Photographs by Shailendra Pandey
AT 4 AM on 29 June, there was a loud bang on the door of K Santosh, a local journalist with Zee TV in Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh. Taken aback by the disturbance at the odd hour, Santosh asked, “Who is there?” “Police,” came the reply, “Sir wants to talk to you.” Despite being a journalist for almost eight years, Santosh was wary of opening the door and hesitated. The impatient voice then informed him that “something big” had happened and the station officer wanted Santosh to accompany the police team to the crime scene. Confused by this development, Santosh refused to budge.
Fifteen minutes later, a senior police officer approached Santosh’s door and said that 12-13 villagers have been killed and 5-6 CRPF jawans injured in an encounter and he wanted Santosh to cover it. The journalist, who knew the officer, complied and followed the police team on his motorcycle to Basaguda, a village located 50 km from the district headquarters. Little did he know that he was going to witness the aftermath of one of the worst massacres of the year, in which 17 tribals from Sarkeguda, Kotteguda and Rajapeta villages were killed in an alleged encounter by a 200-strong CRPF team.
“For the first time in my career, the police, which has a history of withholding information, was so forthcoming and actually came to my house with information,” says Santosh. And the most important thing was the shifting narrative: What began as the “deaths of 12-13 villagers” changed to “17 Naxals killed” within the next 5-6 hours. How and when this change happened is an interesting story.
This was the biggest operation undertaken by the CRPF in the Bastar region since 1999. So how did the operation, which was being planned for almost a fortnight, go horribly wrong? Was it plain oversight or just frayed tempers getting better of the conventional wisdom of war?
What happened at Sarkeguda was plain misfortune, says a senior CRPF officer. “We had received intelligence that (Naxal leaders) Paparao and Ramanna were going to be in Silger village and there was also a major Naxal movement near the Andhra Pradesh-Odisha border. They seemed to be planning a major operation,” he says.
On the basis of that input, the police and the CRPF decided to take two parties of 400 jawans from Basaguda in Bijapur to Silger. One party each from Jagargunda and Chintalnar were also supposed to meet them at Silger. At around 9 pm on 28 June, two CRPF units started from Basaguda camp towards Silger. As a standard operating procedure, the units generally stay away from the main roads and avoid villages in order to keep Naxal informers at bay.
“At around 11 pm, when we were about 300 m from Sarkeguda village, the 85th battalion of the CRPF and COBRA unit detected some movement,” recalls a senior CRPF officer who was involved in the operation. “We moved towards the village and soon realised that there was a gathering of people. As we moved closer, somebody shouted “police”, and suddenly there was firing. After the first round, 3-4 of our men were injured by the bullets. Then there was one more round of firing and 2-3 more jawans were injured. We thought we were being ambushed. We had no option but to return fire.”
The officer claims that the firing, which lasted for around 30 minutes, was very heavy. He suspects that a platoon of Naxals consisting of 15-20 armed men was present at Sarkeguda and they fled after firing at the CRPF jawans. At 2 am, the other CRPF party, which was going towards Jagargunda, was also ambushed. At around 3.30 am, the Chintalnar party was also engaged in a firefight and the paramilitary forces claim that they were able to kill two Naxals. “By the time we reached Silger, there was nothing left,” says the officer.
‘The weapons that the CRPF claims to have recovered from the spot are their own,’ says villager Babu Rao
The firing left 17 villagers, including seven minors, dead. Initially, all of them were declared Naxals. Later, 3-4 of them were dubbed as hardcore Naxals. The figures kept fluctuating for the next few days. A week ago, the Chhattisgarh government revised the list and distributed a new one with the names of seven Naxals and the cases filed against them.
However, the plot soon unravelled and what emerged was that Sarkeguda was an operation that had gone horribly wrong.
THE SPOT where the encounter happened falls in Kotteguda village and the gathering had people from Sarkeguda and Rajapeta villages, all of which are in the vicinity. There are 145 huts in the three villages with a population of a little more than 300 people. The villages are located in an open terrain without much vegetation.
