Bela Bhatia

Bastar, over the past decade and a half, has been synonymous with conflict and war. The region has been a central point in the armed conflict between the Indian state and Maoists.MANPREET ROMANA / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

IN AUGUST LAST YEAR, Kadti Sukka’s world came crashing down around him. It had been raining heavily in Bastar at the time. Sukka, a middle-aged Adivasi farmer, was growing increasingly anxious because the police were repeatedly visiting his village, Gompad. His 14-year-old son, Ayata, was spending a lot of time at home because he had not been admitted to the sixth standard in the ashram school he attended. “Every time they come, they beat and harass people,” Sukka told me. “They especially target young people and pick them up if they can find them.”

On the evening of 5 August, news spread that the police were circling close to the village. Around twenty young men, including Ayata and the village sarpanch, Soyam Chandra, ran towards the fields of Nulkatong, a neighbouring village about four kilometres from Gompad. They headed to a laadi—a thatched structure that villagers build close to their fields during the monsoon for refuge—to spend the night there.

Fearing for his son’s safety and wanting to protect him, Sukka followed him to Nulkatong. He recalled that there were around forty people in the laadi that night—young men from other villages had also heard of the police closing in. Early the next morning, he woke up to the sound of gunfire. “The forces attacked suddenly,” Sukka recalled. “Everybody was running, I too ran.” A bullet hit Sukka’s leg, but he continued running. In the terror and confusion that followed, he lost track of Ayata.

The next day, pictures of a long row of bodies in black polythene bags, which had been tied with green and yellow plastic ropes, were splashed across local newspapers in Bastar. The security forces, the papers declared, had had resounding success in a major encounter in Nulkatong village: 15 Maoists had been killed. State officials called it “the biggest success of anti-Naxal operation in Chhattisgarh”—a significant achievement in their Operation Monsoon. Ayata and Chandra counted among the dead.

Thirteen-year-old Ayata was one of the victims of the Nulkatong massacre.. KRITIKA A / THE LEAFLET

Thirteen-year-old Ayata was one of the victims of the Nulkatong massacre.KRITIKA A / THE LEAFLET

A week later, I met Sukka at his home. Sitting on an old tyre in the wet courtyard of his house, his eyes unseeing, he recounted the events that led to Ayata’s death. “If only my son had not gone that day,” he murmured. “He would have been alive.”

Relatives of the deceased, mostly women, had to walk to Konta to claim the bodies. Once they got there, they found out that the corpses had been taken to Sukma, the district headquarters, for post-mortem. It was not until two days later that they were able to take the bodies home and perform last rites. The police had left the bodies in Banda, and the relatives had to carry them back on foot, to their respective villages, for 15 kilometres.A real encounter would mean that there was an exchange of fire and proportionate use of force by the police. While the Nulkatong incident was portrayed as a real encounter, closer scrutiny reveals several aspects of a fake one. There are not just discrepancies in the official stories told by the police, but also suspicious irregularities in how evidence was gathered.

There are varying accounts of what happened that morning. State officials claimed that this had been a Maoist ambush, which the security forces successfully countered. Maoists claimed the police came after unarmed villagers, dragged them to a hill and opened fire. Most of the mainstream media put forward some version of the state’s account, and other reports claimed that there was no one affiliated to the Maoists in the laadi that night.

Missing from many of these accounts were the voices of the villagers themselves. As with anyone else, the villagers, too, may prevaricate or have fallible memories. But their voices are our best bet in getting closer to the truth about what really happened in the Nulkatong encounter.

NULKATONG IS A SMALL VILLAGE in the Konta block of Sukma, a district in southern Chhattisgarh. Nestled deep within the forests, it is difficult to reach. Beyond a certain point, there are no motorable roads. The closest town is at a distance of about twenty kilometres. The most straightforward route from Konta, the block headquarters, has a check post manned by the Central Reserve Police Force. When the CRPF do let a visitor through, it is only after a detailed entry about them is put into a register. At other times, as I experienced once before, people are turned away, and made to go back and forth between the CRPF check post and the Konta police station, where contradictory requirements regarding entry permits are given.

