It is a night that Kamla Kaka will perhaps never forget. A mitanin (health care provider) trainer she had returned to her village in Bastar, Chhatisgarh, after a visit to Bijapur, some 52 km away where she had gone for a delivery case. “I had eaten my meal and was listening to songs when the loud burst of firing startled me. Many of us rushed out from our homes. We wondered why the forces had entered our village and were firing continually. It went on and on and later there were flare bombs that illuminated the area. A vehicle arrived later and picked up our dead but many of the armed personnel stayed on,” she told me when I met her earlier this year.
Among the dead were three relatives and her nephew Rahul Kaka, the 15-year-old-son of her father’s brother (chacha). “A class nine student he was so special to me,” she added.
According to her and others, the villagers of three hamlets_ Sarkeguda, Kottaguda and Rajpenta_ were fired upon on all sides during a meeting held late night to discuss preparations for Beejum Pandum (a ritual before the sowing of the fields) in an open ground or maidan.
The next day, she adds, Irpa Ramesh, a villager was brutally beaten and bludgeoned to death by the security forces. The forces took his body away to Basaguda police station. The villagers, many men and women, followed behind. It was at the police station that they learnt that a total of 17 people from the three hamlets, including six minors, had been killed in the firing by a combined team of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and police. Among the minors was a 12-year-old girl Saraswati Kaka.
The official narrative though was very different. Mainstream media and television on the intervening night of June 28 and 29, 2012, were stating there had been an encounter with Naxalites in which the security personnel had scored a major victory. One report said, “allegations of fake encounters notwithstanding, the gun battles mark a moment of triumph for the police in their battle of attrition against Maoists.”
Seven long years later the villagers stand vindicated. A single man Judicial Enquiry Commission by Justice V K Agarwal has held that “it has not been proved that the persons killed and injured in the incident other than Security Personnel were Naxals as there is no satisfactory evidence in that regard.” It adds that the firing was “unilateral” “conducted only by the CRPF/police.”
The six security personnel who were injured were those caught in “indiscriminate and directionless firing by the troops.”
More damningly the report concludes that the police investigation into this incident is manipulated and dishonest.
The report was tabled in the Chhatisgarh assembly on November 30 and there have been the expected political noises. The incident had occurred during the BJP government of Raman Singh but at the Centre there was home minister P Chidambaram who had also initially hailed the operation as a major victory.
Lost in the political din are some crucial questions and insights. The Sarkeguda Commission proceedings and hearings (some of which I personally attended over three years) is a prism through which one can glimpse issues of access to justice for India’s marginalised communities.
How and why do Adivasis seek justice? What are their expectations? How do they navigate unfamiliar procedures and the labyrinthine paths of judicial institutions? How do they fight when the state, media and vast swathes of population see them as uneducated and backward or then as suspect because they are perceived as support base for recruitment of Maoists? How can they assert their right as truth-tellers from a state that labelled, not just them, but all those who support them (lawyers, human rights activists, workers of various political parties, local journalists and others) as “dreaded Naxalites?” Or then the term, “Urban Naxals?” a phrase that has gained immense currency over the last year.
Displacement and resettlement
The story of Sarkeguda and its inhabitants, who dared to believe in justice, needs to be valorised also because they have been repeatedly victimised. This is a village that emptied out in 2008 when the Salwa Judum, a vigilantist counter insurgency operation that had sprung up in 2005, was at the peak of its savage repression of burning homes, looting and murder.
Says Kamla, “Our family were among the last to stay on but after the forces burnt houses and took three people away we shifted out to my elder sister’s village. Our studies were interrupted and way of life completely disrupted. It was Himanshu Kumar, a Gandhian activist who ran the Vanvasi Chetana Ashram, along with his wife Veena, who persuaded all the Adivasis to return in 2011 and helped them re settle.”
This action and others in helping the communities incurred the wrath of the state. His ashram was bulldozed and he was forced to flee Chhatisgarh. Hearteningly, reports have come in that Himanshu Kumar is making a visit to Sarkeguda in the wake of this report.
Kamla Kaka recalls how they returned with nothing, not even the hunds (utensils). “It was Himanshu Kumar who gave us grains, seedlings to plant and so on.”
Rita Kaka, who was also a witness in the Sarkeguda proceedings and whose brother was injured in the CRPF firing, recalled how her family had migrated to Cherla in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh during the Judum’s reign of terror and had worked for the chilly farmers.
Just as the villagers were picking up the threads of life, terror struck on the intervening night of June 28 and 29.
As advocate Yug M Chaudhry, the lead lawyer from Mumbai who appeared for the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG) that represented the villagers pro bono, stated in his final arguments, the story of Sarkeguda’s fight is significant because the villagers spoke in one voice.
The site of the firing, said the villagers, was open ground surrounded by houses (not the jungle as the security forces claimed.) and the reason for the meeting was Beej Pandum.
The Commission report though has said it is highly doubtful that the meeting was being held for arrangements of festivity for Beej Pandum.
During the meeting they found themselves surrounded by security forces who opened fire on all sides without warning. Some of the troops stayed on throughout the night. Next day Irpa Ramesh was cold-bloodedly bludgeoned and killed in a small space near his home. .
