Chronicle Of A Tragedy Not Foretold

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Violent end Lack of adequate security made the Congress leaders sitting ducks. Photo: AP

AT 4.30 PM on 25 May, Naresh Mishra, a TV reporter in the south Chhattisgarh town of Jagdalpur, got a frantic call on his mobile phone. “The Naxals are bombing and shooting us,” said the caller, a Congress leader named Avadhesh Gautam. “People have died.” Mishra set out immediately with his cameraman to the site of the attack 35 km further south. Gautam was lucky to escape when the bombing and shooting began. Mishra found him at a police station even as the bloodbath was in full swing barely 7 km away. Unwilling to make a move themselves, the police officers there instead asked Mishra to go down to ground zero. It would be another hour before Mishra and his cameraman would reach the spot on a borrowed motorcycle after deciding to leave behind their office car as the rebels could target that, too.

“There were cries of help from everywhere,” Mishra later told me of the scene he witnessed there. “Corpses were strewn all over.” Only moments before had ended the two-hour ambush of a convoy of 40-odd cars ferrying Congress leaders, workers and bodyguards. Mishra heard voices behind the foliage, most certainly of the Maoists, who asked him to identify himself. “Patrakar ( journalist),” he shouted and raised his hands. He first found former Union minister Vidya Charan Shukla, 84, lying wounded next to his car. Mishra gave him water to drink and helped him back into the car. A couple shots rang out not too far away. Kawasi Lakhma, a Congress legislator who Mishra often met in better circumstances, came running from the forest with his bodyguard and sped away on Mishra’s borrowed motorcycle.

Shortly, Mishra found the body of Mahendra Karma, a stout tribal leader reviled by the Maoists since 2005 when he founded the Salwa Judum, a controversial counter-Maoist tribal militia that the Supreme Court ordered scrapped two years ago. Next to Karma’s bullet-riddled body, some 50 people lay facing the ground. They began to slowly rise when Mishra told them the Maoists had left. The survivors began limping to the police station. Mishra helped arrange Shukla’s transfer to a Jagdalpur hospital.

By 9 pm, the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) had taken over the area. The deaths of a dozen people, including a former legislator, Uday Mudliyar, were confirmed. Chhattisgarh Congress chief Nand Kumar Patel and many others were missing. Having been in the forests far away on an assignment, I reached the spot at 6.30 am. The Maoists had deliberately chosen one half of an S-shaped clip of the road for their ambush. After launching the attack, they blocked it from both sides to prevent escape. One side of the road is mildly hilly, and the other runs down into a ditch.

With a couple other journalists, I walked towards the hilly side. Barely 50 m away we came upon Patel’s body. Next to him lay his lifeless son, Dinesh, who had joined him in the public meeting on 25 May from where the convoy was returning. We walked down the ditch on the other side and found six bodies. Back on the road, we found three dead labourers in a truck that had been caught in the crossfire. In all, we came across 11 bodies. The police had yet to arrive.

By the evening of 26 May, 24 bodies, including of eight policemen, had been found. The body of another policeman would be found there on 29 May. (Officials have no figure for how many might be missing.) Thirty-three wounded were hospitalised.

The Maoists had warned political parties against campaigning in the tribal areas ahead of the Assembly election due this year. Yet, the state’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, which is in the Opposition, pressed ahead with their public meetings. Few had imagined the rebels would dare attack politicians so brazenly. Perhaps this made the Congress planners lax in ensuring proper security.

The 22-km road where the attack occurred passes through a dense forest. On one end is a sparsely populated place known as Darbha, which has the police station where Gautam went. At the other end is the small town of Tongpal. The head of the Tongpal police station, SL Kashyap, told me that he and his men had accompanied the convoy up to 5 km to the point where a ravine starts. The ambush took place just half an hour later. He started for the spot but found that the rebels had blocked the road. A survivor told me the convoy had been given no “road-opening parties” — policemen who drive ahead and inspect both sides of a road.

EXACTLY Aweek before the massacre, a CRPF patrol had shot dead eight people, including three children, in a village in the Bijapur district west of Jagdalpur. To protest the killings, the rebels had called a shutdown on 26 May across seven districts of south Chhattisgarh. Perhaps they attacked the convoy because the Congress decided to hold a public meeting in Sukma, a town 110 km south of Jagdalpur, just a day before their protest. The convoy was headed to another public meeting in Jagdalpur when the rebels attacked it.