For this reason, in order to get there unencumbered by police checks, I took a much longer route, crossing a state border, wading through seven rivers and spending nights in villages along the way before finally reaching Nulkatong. I had gone with the objective of investigating what had happened after reading local press reports about the encounter. I learnt much about the incident from those I met on the way. The Sukma superintendent of police, Abhishek Meena, told me that the police always encouraged people to find out the truth, but the situation on the ground, as I discovered, did not align with his claim. There have been more than a couple of independent investigations into the Nulkatong incident so far, and they have all faced obstacles. I was followed by plainclothes policemen for a significant distance. The police beat up a group of women, family members of the deceased, who went to the encounter site after the firing ended. Lingaram Kodopi, a freelance journalist, circulated photographs of their injuries—dark bruises on their legs and back—on social media. When I asked Meena about the incident, he called it “dhakka-mukki”—a minor scuffle.

The excessive police presence in the area is not unusual. Over the past decade and a half, Bastar has been synonymous with conflict and war. The region has been a central point in the armed conflict between the Indian state and Maoists. Naxalites first entered the forest areas closest to Telangana in the early 1980s. As they moved further into the interiors, they became familiar with the poverty of the Adivasis and their exploitation by non-tribal traders and contractors. The only representatives of the state in those parts at the time—forest guards and policemen—were often very corrupt. The Maoists started organising people around local issues and slowly entrenched themselves in the area. The jungles offered them shelter, as well as a base from which to conduct guerrilla activities.

Chhattisgarh is home to mineral-rich forests, and 32 percent of its inhabitants are Adivasis. It contains deposits of nearly thirty types of minerals, including coal and iron ore. In 2003, the government passed the Chhattisgarh Mineral Development Fund Act, to enable the “mineral exploration and development of mining activities in the state.” Three years later, Manmohan Singh, the prime minister at the time, declared that Maoists were the country’s “single biggest internal security challenge” and emphasised the need for a military, rather than a political, solution to the conflict. The government relied heavily on security forces to end the Maoist insurgency, arming them not only with sophisticated weapons but granting them near impunity in their methods.

In June 2005, the government projected the Salwa Judum—or, purification hunt—as a spontaneous, peaceful movement of dissent against the Maoists. However, it soon became clear that this was a state-sponsored, violent exercise in a sort of strategic hamletting—an attempt to isolate the insurgents from people in their base areas by forcibly moving locals out of their villages and into camps administered by the government. Similar programmes have been carried out in other parts of India, such as Nagaland and Mizoram. The “campaign,” backed by massive funds, propped up armed vigilante mobs, who worked with the police and paramilitary forces to subdue tribal populations. The government openly declared its intention of destroying the mass base of the Maoists to weaken the movement.

Civilians have been caught in the crossfire. The metaphor of guerrilla fighters moving among the people like fish in water was often invoked by the state to justify its actions. In those years, hundreds of villages were burnt, tens of thousands of people were displaced—by either being made to shift to government-run camps, or by being forced to flee into the forests or across state borders to get away from the violence. Many hundreds of villagers were specifically targeted and killed on suspicion of having Maoist connections. Others met a similar fate because they happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Nearly a hundred women were raped; intimidation and threats were common and a general atmosphere of fear prevailed.

Jungles offer Maoists shelter as well as a base from which to conduct guerrilla activities.. ISHAN TANKHA

Jungles offer Maoists shelter as well as a base from which to conduct guerrilla activities.ISHAN TANKHA

Even though the Salwa Judum phase wreaked havoc and achieved little, similar operations followed, including the infamous Operation Green Hunt in 2009. Launched from Bastar, the operations spread to other areas with large Adivasi populations, such as in Jharkhand and Odisha. The nature and modus operandi of these operations have changed little over the years, despite a media outcry over violations of the “rule of law,” strong public censure, and even intervention by the Supreme Court—the Salwa Judum was declared unconstitutional in 2011. These operations have targeted not only Maoist combatants or those who were “captured” but also those seen to support the Maoists in any way, including ordinary Adivasis who happen to live in Maoist strongholds. For example, in Gompad—a village of about 50 houses—14 people, including children, have been killed since 2009 in successive “encounter killings.”