The security forces, in their version, claimed they had chanced upon a meeting of Naxalites who initiated the firing and security forces were forced to retaliate. This version has been refuted by the report that says the firing was unilateral.
Genesis of protests and demand for justice
During the Commission’s proceedings, some of the witnesses’ affidavits, including those of Rita Kaka and Kamla Kaka, were labelled as ones not to be relied upon by counsels for the CRPF, police and state administration because they had not “made any complaint in writing or otherwise to the local or district officer immediately after the incident and were therefore belated versions.”
But, the fact of the matter, is that from the very next day after the incident, the villagers including these outspoken women had protested vociferously and sought to put out their narrative.
“We were not allowed into the thana. We stayed outside the whole night waiting for the dead bodies and called up the local media. One of them was from Basaguda and knew we were villagers and not Naxalites as the national press had initially reported.”
The next day when the villagers carried home the dead bodies of their loved ones, some of the local media followed them for the final rites. On July 1 and 2, media from the national press began flocking to Sarkeguda, terming it a massacre and demonstrating that the villagers’ voices had indeed gone far.
Fact-finding teams also went into the village to ascertain who had been killed and what had happened. One was by the state Congress under the Adivasi leader Kawasi Lakhma. He disputed the official version and the one put out by Home Minister P Chidambaram at the Centre. Interestingly the Centre’s tribal affairs minister K C Deo, also struck a dissenting note with the official version of Naxalite attack.
Another team by the Communist Party of India was led by Bastar’s Adivasi leader Manish Kunjum. There was also a team led by Nandini Sundar, anthropologist and professor of sociology who has researched and written on Bastar, along with Kopa Kunjum and Jayprakash Rao Polsani and one by the Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisation.
What were the Adivasi expectations? What did they hope to achieve was a question I put to Kamla and also to Ratna Madkam, aged 26, whose minor brother Ramvilas was killed. Both Kamla Kaka’s nephew and Ratna Madkam’s brother were students who stayed in a Basaguda hostel and had come home for the holidays.
Besides the acknowledgment of the huge wrong done to them, they said, what they most wanted was insaaf. Justice. Their notions of justice hinged on the belief that the protests must culminate in an accountability whereby Adivasis collectively benefit. Har kissiko insaaf mille (All Adivasis will get justice.)
They explained in detail how they sought change in status quo and a halt to atrocities that is perpetrated on them for being Adivasis. No more fake encounters and killings or forced entry into villages. Or then rapes of the women and pillage.
Adivasis and engagement with courts
Shalini Gera, legal counsel for the Sarkeguda villagers and who worked with JagLag explains that Adivasis in Bastar’s rural areas generally do not access the justice system voluntarily. Unlike courts in other parts, the Dantewada court scarcely deals with cases of domestic violence or property disputes or theft. Adivasis don’t seem to recognize this judicial system at all and take recourse to their own mechanisms for dispute resolution. They only come to court when they have cases of Naxalites being foisted on their relatives and detentions. These are the huge numbers of faces one can see in court seeking legal services. The few times they have voluntarily sought justice from the state as illustrated by the Sarkeguda case is, when there has been mass heinous crime and a huge outrage of injustice. The smaller cases of being wrongfully detained, even for long periods, is something they choose not to bother about.
I realized that another remarkable feature of Adivasis, exemplified in the Sarkeguda struggle, is their perception of muawaza or compensation. They refuse to see it as an alternative to justice, as something by which their silence can be bought. As in the Edesmeta hearings, Adivasis have forcefully declared that they cannot “sell” their dead as if they were mere cattle.
Kamla Kaka told me that when they tried to complain initially to the SDM he refused to take a statement. Subsequently, when a week later, he appeared with free rations to appease the villagers he was shouted down. A video of the same has been circulated on the social media.
Faced by a barrage of protests, the Chhatisgarh government announced the setting up of the single member commission on July 11, 2012. But it did not provide any staff or office and it got functional only several months later.
In their determined bid to bring the nation’s attention to this grave injustice some of the villagers including Kamla Kaka went with CPI leader Manish Kunjum to Delhi and to meet also with chief minister Raman Singh in Raipur.
When the commission put up a notice saying it would accept affidavits by the villagers it posed a challenge since they were not acquainted with such legal procedures.
It was at this stage that Kamla Kaka and others approached Sudha Bhardwaj, the Chhatisgarh lawyer, trade unionist and human rights defender, currently in jail in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case.
It was her initiative in going to Bijapur that enabled some 35 affidavits to be filed. At one point the villagers, not aware of the need for identity cards, made the long journey to Bijapur without the necessary documents. The secretary refused them permission but Bharadwaj rang the judge explaining the matter. He told the secretary to let them file and suggested they bring the documents when they come to testify. Gera pointed out how such sensitivity on the part of the judge made it easier for them to become familiar with the system.
It was a little later that JagLAG stepped in to help facilitate the villagers and advocate Yug M Chaudhry of Mumbai acted as the lead lawyer pro bono.
