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Seeking truth and reconciliation in Chhattisgarh

The Indian government claims it is slowly but surely winning the war against Maoist guerillas in India’s resource-rich forested regions, and has consistently dismissed widespread accusations of human rights violations as propaganda by Maoists or their supporters. It has also acted to pre-empt future accusations by jailing human rights activists and lawyers working in these areas. But as a recent report by a government-appointed inquiry commission shows, these accusations are credible and need to be addressed.

Seven-and-a-half years after 17 unarmed villagers, including six minors, were killed by security forces at Sarkeguda village in Chhattisgarh, a commission headed by Justice V.K. Agarwal, a retired judge of the Madhya Pradesh High Court, has established that the CRPF and police version of events was false, the official police enquiry into the deaths was manipulated, and that 15 of the villagers were killed at close quarters while fleeing in a ‘totally disproportionate and unwarranted use of force.” One man was killed in his home the next morning, while one succumbed to his injuries in hospital. Injuries to the forces were caused by friendly fire, a report by the commission said.

The judge discounted testimonies by both sides, and relied only on circumstantial evidence. The CRPF/police version was dismissed because the lawyers for the villagers painstakingly picked holes in their claims.

Villagers’ testimony

The villagers’ testimony was deemed by the defence lawyers to be belated. In fact, the circumstantial evidence corroborates everything the villagers said. The defence charge on delay is also completely unwarranted because the villagers spoke to the press, they met the Home Minister in Delhi and wrote a letter to the Supreme Court, all within days of the incident happening. That they did not file an FIR with the police in fact works against the state, showing their complete and justified lack of faith in the system. For one, the police was involved in the firing and, two, the government’s own affidavits in the Supreme Court in the ongoing Salwa Judum case have established that the police have never acted on complaints from villagers.

The only point where the judge differs from the villagers is in arguing that the meeting that the villagers were attending was not an innocuous one to prepare for a seed-sowing festival because it was held at night and some people with ‘criminal antecedents’ were present. But in an area where anyone can be arbitrarily accused and jailed, people with criminal antecedents are a dime a dozen. As far as the security forces are concerned, everybody is a “hostile”. Even after knowing that school-going children had been killed, DIG S. Elango’s affidavit claimed: “we could find that 16 hostiles had been killed.”

However, curiously, even after exposing the violations by security forces, the judge rewarded the perpetrators. He did not recommend any prosecutions, or compensation; only better training, better gadgets and better intelligence for the forces.

The Congress, when in Opposition in the State, had raised the issue of both the 2012 Sarkeguda massacre and the Tadmetla arson, murder and rape a year earlier, as well as the accompanying attack on Swami Agnivesh and Art of Living representatives. But immediately after coming to power in 2018, it promoted IG S.R.P. Kalluri, who an internal CBI report found was as culpable as the Special Police Officers (SPOs) who were charged with arson.

Human rights violations

The Congress may have appointed high-level committees to look into releasing adivasi prisoners as well as examine the cases of journalists harassed by the previous Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime, but there has been no progress on addressing the landscape of widespread human rights violations, deaths, rapes and arson caused by Salwa Judum and Operation Green Hunt, despite severe indictments by the National Human Rights Commission in 2008 as well as by the Supreme Court in 2011. On the contrary, the government erected a statue to Mahendra Karma, the Congress leader who worked closely with the BJP government in carrying out the Salwa Judum.

In an internal closure report on Tadmetla that the CBI hid from the Supreme Court, but which was subsequently leaked in 2018, the CBI pointed to the larger systemic issues of deliberate obfuscation by the security forces to ensure impunity, such as not keeping records of personnel on particular operations or details of ammunition used, apart from deliberately fudging evidence. Not surprisingly, there have been several more cases of fake encounters even after the Congress took power, the most recent being of two villagers in the Munga jungle on November 5.

The Supreme Court’s 2011 ban on the use of surrendered Naxalites in frontline counterinsurgency has also been wilfully ignored by both the BJP and Congress governments, and the Court, often so mindful of its dignity, has let this contempt pass without hearing for the last seven years. A ‘final hearing’ of the Salwa Judum case began in December 2018, but one year on, there have been no dates for hearing.

As usual, the BJP is trying to deflect the real issues raised by the Sarkeguda inquiry by claiming that the leak of the report before it reached the Assembly was a breach of privilege. It is silent, however, on the issues raised by the report — the callous killing of 17 innocent villagers under its watch.

The Congress can respond to the Sarkeguda report in two ways. Either it can continue the existing policy of counterinsurgency and impunity, which is the path preferred by the deep state. Or it can choose to fulfil the mandate of the people by seizing the historical opportunity to chart an entirely new path. The Congress should celebrate its first anniversary in power in Chhattisgarh by announcing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which would catalogue and compensate for all deaths, and prosecute those responsible. Action against security personnel in Sarkeguda must be the start, but must not be allowed to become the end.

Nandini Sundar is the author of ‘The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar’

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