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'Stop counter-insurgency in Bastar': 150 killed in six months amidst sweeping activists' arrests

Counterview Desk 

Addressing media, senior activists associated with the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) have demanded that the state agencies should stop "indiscriminate killings in Bastar". 
Addressed by Hidme Makam (PUCL member and activist from Bastar), Rinchin (feminist & secretary PUCL Chhattisgarh), Sanjay Parikh (senior counsel, Supreme Court), TS Ahuja (General Secretary, PUCL Delhi), Kavita Srivastava (PUCL National President) and Soni Sori (vice president PUCL Chhattisgarh), the activists demanded, the state should immediately ensure that unchecked violations by the state relating to the right to life and liberty are stopped.
Seeking the release  of all tribal activists and innocent villagers arrested in the last few years, including Sunita Pottam, Surju Tekam, and other Moolwasi Bahao Manch activists, PUCL insisted, FIRs should be  lodged and police investigation should be undertaken against the false cases filed against all Tribals including activists.
Also demanding FIRs against all the encounters, in a statement distributed to the Delhi media, it sought a judicial commission, headed by a Supreme Court judge, to enquire into all the encounters, even as wanting the state to cease all hostilities and create conditions for peace and security talks with the local population, Adivasi samaj and the Communist Party of India (Maoist).

Text: 

People’s Union of Civil Liberties would like to bring to your notice the alarming fact of the brazen killings by security forces of more than 150 people in Bastar over the past 6 months in counter insurgency operations. We also are concerned at the indiscriminate arrests of activists in particular 26 year old Suneeta Pottam, a young Tribal activist associated with the PUCL,  and Moolvasi Bachao Manch senior  activist Surju Tekam and others who are raising their voice against the unchecked human rights violation in Bastar.
It should be known that Sunita Pottam as a minor, had filed a PIL along with another activist in the Supreme Court of India (SC) on the extra judicial killings that took place in Bastar, in 2017. She also went up to the National Human Rights Commission with similar complaints in 2022, along with the false cases that were filed against her. She also exposed through fact findings the sexual violence that took place in Bijapur in 2016.
While the state agencies claim that all those killed in these incidents are armed Maoists who have been killed during active hostilities, independent probe by state units of PUCL, journalists and other independent individuals have clearly established that many of the deceased were ordinary villagers, engaged in routine rural activities such as collection of tendu leaves, or mahua flowers in the forests. Some of them have been definitively identified as young people, minors.   It has also come to light that in many operations, even the “uniformed Maoists” could have been taken captive and were posing no threats to security forces; yet, they were unilaterally fired upon.  Despite these grave allegations of heinous crimes being committed by security forces, the state has not ordered any independent probe, nor made any inquiry into the complaints of the villagers. Indeed, the only response from the union Home Minister, Amit Shah, during his trips to Chhattisgarh, during the recent elections and the State Chief Minister has been that of fulsome praise for the security forces, and unbridled exuberance at their “success”, even as it comes at the cost of deaths of scores of their own citizens.[1]
While each and every encounter involving a fatality deserves to be independently investigated as to the use of excessive force by security forces, some of the incidents have clearly raised uncomfortable questions.  These include: 

Extra judicial killings

  • The death of a six-month old infant in Mudvendi (Bijapur district) on 1st January this year in what the police claim is cross firing during an encounter. However, the villager eyewitnesses have claimed that there was no encounter and this death was the result of a trigger-happy armed paramilitary commando, who fired the shot at the infant’s mother in broad daylight.[2] 
  • This tragedy was further compounded, when villagers gathering to protest this infant’s death were shot at in Bellam Nendra and 3 were killed in the shooting on 20th January, including 2 minors.[3] 
  • The identification of 3 people killed between Bhomra Hurtarai villages in Koyelibeda (District Kanker) on Feb 25th as Maoists has also been strongly contested by their family members from Marda village in Koyelibeda and Peravi village in Antagarh, who have produced their Aadhar cards, Bank passbooks, ration cards, and claimed they were ordinary villagers who had gone to the forest on a 2 day trip to collect ropes in preparation for the tendu patta season.[4] 
  • The encounter in Korcholi (Bijapur district) on 2nd April, during which 13 people were killed at the spot and 1 died later, has also been discredited as a fake encounter.  In this case, villagers told reporters that the deceased included a young woman, Kamli Kunjam, who was deaf and dumb, and who was forced at gunpoint to come out on the road; and Chaitu Pottam, a father of six.[5]
  • 10 May  killing of  12 people in Pidiya : fact finding conducted by the state unit of PUCL into the recent incident at village Pidiya in Bijapur that took place of on 10th of May, 2024, in which 12 people were killed by the security forces, confirmed the findings of other reporters and journalists that all the deceased were villagers who had gone to the forests to collect tendu leaves.  Ten of the deceased lived in the nearby villages of Pidiya and Itavar and the remaining 2 had come as guests who may have been connected to the banned organization.  The villagers ran in sheer fear as the security forces came to the forests, and were chased by them over long distances, and literally hunted down and killed. Six villagers were injured in the shooting and between 50-100 were rounded up and taken into custody by the police. While many were released, some of the detainees were subsequently arrested in unrelated cases.[6]

