Gompad. Konta Block. Sukma district. Deep in the jungles of Bastar lies this place that in officialese is known as “Naxal prabhavit kshetr” (Maoist-affected zone.) Its various hamlets fall under the Mehta panchayat, according to the Aadhaar cards given out some years ago, but there is very little else in the name of entitlements for the adivasi inhabitants. There is no electricity. According to one local journalist’s report even the sun hesitates in peeping through the forest canopy and at night the people are wary of using a kerosene lantern in case light attracts the attention of patrolling security forces. Fear lurks in the air.
One activist who had gone on a fact-finding trip during the monsoons told me she saw pots placed on the thatched roofs of the houses to collect drinking water. Even for a match box the people had to walk miles. The nearest roadhead Konta is at least 18 km away and access is difficult along the forest trails, especially in the rains. So why did some of these adivasis, many of them women, make the long journey to New Delhi in early August? What did they speak about at various gatherings including the People’s Tribunal, organized by various civil society organizations ? Were they asking for entitlements or something even more crucial to survival?
They were seeking justice, questioning the verdict of the highest court of the land on the massacres in which their people and those of Gachhanpalli and Belpocha were targeted on September 17 and October 1, 2009. Among them was teenager, Katam Suresh, whose fingers had been chopped when he was an a one- and a- half -year- old-child in his mother’s arms.
They are seeking a review on the verdict delivered on July 14, by the bench of Justices AM Khanwilkar and JB Pardiwala, who dismissed the petition filed by Gandhian activist Himanshu Kumar and 12 adivasis who were the “kith and kin” of the victims. The petition sought a CBI investigation into the killings of villagers allegedly by the Chhattisgarh police, Special Police Officers, para military forces and the Salwa Judum, a vigilante group sponsored by the state. The bench not only stated no case had been made out by the writ petitioners for any further investigation, it also imposed a fine of Rs 5 lakhs on Himanshu Kumar for making false charges. Further in response to an interlocutory application by the Union of India, the court stated the state of Chhattisgarh or then the Centre could initiate action it sought against the petitioners under Section 211 of the Indian Penal Code and file even for “criminal conspiracy.”
The verdict slammed what it termed were false narratives but some of the petitioners, contesting this, spoke out and deposed before a panel of retired judges at the People’s Tribunal held in Delhi on August 6.
They stated clearly that some of them had been abducted by the Chhattisgarh police in 2009 and during the illegal custody they had been threatened. Produced subsequently at the Tees Hazari court Delhi where statements were recorded, they stated they could not identify the killers. The Court concluded the evidence was false.
Himanshu Kumar has refused to pay the exemplary cost of Rs 5 lakhs imposed on him saying it would imply that he had indeed given out a fake narrative. I met him in Mumbai on the penultimate day of the deadline for payment and he provided a comprehensive background to the events in Bastar surrounding the killings, why the adivasis had turned to him in their access to justice and the challenges India’s most marginalized citizens face when it comes to securing justice, especially when the perpetrators are state agencies.
Kumar, whose parents were freedom fighters and who once ran the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram in Dantewada, said he had been working in Bastar amidst the adivasis since 1992.
“We had taken up activities related to Constitutional guarantees and entitlements of the people. Like the right to get nutritional food in anganwadis or children getting midday meals in school or then health care. We would try to ensure they get the due wages under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and would organize and facilitate meetings with the concerned officials.
“It was in 2005 that the multinationals in pursuit of capital began moving into hitherto unexplored territories. In Chhattisgarh it was with an eye for natural resources. A number of Memoranda of Understanding were drawn up but these were done without any regard for the laws of the land that stipulate that because it is adivasi area, which comes under the Fifth schedule, an Act known as PESA or Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act is applicable to protect the rights of adivasis. This means no land acquisition is possible without the gram sabha’s consent. This safeguard was flagrantly flouted.”
Kumar points how then chief minister Raman Singh and his son Abhishek Singh were accused of graft and Abhishek Singh’s name even figures in the Panama papers. Besides bypassing Constitutional laws, an armed operation for land grab was then set in motion. It came to be known as Salwa Judum, meaning Purification of the Hunt. The state claimed it was a self-initiated people’s movement against Naxalites but links with state agencies were obvious.