A real encounter would mean that there was an exchange of fire and proportionate use of force by the police. While the Nulkatong incident was portrayed as a real encounter, closer scrutiny reveals several aspects of a fake one. There are not just discrepancies in the official stories told by the police, but also suspicious irregularities in how evidence was gathered. For instance, relatives of the deceased told me that the camouflaged uniforms found on the bodies of four of the victims had no bloodstains on them.

The police claimed that everyone who died in the encounter was a Maoist. Afew media reports have suggested that there were only civilians in the laadi that night. But according to a few villagers I spoke to, almost half of the 15 people killed were members of the janmilitia, or people’s militia. The jan militia includes ordinary villagers armed with the most rudimentary weapons, who play a supportive role to the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army, or PLGA—the armed wing of the CPI (Maoist). These members continue to live with their families and participate in village life. Like many villagers, they usually have relatives in neighbouring villages because of marriage ties.

The jan militia constitutes “the base force” in the Maoist military structure. According to a 2010 press report, the PLGA had 3,000 members and the jan militia about 30,000. According to a 2013 report, membership in both had grown in strength substantially.

Since they are poorly armed, jan militia members are easy targets for security forces, who use the full might of the state against them. This allows the police to meet the constant pressure of “showing results” in the grander scheme of boosting counter-insurgency statistics. The war against the Maoists is often reduced to a question of “kitne shav ko baramad kiya”—how many dead bodies could you get? That those who were killed were only foot soldiers in the Maoist organisation does not seem to matter.The war against the Maoists is often reduced to a question of “kitne shav ko baramad kiya”—how many dead bodies could you get? That those who were killed were only foot soldiers in the Maoist organisation does not seem to matter.

From the accounts of those who were present in the laadi, there were between thirty and forty people there. And by the police’s own claims, about two hundred policemen surrounded the laadi in the early morning. This would mean that the police to people ratio was as high as six to one. The police parties had an overwhelming advantage of numbers as well as weaponry. The central question here, then, is why could they not have overpowered and arrested the suspects?

Instead, the police opened fire on an unsuspecting group of people, the majority of whom were civilians. The police would have likely known exactly how many jan militia members were present there, since their team included ex-Maoists, who would have been able to identify them. Around six jan militia members and one member of a local guerrilla squad were killed in the firing, according to two local residents. Two of the victims, the residents said, also had their heads bludgeoned in—quite unusual in an encounter, where death by gunfire is the norm.

Police officials maintain that there was an exchange of fire. The superintendent of police, Meena, told me that a Maoist meeting was taking place, and the police knew that someone from the PLGA cadre was present. “Baman from Etegatta was a member of the military platoon four. He had a .303 rifle.” Baman was killed in the encounter. But he was dressed in plain clothes.

A bharmar is an archaic muzzle-loading weapon from the nineteenth century. It is no match for the advanced weaponry at the disposal of the state.. ISHAN TANKHA
A bharmar is an archaic muzzle-loading weapon from the nineteenth century. It is no match for the advanced weaponry at the disposal of the state.. ISHAN TANKHA

A bharmar is an archaic muzzle-loading weapon from the nineteenth century. It is no match for the advanced weaponry at the disposal of the state.ISHAN TANKHA

The police parties would also have known that the militia members were likely to be armed with local weapons such as bows and arrows, or at most with an outdated bharmar—an archaic muzzle-loading weapon from the nineteenth century—none of which are any match for the security forces’ automatic weapons. “But when firing is taking place from the other side you cannot know what weapon is being used,” Meena said. And even he admitted, “We have advanced weapons. Even a PLGA Company may have less than five automatic weapons.”

The people I spoke to—including those who said a few militia members were present in the gathering—denied that there was an exchange of firing. They all maintained that the police surrounded the laadi and suddenly attacked. Except for the superintendent of police, nobody else mentioned that there was a better weapon than a bharmar in the laadi that day.