Then how did the CRPF contingent fail to notice the gathering and mistake it for a Maoist meeting? While the CRPF maintains it was a pitch-dark night, the villagers claim it was a moonlit night, a fact corroborated by policemen at the Basaguda Police Station, located 3 km away.
So what happened on that fateful night? According to Babu Rao, 20, a native of Sarkeguda and one of the lucky survivors, the villagers had assembled there to discuss the preparations for the forthcoming seed festival and other farming issues. “We had assembled at 8 pm,” says Rao. “Around 70 people were there and most of them were men. Most of us were drunk and there were loud noises from all sides. We didn’t even realise when the police had encircled us. We came to know about them only when they started firing at us. Half of the people remained seated and the other half started running out of fear. We shouted at the police to stop firing but to no avail. Later, I managed to escape and reached my village after 6-7 hours.”
However, his brother Irpa Suresh was not so lucky. He died in the encounter.
Asked about the CRPF’s claim that someone from the gathering shot at them, the expression on Rao’s face changes from that of anger to exasperation. “We don’t have a single gun. The weapons they claim to have recovered from the spot are their own, which they planted to discredit us. Their jawans are injured because they must have fired at themselves,” he says.
Kaka Rahul and Madkam Ramvilas, both 15, were studying at a government school in Basaguda. They had come to Sakerguda for summer vacation and were among the seven minors who fell to the rain of bullets. “What wrong did my son do? Was he a Naxal?” asks Rahul’s mother Kaka Lakshmi. “He was such a promising boy and would have made his village proud. But now everything is lost.”
Rahul and Ramvilas weren’t the only ones whose young lives were snuffed out. Irpa Suresh and Kaka Sarswati, both 12, also lost their lives. Irpa Mahesh, 10, managed to survive but lost his father Dharmaiya Irapa. Now he has three brothers and a sister to take care of. “There was no firing from our side,” says Mahesh. “When I heard the firing, I didn’t move an inch. After the firing stopped, they got hold of the villagers and took us to Basaguda thana. They even beat up some of the villagers. We were let off only at 6 pm on 29 June.”
Another villager left to pick up the pieces of her shattered life is Madkam Shanta. The 40-year-old lost her two sons, Nagesh, 35, and Suresh, 30, in the ill-fated encounter. The list of Naxals that the police released after the encounter has Suresh and Nagesh as No. 1 and 2. According to the police, Suresh is a top Naxal who was the mastermind of the infamous 2007 Dantewada jailbreak.
However, his mother begs to differ. “During the time of the Salwa Judum, Suresh had gone to Pusbaka village and was arrested on some frivolous charge,” says Shanta. “When the jailbreak happened, he also escaped like several others. Since then, he has been living with his wife and kids here. If he is a Naxal, will he have a family and settle here permanently? My other son has a voter ID card and ration card but now he is being dubbed a hardcore Naxal. Is this how Naxals live? They should have killed me as well. What would I do after losing my two sons?”
As Shanta laments her fate, Suresh’s wife Sammi listens wistfully with her kids, Chandrakala, 3, and Pramila, 1, by her side. Sammi is pregnant with her third child. When asked about the fateful night, she is moved to tears and asks, “Can’t the police just acknowledge the truth?”
ONE OF the reasons why many are raising doubts about the encounter is the police’s shifting narratives. First, it was claimed that all those killed were Naxals; then the story was that 3-4 hardcore Naxals were killed; and later Bijapur Superintendent of Police (SP) Prashant Agarwal gave out a list of seven Naxals with details of all the cases in which they were involved.
When TEHELKA pointed out a glaring omission that Madkam Suresh is shown to have committed a crime when he was, as per police records, in jail, Agarwal fumbled a bit. “There must be some mistake, I will check it,” he said. When we asked for a copy of the police list of the dead Naxals in the encounter, we were made to wait for a while. Thirty minutes later, a fresh list was given to us, with a clarification that there was some clerical error in the original one, which had been rectified now.
The new list was even more shocking. Instead of seven Naxals, there were only six names. When we enquired about it, Agarwal said, “Since you have raised some doubts, I will reinvestigate the name of one person and get back to you.” Surprisingly, the name that was omitted was not of Madkam Suresh but of Kaka Nagesh. A close perusal of the list also reveals that all the six people accused of being Naxals have one crime in common: firing at the police party with an intent to kill.
