Early in February this year, Chhattisgarh cabinet minister—Kawasi Lakhma, shot off a letter to the chief minister, disputing the police account of the killing of an Adivasi woman—Podiyam Sukhi—by security forces in Sukma district calling it a fake encounter. Lakhma, an Adivasi himself, who survived a deadly Maoist attack in 2013, wrote that the CRPF and district police from the Puswada camp were returning from Rangaigunda after an operation, when they opened fired on “innocent Adivasi” women of Godelgudda.
Demanding compensation for the families, Lakhma cautioned that such “fake encounters” would lead to a loss of confidence in the newly-formed government. The compensation was disbursed but concerns remain over institutionalised violence that targets Adivasis with fake encounters, illegal detentions and large scale incarcerations.
Whenever election time draws closer, the spotlight is suddenly trained on the vast disadvantaged masses that the media has scarcely bothered with over the past five years. However, there is one group of people who still remain “invisible” in the greatest democratic exercise in the world. Most of them do not vote. They suffer the worst forms of dehumanisation and their fundamental right to life is often violated under the guise of encounter killings. They are routinely detained illegally or kept in crowded jails as under-trials for years. The women are especially vulnerable as they go about their daily lives. They have little access to judicial institutions and substantive justice. But despite experiencing such atrocities in their everyday lives, they embody multiple forms resistance and continue to struggle for their survival and existence.
They are the Adivasis—the indigenous people—of Bastar living in their ancestral forests and hills of southern Chhattisgarh.
On 22 March, I journeyed to Godelgudda along with a group of local friends and activists, to witness the precarious lives of people living in the highly militarised zones of Bastar. We drove past Dornapal on NH 30 which was once a huge Salwa Judum camp, where Adivasis were made to live after facing horrendous violence and enforced displacement.
Turning off the highway, we drove on the newly constructed road that cuts through the thickly-forested Maoist region. Slated to go to Jagargunda, the road is seen as strategically crucial to stop the movement of Maoists in this corridor. It is touted as the key to bringing development in inaccessible regions.
Passing Gorgunda, Pollampalli, Kankerlanka and Puswada with CRPF camps on every two-three kilometres, we veered into rough forest tracks till we came into Godelgudda, a hamlet of some 60 households. The village was silent. Most of the able-bodied inhabitants were out collecting mahuaflowers that form a crucial part of local economy.
Whilst waiting, we met Sukhi’s four-month-old son and three more children, who she left behind. Podiyam Deva, her husband, was not present in the village on that fateful day. Like many from his community, he had gone to Pattigudde in adjoining Andhra Pradesh to augment his income by working in the chilli farms.
When he and the other villagers returned after picking mahua, we settled down to listen to the various accounts of the killing. Deva’s mother, an imposing and dignified figure, spoke expressively in Gondi which was translated for us.
On 2 February, around 8 am, Deva’s mother was sweeping the house, when the sound of three gunshots rang through the air. “Immediately, I ran out towards the sounds, leaving the door open. Sukhi was out with two other women to collect firewood and I was anxious.”
In Bastar, it is common for women to run towards an encounter site as soon as they hear gunshots. Men flee in the other direction, mostly inside forests, because they fear being picked up. It is the women who walk long distances to fetch water or forest produce and remain vulnerable as they go about their daily chores.
Just about 400 meters away from the village, across the pond, Deva’s mother came upon Kalmu Deve, who was writhing in pain. “She urged me to run towards Sukhi who had been badly hurt.” When she reached Sukhi, she found her alive, pleading for water. Deva’s mother alleged that the troops cruelly thrust Sukhi into the black plastic sheets used to haul away Maoist corpses, even though she still seemed to be alive. “The security forces carried her to a vehicle that was on the main road near Kankerlanka and took her away. I begged to be allowed to accompany her but they refused.”
Desperate for information, she went to the camp where a District Reserve Guard, speaking in Gondi, dissuaded her saying Sukhi was being taken to a hospital. But it was Sukhi’s dead body that was brought back by the Dornapal police station at night. When Deva was informed of the incident he rushed back from Pattigudde. At Dornapal, he met the police party who were carrying his wife’s body and went home with them. Sukhi’s body was then cremated and the last rites were performed under the scrutiny of the police who stayed on.