Indiscriminate firing cannot be justified on any grounds, least of all based on an assumption that the other side may have sophisticated weapons. In warfare, there are ways for soldiers to protect themselves—wearing protection gear, for instance. They can, if they wish, use only as much force as necessary to subdue their targets. But all this means nothing, if the firing was part of a deliberate strategy, to kill as many “Naxalis” as possible, without any care for the nature or degree of their involvement, if any, in the Maoist project.

AS I MADE MY WAY along the Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh border, I met various people who told me about the sudden increase in police presence they had witnessed a few days before the encounter.

On 4 August, by late afternoon, two trucks full of local police had reached Mallempeta, a border village. After dropping them off, the vehicles turned back. According to early reports, this was part of a joint combing operation conducted by the District Reserve Guards—a special force with local recruits, including Adivasis and surrendered Maoists—and the Special Task Force of Chhattisgarh police, from the Konta and Bhejji police stations. Such search-and-combing operations are undertaken regularly by security forces as an area-dominating exercise, or after a tip-off about Maoist presence in a particular region. In some fake encounters that I earlier investigated, the relatives of the victims often recognised ex-Maoists who later joined the DRG, as playing a leading role in identifying and sometimes killing the victims. Since they are local, often from the same areas or villages, they know their targets by name, as well as the extent of their involvement with the Maoists. There have been occasions when victims’ relatives have accused former Maoists of targeting those they had recruited to the Maoist organisation in the first place.

Meena told me that this was the second operation that the police had launched that week in the area, after they had received information that the jan militia from three villages had merged to form a militia platoon. Over the next two days, the police spread themselves across the area, moving in three directions. This was towards the end of the Maoists’ “Martyrs Week,” which starts each year on 28 July—the day on which the Naxalite leader, Charu Majumdar, died in 1972. Commemorations are held in one or several places, depending on the security situation in each area. From the police point of view, the likelihood of finding an assembly of Maoists during or immediately afterwards becomes greater.

In Mallempeta, I met a youth, who was around 15 years old, from Nulkatong. He was on a bicycle and had stopped by at a grocer’s shop. Dressed in a neat shirt and trousers, he was carrying a plastic shopping bag with multi-coloured stripes. An umbrella was tucked into the frame of the cycle. According to him, there were jan militia present at the gathering but they had not gathered there for a meeting. It was a mixed assembly of people whose primary motive was to run for cover from the security forces. “Some people had gone there when they heard that the panchayat mukhiya was also there,” the youth said. “Apart from the militia, all others were public”—civilians. In his telling, there was no exchange of fire that morning as reported by the police. It was wholly one-sided. However, he said, “Some of the militia had a bharmar.” The youth said that one of the six people from Nulkatong who were killed was a militia member.

An older man from a village close to Nulkatong, who was standing nearby, interjected to explain how the police seldom make a distinction between civilians and Maoists. “They do not differentiate between a naxali, militia or aam-janata,” he said. “All are treated in the same way. This is what the police do when they come. Jinda kaatte hain”—they kill people in cold blood. “That day also they must have just seen the bharmars and started firing.”

The two of them pointed out that among those who had died were militia from other villages, including Gompad, Velpocha, Kindrepal and Etegatta. The older man added that he had heard someone identified as “guruji” from Etegatta had arrived in Nulkatong. Somebody who was translating for us in Nulkatong the next day told me that the guruji was in the dalam—the local guerrilla squad, which has jurisdiction over a cluster of villages.

There are many memorials dedicated to Maoist martyrs near the Andhra Pradesh border.. ISHAN TANKHA

There are many memorials dedicated to Maoist martyrs near the Andhra Pradesh border.ISHAN TANKHA

The militia member from Nulkatong who was killed, the youth told me, was called Madkam Lakma, and was also known as Tinku. Lakma was 30 years old, unmarried, and had not had any formal education. “We saw his body,” the older man said. “His head had been bludgeoned as though with a sambal”—an iron rod with a pointed end that is used in agricultural work. “Those who were wounded but still alive after the shootout must have been hit with the sambal or the end of rifles to finish them off.”