The villagers, who later took a look at the police list, were bemused. “We don’t know anyone by the name of Madvi Aaytu and Korsa Vijjey/Bijja,” says sarpanch Madkam Narayan. “We are also not sure about who Kaka Nagesh is. The police is letting its imagination run riot.”
BUT THE big question remains: if it was just a peaceful village gathering, how did six CRPF personnel sustain bullet wounds? When TEHELKA visited the injured jawans at the Narayana Hrudayalaya MMI Hospital in Raipur, we found that out of the six injured, only two had grievous injuries. Two others were hit in the leg by splinters, while the rest had hurt their ankles in the ensuing commotion. Ashok Zargar, chief of medical services at the hospital, says four jawans had bullet injuries and one of the bullets was removed in Bijapur itself.
“When we reached Sarkeguda, all I remember is someone shouting “police” and then there was heavy firing. I was hit in the abdomen and collapsed,” says Wahidullah, one of the grievously injured jawans.
Gyanendra Prakash Singh, 40, who was hit in the thigh, explains, “The doctor has pulled out a bullet that was from a bharmar rifle. It is used only by Naxals.” When TEHELKA suggested that perhaps he could have been a victim of cross-firing, he says, “CRPF jawans use guns such as the AK series, Insas, MP5 and X95. If our bullets hit anyone, it will rip the victim’s innards and exit from the back. The weapons owned by the Naxals are not that powerful.”
Villagers refused to accept relief material from those who ‘try to put an ointment after inflicting the wound’
But the villagers have a different story to tell. “What will we do with guns?” asks Madkam Shanta. “If there were Naxals present at the meeting, would the CRPF jawans have escaped with such little injuries? Wouldn’t there be some big casualties on their side? They themselves have shot at their colleagues by mistake.”
But CRPF officers vehemently deny this accusation. “All the talk of CRPF jawans injuring each other in a crossfire is ridiculous,” says a senior officer posted in Bijapur. “Who do you think we are? Some kind of illiterate or ill-trained force? Please come up with a better conspiracy theory. If this is what you think of the injured jawans, then what more can I say? Will you take a bullet on your chin just to make a story look more plausible?”
Meanwhile, the police is still grappling with the idea of who is a Naxal and who isn’t. According to Bijapur SP Aggarwal, “It is difficult to differentiate between Naxals and villagers. Villagers help Naxal platoons whenever they can. They all have voter ID cards and ration cards. On regular days, they take part in farming activities and at other times, they help the Naxals. In effect, they are also Naxals.”
A senior CRPF officer posted at Bijapur agrees. “Naxals keep the Jan Militia armed with bows and arrows,” he says. “On top of it, there is the Jan Sangham. They are trained in the art of planting IEDs. Just because they are unarmed doesn’t mean they aren’t Naxals. Do we have to die every time in order to prove that we are right?”
But the anger of the villagers refuses to die down. When the district administration sent relief materials, the villagers refused to accept it saying that they don’t want any help from those who “try to put an ointment after inflicting the wound”. The district magistrate is yet to record the statements of the villagers. When they turned up at his office to do so, they were sent away saying that a notice would be sent before recording their statement.
Even the post-mortem conducted by the authorities does not add to the confidence of the villagers. A three-member team of doctors conducted the postmortem on the 17 victims but the villagers say that the whole exercise was a sham and conducted in less than 45 minutes. According to the report, each victim had 2-3 bullet wounds and had been shot at from middle range to long range.
Bowing to the pressure from the Opposition parties and human rights activists who alleged that the encounter is fake, the Chhattisgarh government has ordered a judicial inquiry. Several more inquiries will be held simultaneously, including a magisterial inquiry, a Special Investigative Team inquiry and an internal inquiry by the CRPF. In the end, everyone will have their own version of the encounter, but it would be interesting to see how far the results of all these investigations tally.
Brijesh Pandey is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
Prakhar Jain is a Correspondent with Tehelka.