Kumar says five thousand or more adivasis were given guns, designated Special Police Officers, given an honorarium of Rs 1500 a month and told to go into the villages to ferret out Naxalites or those who could be termed as Naxalite sympathizers.
Even those without guns were given unofficial permission to use their knives, axes, sickles or whatever implements they had to inflict terrible violence. Granaries and standing crops were burnt , women’s gold ornaments looted forcibly from their person, rapes and savage murders took place. A man’s penis was chopped off. Another was stabbed in the stomach. Youths were caught and hauled away to jail. The operations began in Bhairamgarh, Bijapur district in May 2005 and next year in Sukma district.
“Since we were already working with the people we began taking up the affected cases of human rights violations.” Refuting the state’s charge that the writ petition he filed in the Supreme Court was with the purpose of derailing ongoing efforts against “Armed Left Wing Extremists” and was designed to “deprive dignity and credibility of the security forces”, Kumar points out it was at the behest of the National Legal Services Authority that his organization stepped in. They were asked to accompany judges to the legal aid camps to offer help since they understood the local dialects and helped with proceedings.
“It was at their urging that I told adivasis not to let their poverty and marginalized status be an obstacle in the pursuit of justice,” he added.
Another important development around this time was that, in response to a petition filed by Nandini Sundar, historian Ramachandra Guha and retired IAS officer EAS Sarma, against the Salwa Judum’s actions, the Supreme Court had issued an interim order directing the state to help rehabilitate the displaced adivasis. But since the state dragged its feet, Kumar and his team began the rehabilitation themselves with villagers of Nendra. Subsequently some 40 villages were resettled. Nendra’s villagers requested Kumar to live among them since they were still scared of reprisals by the Salwa Judum during farming activities. It was during this time that he and his coworkers began hearing accounts of terror unleashed by this militia and security forces.
Operation Green Hunt had also been launched. Then Union home minister P Chidambaram and the Raman Singh government of Chhattisgarh refused to make any official announcement of such an operation, but both were in agreement for intensifying the deployment of troops. Bastar had become one of the most militarized zones with an estimated ratio of armed security personnel to civilian being 1:19.
On January 8, 2009, 19 villagers of Singaram, including some women, were killed, and although it was claimed by the state that they were Maoists, the villagers alleged it was a fake encounter. The Congress party which was in the opposition staged a walkout in the assembly. The National Human Rights Commission too expressed doubts about the veracity of the police report. The case is still in the high court. It speaks much of the blurring of lines of electoral politics that despite this protest by the Congress when in opposition, the state counsel for the present Baghel Singh Congress government has done a U-turn. He has claimed in the court that the encounter was not fake and the police action was justified!
The Singaram encounter was followed by horrific violence at Gompad in which 16 adivasis were killed and young Katam Suresh, then an infant, lost his mother, his grandparents, his mausi (maternal aunt) and had his fingers chopped off. One of the eyewitnesses, named Lakshmi, who was also a petitioner recently recounted this grisly incident at a gathering in JNU.
She spoke of how in the early hours of September 17, 2009, when villagers of Gompad were still asleep, people armed with knives and swords came into the village, stabbing people, waving swords and slashing all those who could not flee. Many ran into the jungles in terror. Two were pursued and hunted down.
(In a terrifying replay of violence in 2016, Lakshmi was witness to her own daughter Madkam Hidme, being dragged away from the home by CRPF forces from a nearby security camp. Later the news was flashed that a dead Maoist woman had been found in the jungles and the naked mutilated dead body of her daughter, wrapped in tarpaulin was handed over to her. Lakshmi fought hard for justice. She accepted a tiranga from leading adivasi activist Soni Sori two months later as a symbol of the Constitutional rights of an adivasi with the hope of justice. But a magisterial probe refused to believe her account and that of the villagers. The probe declared Hidme had died as a Maoist in a gunbattle. When yet another fake encounter took place in 2018, an angry and disillusioned Lakshmi returned the flag. It had not brought justice, she said.)