I showed them some photographs I had received on WhatsApp, which had been taken at the Konta police station. Some of them were of dead bodies, and one was of items that the police said they had confiscated from the laadi, such as guns and bags. A few of the photographs showed the lifeless bodies of young men dressed in T-shirts with the logo of the Bharatiya Sena, or the Indian army, on them.

I could not easily read the expressions on the men’s faces as they went through the photographs of the dead. They knew, as did I, that they could very easily have been the ones who died that day. Their first comment was, “Police ne baad mai dress dalathe police dressed the victims in uniforms after the event.

“I know him,” the youth said, pointing at one of the photos of a young man, his eyes open in still surprise, clad in a checked green shirt. “He was from Gompad. He was not a militia.” He could not recognise two others, but pointed out Sodi Parbhu, who had a string of blue beads around his neck; Unga, with a sharp nose and neat moustache, who looked as if he was sleeping peacefully; and Hidma, in a red and black striped shirt—all three were from Nulkatong. Many of the civilians who were killed were minors, some younger than the youth I was talking to. “The force also took two sangam”—the village committee—“members that day,” the youth said.

Straining to look closely at the photo of confiscated items, one of them said, “The jholas belonged to the militia, not the boris”—sacks. They recognised a blue backpack as belonging to somebody who had managed to escape. “Rassi”—the rope—“was not there that day.” Most of the guns on display (the police had claimed there were 16) were rifles, and a few were bharmars. “They have been planted,” they said. “Where did the two tiffins come from?” they wondered aloud. Tiffins are often used as containers for improvised explosive devices.

A few photographs, circulating on WhatsApp, showed the lifeless bodies of young men dressed in T-shirts with the logo of the Bharatiya Sena, or the Indian army, on them.. COURTESY BELA BHATIA

A few photographs, circulating on WhatsApp, showed the lifeless bodies of young men dressed in T-shirts with the logo of the Bharatiya Sena, or the Indian army, on them.COURTESY BELA BHATIA

The Nulkatong massacre traumatised its survivors. The older man said that all the men from Gompad and Nulkatong, even those who were not at the site of the incident, ran to the neighbouring village—Durma—that day to protect themselves. They were afraid that if the security forces found them, they would also be killed. “Whenever police go to any village, they harass and trouble people, steal money, drink daru, slay hens, beat people and sometimes take them away,” he said. “Those who had run to the fields of Nulkatong that day had gone with the hope of saving themselves.”

I stayed that night with a relative of the older man, who returned later that evening, and accompanied me to Gompad the next day.“They do not differentiate between a naxali, militia or aam-janata,” he said. “All are treated in the same way. This is what the police do when they come. Jinda kaat te hain”—they kill people in cold blood.

GOMPAD IS A SMALL VILLAGE of Gond Adivasis with a population of less than three hundred. For its size and location, deep within the forests, it has a disproportionate record of state violence. I first heard of the village in 2009, when Operation Green Hunt was in full swing and nine persons were killed in an “encounter” there. Since then, there has been further violence, including the rape, torture and murder of a young woman in 2016. Now, the village has lost six more of its residents.

The Maoist movement in this area is at least two decades old. The martyr-memorial columns in the village tell a story, as do other facts like the absence of voter ID cards.

Once I reached Gompad, I met three journalists and two members of the Ambedkarite Party of India, who were also there to investigate the incident. We met family members of Soyam Sita and Soyam Chandra, who had also been killed that fateful morning.

Santosh, Sita’s brother, said that his brother was in his mid twenties, and that Chandra was a few years younger. Chandra’s young wife, holding her one-year-old daughter, told us that Chandra and Sita had run with the others towards Nulkatong when they heard that charon aur police bichhi hui hai—the police is spread on all sides. Chandra was the sarpanch of the village, like his father before him. His younger brother, Mallesh, who is a student in Konta, took us to the margath, or burial ground, and showed us Sita and Chandra’s graves, as well as those of four others. In the drizzle, we saw the six overturned cots on the graves along with other personal belongings of the deceased. A backpack and shoes hung from a branch of a nearby tree. “Those belonged to Sita,” Mallesh said.

