch to that effect, but I have no first hand information about it.
The government keeps saying that Naxalites are the biggest threat to India’s security. How come they suddenly became such an emergency in the last one decade in Chhattisgarh that the government can afford such huge collateral damage of mass exodus, tribal killings and extra-judicial arrests but they have to weed out naxalites at any cost?
The presence of Naxalites in the Bastar region is well known since the 1980s when there were large movements regarding enhancement of tendu patta plucking wage rates. For two decades police, forest and revenue officials have been unable to enter (though teachers and doctors were able to work unharmed) the Abujhmaad region where the police admits that a parallel “Janatam Sarkar” of the Naxalites presides over local agriculture and village markets, runs its own school curriculum, has barefoot doctors and cultural troupes, and publishes magazines in Gondi language in its own press. In the year 2005 DGP Rathore used to claim that there are about 50,000 Sangham members (members of mass organizations associated with Naxalites) in the region. Yet, they were not seen to pose such a threat to the Indian State.
It seems that what gave impetus to the State and Union Government’s counter insurgency operations in this area since 2005 was the large number of prospecting and mining licenses issued and the MOUs signed with Tata and Essar to set up steel plants at Lohandiguda (district Bastar) and Bhansi-Dhurli (district Sukma) respectively, both in June 2005. At present, according to the official website of the Directorate of Geology and Mines, Government of Chhattisgarh – 549 acres in district Kanker, 5247 acres in district Dantewada, and 4070 acres in district Narayanpur are covered by Prospecting Licenses for mining, which would doubtless be difficult to execute because of the presence of Naxalites.
Is the practice of Salwa Judum over after the Nandini Sunder judgement?
The Chhattisgarh Government, by a Notification created a Chhattisgarh Auxiliary Force, within weeks of the judgment, absorbing the majority of SPOs who had been directed to be disbanded by the Supreme Court. A contempt proceeding in this regard is under consideration by the Court.
So, while the existence of Salwa Judum – incidentally meaning “Purification Hunt” in the Gondi language – as an unaccountable private vigilante force has ended, the same players have now been legalized as SPOs – foot soldiers in the current “Operation Green Hunt” launched by the State.
The judgment that has been passed in the Nandini Sundar case is an interim one basically dealing with the issue of the legality of the SPOs. The issue of atrocities committed by the Salwa Judum – in support of which documentation of about 500 killings, 99 rapes and some 2000 cases of arson and loot which took place in the Konta block alone have been filed – is still pending adjudication.
Meanwhile, the PUCL has forwarded to the NHRC a list of 132 alleged fake encounters by security forces which occurred in four months of the launching of Operation Green Hunt, and requested that an enquiry be conducted. We have yet to get a reply.
But its strange how lakhs emerge for candle light marches for Jessica Lal while no one says a word as hundreds of Soni Soris are being tortured in jail or when incidents like the massacre of Basaguda and Kotteguda happen. Any comments?
We often don’t realize how much our sensibilities are shaped by the position we occupy in society. If you are a pedestrian, you will curse those who whizz by in a limousine splashing mud on you, but if you are sitting in that limousine, you would probably curse the pedestrians for being such a nuisance and getting in the way!
Let alone the adivasis of Kotteguda whose situation we would find very difficult to even imagine, how sensitive are we to the situation of poor persons whom we see laboring around us all the time – the domestic help in our house, the construction workers working on high rise buildings or tarring roads in the summer heat, the sweepers of the municipality carrying away our garbage. Often we justify the inequality we see and their deprivation by lamenting about their laziness, their thievish ways, their indiscipline, their background (read caste), their drunkenness and “miss the forest for the trees”.
The plight of the adivasis of Kotteguda is as much the ugly under-belly of our glittering cosmopolitan India fattened on indiscriminate corporate loot of resources, as the suicides of farmers, the workers’ strikes, the trafficking of young girls.
Most of us have too much of a stake in this model of development, we benefit too much from it materially, to have the courage to question it. Perhaps that courage is what is most necessary today to save the world from the self destructive path down which it is hurtling!
Anything else you want to add?
Today there is a serious global financial crisis in full bloom. The only two ways out of this for the capitalist system are – either to reduce social security and governmental welfare expenditure in the West including hard won rights of labour, or else to intensify the loot of natural resources. We can already see in the West from the “Occupy Movement” in the US, the strikes of teachers and doctors in Britain and students and workers in Greece, that withdrawal of social expenditure is being resisted tooth and nail there. The other option therefore is the loot of resources – by war if necessary. We can all easily see that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are primarily concerned with the control of oil.
In India, there has been an intensification of loot of mineral resources on an unimaginable scale – the recent coal block scandal is the tip of that iceberg. Multinationals like Holcim and Lafarge have acquired prestigious Indian companies like ACC, Ambuja and are making net profits (12%-14%) several times their global profit rate (1.33%) and are expanding to exploit limestone deposits. Vedanta is into bauxite, Rio Tinto and De Beers are prospecting for diamonds. How can Chhattisgarh, and particularly mineral rich Bastar hope to remain pristine?
In the entire tribal belts stretching from West Bengal and Jharkhand, through Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh to Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, there are myriad tribal resistances against mining and land acquisition. Unfortunately for the Chhattisgarh government, the tribal resistance in Bastar has dovetailed with the Maoist movement and is refusing to lie down and die.
The history of capitalism in the West bears many bloody scars of massacres of indigenous communities. Now faced with devastating environmental consequences, there is much rethinking on these issues. Only recently the Prime Minister of Australia tendered an apology to the lost generation of Australian aborigines.
This is why, rather than decrying the saner voice of the civil liberties organizations, real efforts must be made to resettle the abandoned villages of Bastar, grant community forest rights so that the “historical injustice” referred to in the Preamble of the Forest Rights Act can be redressed, truly implement PESA genuinely devolving powers to the Gram Sabhas, implement a moratorium on fresh mining and MOUs to instill confidence in the administration among the adivasis, and thus demilitarize the context and bring peace to that region.
HRLN Campus Volunteers thanks Advocate Sudha Bharadwaj for the interview.