Kumar explains how people from Gompad rushed to his team, then camping at Nendra, to tell them about the 2009 massacres. Human rights organizations were alerted and fact finding teams fanned out trying to collect narratives and testimonials. One of the victims and eye witness was Muchaki Sukdi of Nulkatong. She recently re affirmed the narrative at the NREGA Sangharsh morcha held in Jantar Mantar, Delhi.
The video depicts her speaking confidently and in a clear tone she states she approached Kumar after her husband had been attacked with a big stone and dragged away. That was the last she saw of him. She fled with her children. His body was never returned. After the writ petition was filed in Delhi asking for a CBI probe, the police abducted her and others in January 2010 and later brought them to the Tis Hazari court where her statement was recorded on February 15, 2010. She had stated that she could not recognize those who attacked her husband, because of the coercion. The court has now concluded the allegation of police being responsible is therefore false.
She challenges this court finding in the video recording and asks “Should we keep quiet and let Himanshu go to jail? What is his crime?”
In a double tragedy, Sukdi’s son, Muchaki Mukka, a minor was among the 18 killed in what was described as the biggest anti Naxal operation on August 4, 2018. The villagers said it was a patently fake encounter.
“Catch those who killed my husband, my son,” said anguished Sukdi.
Among the most important of witnesses was Sodi Sambo, petitioner number 13. On October 1, 2009, she was shot in the leg in Gompad by police and the Salwa Judum, at her neighbour’s home where police had dragged her. A bullet hit her leg whilst she was trying to shield the four children, gathered around her, two on either side. Her sister in- law Chhoti who came to her rescue was shot in the head and died.
Sodi’s leg wound and injury to the tibia continued to give her trouble and she sought help from Himanshu Kumar in Dantewada. He took her to Delhi to St Stephen’s hospital and she was also among those who spoke out at a large gathering of activists, lawyers and concerned citizens held in the Constitution Club. “The next day we went to the Human Rights Network and the petition for a CBI probe was filed in the Supreme Court on October 27, 2009.”
Sodi returned to Bastar but was told by the medical personnel of the hospital to return for follow up treatment since a rod had been placed in the leg. On January 2, 2010 she was in a bus bound for Raipur to set out for her trip to Delhi when police surrounded the bus and would not let it go ahead. The next day Himanshu Kumar tried to drive her to Raipur when the police stopped the car near Kanker and took Sodi away. They claimed Kumar had kidnapped her and they would file a case against him. That evening a worker came to warn Kumar that there had been talk about violent action against him and reprisals. When news of a raid at another person’s home came in Kumar realized there was no option but to flee. He left Bastar that night and did not return till another 10 years had passed.
Meanwhile it was the police who kept Sodi in their custody under the ruse that they needed a statement because she was making an accusation against the police. It was only at the intervention of the Supreme Court that she was taken to Delhi for her follow up treatment but no activist was allowed to meet her. She dropped out of public view until very recently.
Talking about the verdict and the surmise by the state that the complaints against security forces give rise to the “suspicion” that they have been “engineered by Naxals frontal organizations to derail the investigation”, Kumar points out that the charge of him being a Naxalite sympathizer had been made to the Supreme Court way back in 2010. The court had told the state it should stop using this bogey. Similarly in 2017 when his case was tagged with that of activist Soni Sori and both were accused of putting false cases against the security forces and of being Naxalite sympathizers, the court had refused to hear the pleas. But this time the court seems to have accepted it.
“This verdict is not just about me. By accepting the interlocutory application by the Union on perjury and okaying it, the court is given the nod for possible criminal action against all those who filed petitions asking for investigations against excesses by security forces. It shuts the door on adivasis seeking justice for human rights violations. What about the Constitutional guarantees on this right? It is as if a sword has been driven through and effectively killed it.”
A review petition against this verdict has been filed.
Freny Manecksha’s new book ‘Flaming Forest, Wounded Valley: Stories From Bastar and Kashmir’ is out now from Speaking Tiger.