EVERY MORNING, as the villagers of Nawarnagu in Palamau jungle, Jharkhand, travel to work — farming or picking tendu leaves — jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (COBRA) stand at their pickets, “protecting” them from the Maoists. The jawans stop every vehicle, ask for the driver’s licence, enquire about their destination, family and jobs. At other times, they conduct combing operations inside the villages, entering homes, shops and schools in search of Maoists. On finding anything or anyone suspicious, the jawans immediately take them into custody.
According to official data, 577 people have been killed in anti-Maoist operations since the creation of Jharkhand in 2000. Human rights activists allege that the casualties include many innocents. The latest in the list, they claim, is Lucas Minj, 33, a deaf-mute tribal who was shot dead on the banks of the Koel river inside the Palamau jungle on 31 January 2012.
For the Minj family, the death of Lucas was only the beginning of the miseries to follow. The family claims that they are facing backlash from the security forces because they dared to file a police complaint seeking an investigation into the death.
Lucas’ cousin Sylvester is one such victim. The 40-year-old lies in the orthopaedic ward of the Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS), Ranchi, with his neck and head strapped to iron rods; his left hand paralysed.
“It’s difficult to speak,” he mutters, as his eldest son, Roshan, enters the room. With a pregnant mother and five young siblings at home, it’s Roshan’s responsibility to look after his father.
On 5 April, Roshan was at home when some villagers informed his mother, Susanna, that Sylvester had been beaten up by CRPF jawans. Sylvester was returning home from Chhipadohar in a shared private jeep. CRPF and COBRA jawans from the Labra police picket were patrolling the entrance to his village. They stopped the jeep and asked the driver for his licence, which he didn’t have. All the passengers were asked to step out and questioned. “They asked about my village, family and soon realised that I was Lucas’ cousin,” recalls Sylvester. He was forced to stand on his head, legs in the air, for 30 minutes. A COBRA jawan kicked him in his neck, rendering him unconscious.
Later, Sylvester was put back in the jeep and let go. Sensing trouble, the driver dropped him midway, where he lay alone, howling with pain, unable to lift his head. After much effort, Susanna’s relatives carried him home to Karamdih village on a cycle. Once home, Sylvester lay in bed, unable to move. Susanna managed to collect some money from her relatives and took him to a local government hospital, where the doctors referred him to RIMS. They had no money for the journey until Lucas’ brother, William, pitched in.
‘No one can explain why my brother was killed,’ says William. Instead, the Minj family was hounded for approaching the police
William works as an NGO worker at Daltonganj. All six brothers, except Lucas (born deaf-mute), attended missionary schools. Their grandfather, John, was a schoolteacher and first-generation Christian convert. Their father, Kliment, was a farmer. After college, all the brothers found respectable jobs in Ranchi — teacher, guard, firefighter, driver, NGO worker and police constable. Only the youngest, Prakash, stayed back in the village to look after Lucas and the family property.
ON 31 JANUARY, security forces were combing Lucas’ village Nawarnagu, located 50 km from Chhipadohar. The day before, it was the turn of Karamdih, Sylvester’s village. Clashes between the Maoists and CRPF were reported. Villagers of Nawarnagu admit that the rebels were holed up there when the security forces were in the neighbouring village. “But do you expect them to wait for the security forces to attack them? They escaped easily,” says a villager.
At around 8 am on 31 January, just like any other day, Lucas took the family cattle — 17 cows and 19 goats — into the forest for grazing. Jawans from the CRPF, COBRA and state police surrounded the village between 9-10 am, says Ranjita, Prakash’s wife. The villagers heard two gunshots between 9.30-10 am near the Koel river, located less than a kilometre from Lucas’ house.
Usually, Lucas returned home by noon. That day, he didn’t. “We thought he got scared of the police and was hiding in the jungle,” says Ranjita.
On 4 February, fishermen from a neighbouring village found a body floating in the river. Prakash and Ranjita feared that it could be Lucas’. But they were afraid to venture out of their house. Two days later, the couple went to check the body and their worst fears came true. A bullet had gone right through Lucas’ head. He was lying on his stomach with his sickle beside him. The next day, the family buried his body in the village graveyard.
“We never thought of approaching the police because we suspected the security forces had murdered him,” says William.
However, a rumour made the rounds that the Maoists had killed Lucas, an allegation the rebels vehemently denied. “Lucas was deaf and dumb. He has been living here since birth, looking after our cattle for 15 years. Why would the Maoists suddenly want to kill him?” asks Prakash.
William finally filed a complaint with the police on 12 February. Two days later, Lucas’ body was exhumed and sent to RIMS in Ranchi for a post-mortem examination. The post-mortem report confirmed the Minj family’s suspicions — Lucas had been shot around the same time the security personnel were conducting the combing operation in his village.
On 17 February, when his body was being brought home, the Maoists declared a strike to protest his death. Fearing the Maoists, the ambulance driver transporting Lucas’ body refused to venture deeper into the forest to get to the village. Lucas was buried at a new grave in Chhipadohar.
William pursued the matter, meeting senior police officers, who assured help. But nothing happened. “Nobody answered why my brother was killed,” he says. Instead, the family was hounded by the security forces for approaching the police.
On 5 April, the day Sylvester was attacked, William was also roughed up. William was stopped at the same Labar police picket. His camera was confiscated. It had contained the photograph of a CRPF jawan who had abused him a day ago. He was branded a Maoist spy and the photo was converted into “telling evidence”. He was slapped, humiliated and threatened with death. “I thought they were going to kill me,” he recalls.
However, locals informed William’s family in time, who immediately alerted human rights activists in Ranchi. They, in turn, requested a senior police officer to intervene. That’s how William survived that day. But the family still lives in fear.
While the police has instituted a highlevel team to investigate the death of Lucas and the violence against Sylvester and William, the CRPF refused to respond when asked about the incident.
Lucas’ brother, the police constable, has been posted at the same hospital to keep an eye on Sylvester under the pretence of looking after him, despite the former’s reluctance. “What kind of people would assign one brother to spy on another?” asks human rights activist Gladson Dungdung.
Pushed into a corner by both the Maoists and the State, the tribals are in a quandary. Meanwhile, CRPF Inspector General (Operations) DK Pandey, who is in-charge of the anti-Maoist operations in Jharkhand, has demanded the enforcement of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the state.
But before it can get a free hand to fight the Maoists, the CRPF has to answer for the pending charges against it.
Kunal Majumder is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.