Gautam was in the first car in the convoy. He heard a loud explosion. A jeep was blown to bits right behind him. The rebels began firing. Speeding away, his car crossed a jeep coming from the other side. It had Congress supporters from the next meeting who wanted to welcome the convoy. One of them died instantly. Gautam says a rebel with an axe tried to stop his car. When he reached the police station minutes later, he pleaded with but failed to persuade the police to send back help. The cars carrying Shukla, Patel and Karma were a few minutes behind and their occupants say they didn’t hear the explosion. They were hit by rebel fire when they reached the spot.

Eyewitnesses suggested at least “two companies”, or 200 Maoists, were involved in the ambush. Some heard the attackers speak of Vinod, a self-styled “Divisional Commander” of the Maoist group, being in charge of the ambush at the head of the road. Another Maoist named Dalam reportedly led the other “company” attacking from the hillside.

The explosion had blasted a crater in the road. The attackers blocked the road with a truck. Only a dozen securitymen accompanied Karma, much less than his Z category security accorded him. Most others had even fewer bodyguards.

Most bodyguards, including Karma’s, were travelling together in a bullet-proof car and not with their wards. Karma was unprotected, with a few Salwa Judum men in a Pajero SUV. When the firing began, he told them to jump off and lie on the ground.

Sattar Ali, one of the men, saw a bodyguard lean out of his bullet-proof car’s window to fire and die from a bullet. Mudliyar died crouched inside his car. Shukla received three bullets while still in his car. When the securitymen stopped firing after about 90 minutes, the Maoists came down from the hills and started calling out for Karma and Patel. Ali says Karma came out from under the car and said, “I am Mahendra Karma. Don’t kill the innocent.”

Survivors say most rebels appeared to be 18-22 years old and carried wireless sets. After Karma surrendered, they tied his hands behind him. They did the same to Bittu, a youth, mistaking him to be Karma’s son. They asked those hiding under the cars to surrender. As soon as Karma walked some distance, they sprayed him with bullets. They began dancing around his body raising slogans against the Salwa Judum and Operation Green Hunt, the counterinsurgency operation.

The Maoists asked the other hostages lying nearby to identify themselves. They took away their wallets and mobile phones. A former legislator, Phoolo Devi Netam, who was shot in the leg, gave a false name, as did others, especially those from the Salwa Judum. A Maoist said they had twice before tried to kill Karma but failed. Another said fewer would have died had Karma surrendered earlier. They then gave water to the survivors to drink.

Shiv Prakash Dwivedi, a medic from Raipur who was shot in the hand, identified himself and sought help. A woman Maoist bandaged his wound and gave him an injection. Chauleshwar Chandrakar, a historian from Raipur, also got their attention. The rebels refused to help the other wounded saying they didn’t have enough supplies. The bombing had set dry leaves on fire in the ditch. The Maoists told the survivors to put it out before leaving.

On the other side of the bend, Patel’s driver, Niketan Das, too, was shot forcing him to stop the car. Lakhma, who was in Patel’s car, told them to get out and run. Patel, his son, and Lakhma’s bodyguard, Dasharam Sidar, then hid in a ditch by the road. The cars coming from behind were smashing into each other. Some people jumped out and started running. Maoist snipers took them out one by one. Lakheshwar Baghel, a Congress leader from Jagdalpur, and some others ran into the jungle with a few others.

Presently, the rebels found Patel in the ditch. Lakhma, the legislator, told the rebels in their native Gondi that Patel was sympathetic to the tribals and often slammed the government in the legislature. The rebels told him to run or risk being killed. They tied the hands of Patel and his son behind their backs. Three passers-by who, too, had been hiding there were ordered to scoot. This was the moment when the TV reporter, Mishra, reached the spot. The gunshots he heard were possibly the ones that killed Patel and his son.

When they were still considered missing, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi — no stranger to violent deaths in the family — met Patel’s wife in Raipur on 25 May evening. She chanted the mahamrityunjay mantra through the night but her husband and son were already dead. We would find their bodies only the next day.

Translated from Hindi by 

2 COMMENTS

  1. One must admire the columnist’s courage in moving to the scene even as events were unfolding, disregarding his personal safety.

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