When we reached Nulkatong, it was the middle of the day. We spent many hours listening to people’s testimonies of the incident. The same story emerged again and again: people had taken refuge in the laadi on the night of 5 August, and the security forces opened fire on them the next morning.

Muchaki Sukadi was sitting on the mud-plastered verandah of her house, near a low fire, when I met her. A bicycle was leaning on the side frame of the verandah. “That was Muka’s cycle,” she says. Muka, her son, who was around 13 years old, was one of the people killed in the firing. She showed us his photograph.

This was the second time that a member of Sukadi’s family was killed at the hands of the police. In 2009, members of the Salwa Judum and security forces killed her husband, she told us. “He was not part of the Maoist organisation at any level. He was feeding wood in the fire while making daru when he was nabbed and killed.” Her youngest son is now studying in the seventh grade in Konta, but she is now unsure whether he will be able to continue.

Unga, another victim of the Nulkatong incident, was in his early twenties. He is survived by his wife Lakke and a daughter, who is around seven years old. Unga’s brother spoke to me about the futility of running to the shelter for protection. “Agar ghar mein rahte hain to bhi marte hain”—if we stay at home, we get killed there too. Lakke’s mother could not contain her tears as she spoke about how she was burdened by her thoughts.

The personal belongings of one of the deceased hung from a nearby tree.. COURTESY BELA BHATIA

The personal belongings of one of the deceased hung from a nearby tree.COURTESY BELA BHATIA

A village elder who was part of the gathering approached us once the testimonies were over. Dipping into the pocket of his well-worn khaki shirt, he took out six used cartridges. He showed them to us, cradling them in the palm of his work-worn hands, without saying a word.

ON 9 AUGUST, the South Bastar Division Committee of the CPI(Maoist) issued a two-page statement condemning the fake encounter in Nulkatong and calling for a bandh across Sukma on 13 August. The party’s account of the incident is wildly at odds with what I learnt from the villagers:

As part of a special operation, more than 200 police from Konta, Bhejji and Golapalli camps surrounded the villages of Nulkatong, Velpocha, Gompad, Kindempad and Kannaipad villages on 5 August, held more than 50 persons captive and took them with them. Next day on 6 August, at 6 in the morning, they took them near the Nulkatong hill, tied the hands and feet of 15 nishastra grameen(unarmed villagers) and fired indiscriminately killing them mercilessly. A few of them are still in the captivity of the police. Many are missing and injured.

In this version, the villagers did not go to Nulkatong by themselves, but were rounded up from their respective villages and taken there. They were all civilians; no one from the jan militia was present. There was no Maoist meeting. The statement included a list of those killed, which also disagreed with what I heard: for instance, only one victim was shown as being a minor.

The police had a diametrically opposing version of events. And while a starkly different account from the police was to be expected, I was surprised to find three different variants.

According to Meena, the police did not know about the Maoists’ whereabouts at all. “The police had camped on the other side of the hill,” he said. “They had no idea that only one-and-a-half kilometres of forest and darkness separated them from their target.” When they did finally see the gathering in the laadi, they started moving in their direction. “The Naxal sentry was standing towards the south,” he said. “He was the first to see their approach and fired. After that there was an encounter. They were armed and opened fire.”

The police had, in a self-congratulatory move, mentioned to the press that they had apprehended two wanted Maoists in Nulkatong: a man named Madkam Deva and a woman named Dudhi Budhri. Deva, they said, was a “wanted Naxali” with a reward of 5 lakh rupees on his head. When I met Deva’s wife, Idme, she told me the police had made a mistake. “He was with them”—the Naxalites—“for a year or so,” she said. “I don’t know what work he did for them. But he had some health problems and returned. After that he has been at home. That night he had also taken refuge in the laadi out of fear.”