The injured woman, Deve, who was witness to what actually transpired, narrated the incident at the encounter site for us. “Sukhi, Somri and I had gone to collect firewood when we saw several boot marks. We were discussing this when a posse of security men came towards us. We shouted that we were unarmed and were not “Naxalis” but they paid no heed and opened fire.” Sukhi was hit in the chest; Deve was shot near the groin and the third bullet flew over the head of Somri. Unhurt, Somri ran towards the village. Deve lost consciousness after a while.
According to the villagers, the police had earlier accused the women of being Maoists but when they realized the women were unarmed they claimed the firing was done in self-defence. They further alleged that they were pursuing men who were running away, and that Sukhi died in the cross firing. The villagers on the other hand are adamant that there was no encounter and Sukhi’s death was a targeted killing.
The SP of Sukma, Jeetendra Shukla took recourse to the cross firing explanation but was soon transferred for a reason unrelated to this incident. It is not known if the police is conducting an inquiry. D S Meravi, the newly appointed SP of Sukma, refused to give us a statement saying that he was not in charge when the incident took place.
The politics of relief
Compensation to the tune of Rs. five lakh has been paid to Sukhi’s husband and Rs. one lakh to Kalmu. Deva has been promised a job. According to the villagers, the police station at Dornapal is providing tins of infant milk powder for their young child.
Shrugging off the question of whether he wants to file a complaint or press for an inquiry Deva said, “Kya report… joh ho gaya soh ho gaya..”
His response was indicative of the challenges Adivasis in Bastar face in accessing justice. Traditionally disinclined to approach courts for civil disputes, they prefer to settle matters at the community level. In criminal cases their interface with the police has been one of intimidation and fear. Most approach police thanas and camps only to inquire after members of families or community who have been picked up and illegally detained, or arrested and carted away to jail.
The villagers spoke of how Podiyam Rama and Madkam Unga had been detained on the day of the firing and released later. Currently there are six men from the village lodged in Dantewada and Sukhma jails for a little over a year, under the charge of being Maoists or having links with Maoists.
The villagers say their pada has been labelled by the police as “Naxali.”
Under trials in over-crowded jails
A 2012 study showed Chhatisgarh jails to be notoriously over crowded with under-trials labelled as Maoists; an overwhelming majority of them being Adivasis. With consistent denial of access to judiciary and state institutions, several Adivasis languish in jails far-away from their homes for years and sometimes decades. Family members are seldom able to visit, and unscrupulous lawyers demand large sums without bothering to tell them that release will take time.
It is then understandable that villagers show little inclination to file a case against the very forces that have perpetrated violence on them, especially when the investigators are perpetrators.
Multiple affiliations and desires
In the past, the villagers of Godelgudda have also been charged of having links with the Maoists. To say the least, it is a reflection of existing realities in a conflict zone, where Maoist insurgency and the State’s counter-insurgency approaches overlap with each other. In such territories, Adivasis adopt different ways of negotiating their lives, between the two entities. In her book on Bastar, The Burning Forest, Nandini Sundar addresses this as the “moral complexity of multiple affiliations and desires.”
Several vestiges of this complexity are seen in Godalgudda, which falls under Karrar panchayat. An anganwadi worker comes and gives inoculations to the children. The shell of a school building appears damaged, and was probably blasted during the days of the Salwa Judum by the Maoists; as schools were often used to shelter security personnel. Rations are picked up from Pollampali but there is no electricity and the villagers have never voted before. We also noticed a small solar panel for a fan and an activist later said, “They would probably need to seek the Maoists’ nod for that.”
Now, both Merawi and D M Awasthi, newly appointed DGP of Chhatisgarh and special director general for anti-naxal operations, have spoken of training police personnel for heightened sensitivity in dealing with Adivasis and curbing arrests by distinguishing between unarmed civilians and Maoists.
Through its public discourse, the newly elected Congress government too has stressed upon the holistic development of Adivasi regions, with measures specific to their culture. However, it remains to be seen whether this change in political power will ensure long awaited justice and peace for the Adivasis of Bastar.
Freny Manecksha is an independent journalist from Mumbai, India. She is interested in human rights and gender based issues. Her first book ‘Behold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children’ was published by Rupa Publications in 2017.