For villagers trying to access justice there are many hurdles in Bastar. A lawyer practising there recalls that in Bijapur there are only two notaries and how on some occasions they claim to have run out of notarized tickets (probably out of fear of being part of the process of justice for aggrieved Adivasis). This means the villagers have to travel a distance of some 90 km, one and a half hours away by bus to Geedham to complete the notarization.
Language of intimidation, branding as Naxalite
The most daunting process has been the language of intimidation and branding the villagers and their lawyers as Naxalites. Often, instead of simply refuting facts, the counsels for the state, CRPF and police targeted the villagers accusing them of being Naxalites. Irpa Ganesh, one of the state witnesses and a surrendered Naxalite even claimed that Kamla Kaka was being tutored and receiving payment from Naxalites. The charge hurled at her of belated response was not only patently unwarranted, it also showed lack of understanding by the state.
A lawyer pointed out that the state which had announced the enquiry should have taken cognizance of the fact that the villagers’ protest had initiated it instead of insisting that the prescribed way to complain is only through filing a police complaint.
“It is a demand that is in many ways patently absurd since the complaint would have to be made to the very people who had perpetrated the crimes. How do you expect Adivasis to complain to police_ those very same persons who enter their village and round them up and harass them?”
Nikita Agarwal, one of the counsels for the villagers, said one of the most painful experiences during the hearings was to sit through the final arguments by counsel for state and CRPF and listen to him accusing Kamla Kaka and Rita Kaka, who had lost their kin in the incident of liaising with Naxalites. Both had come all the way to Bhopal where this hearing was held to show their commitment to justice.
She added that an accusation was hurled that Kamla Kaka had gone to Delhi to meet with political leaders accompanied by Manish Kunjum, a member of the Left. It appeared as if the counsel was determined to conflate official political parties like the CPI with Maoists!
Parijata Bharadwaj, another legal counsel for the villagers observed that what was indeed remarkable throughout the long proceedings was the united stance of the villagers for acknowledgment of truth. They never lost faith or interest.
“We were told in the beginning that no one will come to depose but more than 25 turned up. At one point the judge remarked that if everyone had the same statement it would not be necessary to record all of them. But the villagers were tenacious and did not want anyone to feel left out.”
Her most abiding memory of the proceedings, she says is of the petite figure of Irpa Ramesh’s wife declaring in her local language why she needed to testify. She said she was now a widow but her testimony would be in honour of her husband’s memory and to assert he was killed for no reason at all. Irpa Ramesh, it may be recalled was killed in cold blood the next morning after the firing.
“As counsels we get swept up in legalese but she was asserting truth in her very strong individualistic way.”
Another takeaway from the commission hearings for Bharadwaj was that the older generation who spoke in Gondi chose to narrate in detail and in long, elaborate style. They spoke not just of the incident but of the Salwa Judum’s terror tactics. Even when interrupted and cut off mid -way they were not rattled since they did not understand Hindi. They wanted to tell their stories.
Hearing a CRPF jawan’s testimony on the conditions under which they live, she said, was also a reflection on how militarization does not really benefit anyone. And, the Commission’s report shows how troops live cheek by jowl with people who they perceive as “dangerous.”
She added that the judge who was gentle and kind in hearing out the Adivasis thus displayed the understanding so necessary for a people who find such legal proceeding so alien.
Besides the villager tenacity and the facilitation of the legal process by so many counsels, it was lead lawyer Yug M Chaudhry whose cross examination broke down the version of security forces on what happened and circumstances under which they fired. This was through detailed cross examination of the CRPF commander _DIG S Elango and constable Dev Prakash. Through meticulous analysis of ballistics and forensic records and scrutiny of medical records of the security forces injured in the attack, several glaring discrepancies were revealed.
The judge stated in the report that the version of the security forces that they fired in response to initial fire from the members of the meeting “does not stand the test of scrutiny.”
The unilateral firing by the CRPF and police was possibly triggered by the report of the guide Krishna Kumar Khatri of some suspicious sounds at a distance. “There was sudden panic reaction and “consequent resorting to firing in panic reaction by security forces,” states the report.
Had parabombs or the flares that provide illumination in the the darkness been used earlier, the meeting would have dispersed and “indiscriminate and directionless firing” by security forces would have been avoided.
Yug M Chaudhry has hailed the report as a historic one and a stupendous effort by a judge who was ailing. “The state government tried to delay matters, possibly with a bid to frustrate the process. Our final arguments were over on March 24, 2017 but in a most unbecoming manner the state and security forces dragged proceedings on for more than a year after that on some pretext or another and we even had to ask for an opportunity to refresh the judge’s memory since so much time had elapsed. It is perhaps a reflection of a guilty mind since it is usually a guilty party that runs from the verdict. The prosecution attacked not just the villagers but also made personal remarks on us lawyers and journalists, who attended the hearing, calling them Maoist sympathisers.
“However the judge did a most fantastic job and, in a most unexpected way upheld the villagers’ version of truth as against the security forces who are generally held in high esteem.
This unprecedented report is a testament to the strength of Indian democracy. One should take heart that victory is still possible.”