It turned out that the police had confused two persons named Deva—one from Nulkatong and the other from Gompad. On Deva’s arrest, Meena admitted, “We mistook him for Deva of Gompad who is the adhyaksh of the Revolutionary People’s Council.”

Kaise, Budhri’s mother, was too worried to say much when we met her. It had already been eight days since Budhri had been taken away. Kaise said, “Hearing that the paike (police) are coming, Budhri went to the field to sleep. A few other girls also went with her. The police took her and I do not know where she is or how she is.” According to her Aadhaar enrolment slip, which was certified by the sarpanch and the sachiv, Budhri is only 19 years old.

“When our party captured Budhri,” Meena told me, “she said that she was hit by a bullet.” But there was no sign of blood. “She was taken that evening to the hospital in Sukma, where a lady doctor examined her and said that her hip was dislocated. She was produced before the magistrate on 7 August and, on his orders, is being treated first before being arrested.” Meena also told me that Budhri said she had joined the militia more than three years earlier, and had left the organisations six months ago. “But after a couple of months, Soyam Sita”—one of the 15 who died in the incident—“came to her home and forcibly took her,” Meena said. “He threatened to kill her if she did not come. She was roaming again with the militia party during the last three months. She will be a prosecution witness.”

Besides Deva and Budhri, the police party also arrested two youth, Sodi Handa and Madavi Lakma, from the laadi. Both of them were from Nulkatong, and, according to the youth and the older man I had met in Mallempeta, they were sangam members. The police took them to the Konta police station, where they were kept for eight days. I met them on the day they were released. When the firing started, they said they tried to run away, but were caught.

However, Meena later told me that “Lakma was not in the laadi that night. He was going from the village to his fields at dawn. When the firing started, he sat down where he was and was caught on the spot.” Meena said Lakma had supported the Maoists by providing food.The superintendent’s account of the events differs from the one in the initial press note issued by the Sukma police. That note gives the impression of an ambush-like incident, where armed Maoists had attempted to attack the police and the police had retaliated.

According to the superintendent, these four individuals—Deva, Budhri, Handa and Lakma—are primary “eye witnesses of the August 6 incident.” Like Budhri, the other three are also likely to be used by the police as prosecution witnesses. Their earlier associations with the Maoists, if any, or however brief, make them vulnerable to blackmail from either side.

“Had it not been an actual encounter, why would there be eye witnesses?” Meena asked me. “We are encouraging people to go to the villages. They should also know the truth.”

His account of the event differs from the one in the initial press note issued by the Sukma police. That note gives the impression of an ambush-like incident, where armed Maoists had attempted to attack the police and the police had retaliated. According to the statement, there were between forty and fifty Maoists who ran away after realising that the police had the upper hand.

On 7 August, a third version from the police was reported in the newspaper Nai Duniya. It was attributed to DM Awasthi, who was then the special director general of police for anti-Naxal operations. In that version, the Maoists were sleeping in their camp when the police reached the spot based on an intelligence tip-off. The police attacked the camp and the Maoists “tried to retaliate.”

In short, the police’s versions of the event are not only inconsistent with those of the villagers and the Maoists, but also with each other. The police prepared a list of the deceased on the basis of identification by family members. The list was missing the names of three of the people killed from Gompad: Soyam Chandra, Madavi Deva and Madavi Nanda.

At present, Budhri and Deva are in the central jail at Jagdalpur. When I met them there in September, I realised they had no legal representation. I offered my services as a lawyer, which they accepted.

Budhri told me that she was taken to court only once, after she had spent two weeks in the hospital. “In the court, I was told to say that 15 persons died and that I am a Naxali. I was made to put my thumb impression on a sheet of paper.” This was perhaps the “confessional statement” that Meena was referring to. Budhri and Deva have been charged with rioting, attempt to murder and criminal conspiracy. They have also been booked under sections that prohibit the carrying of arms and membership as well as support of terrorist organisations. These are all serious offences carrying prison sentences of several years (up to ten years in the case of UAPA offences).

covered the graves of the six from Gompad who were killed in the Nulkatong massacre.. COURTESY BELA BHATIA

covered the graves of the six from Gompad who were killed in the Nulkatong massacre.COURTESY BELA BHATIA

THE CONCLUSION THAT THE NULKATONG INCIDENT may not have been an encounter, but a massacre, is consistent with a number of other facts too. First, none of the police were injured, despite the firing going on for an hour and a half by their own account. Second, the victims’ bodies were quickly put into body bags, while usually, after an encounter, dead bodies are brought to the police station and displayed as they are. The reason for this, quite likely, is that the police did not want anyone to see that many of the victims, including Ayata and Muka, were minors, and not the uniformed Maoists they had claimed they were. On 24 December, Meena told me that the youngest person there was 18 or 19 years old. Finally, the uniforms allegedly worn by some of the victims had the Indian Army insignia.

On 13 August, even as my inquiry was going on, a rally took place in Konta, where a crowd mobilised by former Salwa Judum leaders shouted hostile slogans against me and Soni Sori, an Adivasi school teacher turned political leader. It was the same day the Maoists had called for a shutdown to protest the farji muthbhed, or fake encounter. I was already in Nulkatong at the time. A group of journalists who were accompanying Sori on 18 August, and the following day too, were obstructed and found it difficult to reach Nulkatong. On arriving there, they found an empty village. They learnt later that the police had instructed the people of Nulkatong to leave (on the pretext of possible firing that night due to Maoist presence in the area) and go to Durma. They were expressly told to steer clear of outsiders

The police, often under pressure to boost counter-insurgency statistics, do not always distinguish between ordinary villagers and jan militia.. ISHAN TANKHA

The police, often under pressure to boost counter-insurgency statistics, do not always distinguish between ordinary villagers and jan militia.ISHAN TANKHA

Abuses and threats were also aired on social media. For example, on 19 August, on the WhatsApp group “Yuva Sangh Chhattisgarh,” which is administered by a leading member of the Action Group for National Integrity—an anti-Maoist group—some persons made wild allegations against Soni Sori, and the journalists Lingaram Kodopi and Prabhat Singh. They suggested that the three had taken money from the Maoists in return for speaking in their favour. One of them even issued a death threat against Singh. On the same group, someone hurled abuse at me: “Suar ki bachhi, murdabad.

A prominent anti-Maoist leader of Sukma circulated a note on 20 August, alleging that some villagers from Nulkatong had lodged a police complaint against Sori and me for pressurising the people of the village to give false testimonies against the police. A few days later, Soni received a notice from Konta police station, to which she responded both in writing and in a press conference. “It is a conspiracy of the police to implicate me in a false case,” she said.Militia members are in no position to defend themselves in this sort of situation, unlike higher level PLGA cadres who have a better chance since they have military training and modern weapons.

Despite these acts of intimidation, investigations by journalists as well as human-rights groups did take place. A public-interest litigation was also filed by the Civil Liberties Committee, Telangana, in the Supreme Court, charging that the encounter was fake and that civilians had been killed. The matter has been heard only once so far.

Naxalites first entered the forest areas closest to Telangana in the early 1980s.. ISHAN TANKHA

Naxalites first entered the forest areas closest to Telangana in the early 1980s.ISHAN TANKHA

The Nulkatong incident also raises a troubling question about the responsibility of the Maoist party towards those who make up its base force, as well as towards the people in the villages where the party has a strong presence. Militia members, let alone ordinary people, are in no position to defend themselves in this sort of situation, unlike higher-level PLGA cadre, who have a better chance since they have military training and modern weapons. Militia members are soft targets for security personnel.

The primary responsibility for the Nulkatong massacre, however, lies with the security forces. The incident shows, once again, the illegitimate nature of counter-insurgency operations in Bastar. Several acts of this sort have been challenged in the courts, but there is no progress. Any government that resorts to criminal tactics—for that is what it boils down to—as a matter of policy offers little hope for either peace or justice in this tormented land.

Bela Bhatia is a writer and human-rights lawyer based in Bastar, south Chhattisgarh.

https://caravanmagazine.in/reportage/monsoon-massacre-nulkatong-encounter

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