Incidents of aerial  bombing   

  • 12th Of May in village Bogda (Ambujmad region)  two children aged 11 and 12 were killed while playing with an undetonated RPG that had got buried in the mud. The police reported it as children being killed by a Naxal IED blast. In the past too PUCL Chhattisgarh, journalists and villagers and social activists have brought up the Issue of the use of aerial weapons and bombing in Bastar. It has been denied but there is clear evidence that this is happening in this region. This is a clear violation of the law. In 2022 PUCL Chhattisgarh had lodged a complaint with the NHRC in this regard. But the security forces were given a clean chit by the NHRC saying that such an incident had not taken place, by relying on the police version.
  • On 24 May several incidents took place in the remote villages of the Abhujmad  region. Where many young women had been picked in villages Bodega and  Rekavaiya . 40 people were rounded up and shown to have surrendered.  7 girls, many of whom are underage have been arrested and sent to jail.  One young woman was put into a uniform and then shown as a surrendered Maoist. She is at present lodged in jagdalpur jail.
  • 10 people have been killed in Rekaviya , the police have termed all  of them as Naxals , but the villagers claim that  4 were villagers and not Naxals .
  • Also, in the case of what the police claim as encounters are actually cold-blooded murders of unarmed people that they could arrest, but killed.

The crack down on democratic protest and arrest of activists

The Moolwasi Bachao manch, an active youth organisation, which came into existence in 2022, after the Silger firing in Bastar, which killed 3 people of the village, who were peacefully protesting the setting up a police camp in their village.  And have been organising peaceful democratic protests. organising democratic protest. Senior Adivasi activist like Surju Tekam Sarvadivasi and more than 10 activists of mulnivasi manch – Sunita Pottam, Ram Singh Kadti, Munna lal Oyam, Mangesh Oyam, Gajendra Madi, Joga kardti, Sankar korram, Kamlesh kursam, Lakma Kurram have been arrested detained and harassed.  (Sunita Pottam letter to the NHRC and PUCL Chhattisgarh Press Release.)
Aamdani area (Neco Jaiswal iron ore mines).  They have been charged with participating in arson against a Jio Cell tower, and charged with sections 147, 148, 149 and 435 of IPC and section 10, 13, 38(2) and 39(2) of the UAPA. Jagnu Kawde is quite well-known, he is also a member of BAMCEF and is an office holder in the Adivasi Samaj as well.
The FIR names 22 people in all, and complaints kept coming in yesterday of young men being picked up all across the districts of Kondagaon and Narayanpur. One of the people named in the FIR is another young well-known activist - Rubjee Salaam, who is the district president of BKU and had organized the visit of Rakesh Tikait to the Madhonar andolan (against mining and road) in Narayanpur last year. He is also enrolled in LLB in Kanker and had organized a delegation to visit the MLA on the day of the incident to demand a better price for tendu pattas.
Narayanpur is one of the seven districts of Bastar, and it is here that the famed Abujhmad is located. It is a heavily militarized area and is currently seeing a lot of "counterinsurgency" operations, including encounters and arrests.  Many of the young people who were organizing the peaceful, anti-militarization, anti-mining mass protests last year have been picked up. This includes Lakhmu Korram of the Madh Bachao Andolan, Guddu Salaam of the Irakbhatti andolan and Mahadev Netam of the Madhonar Andolan.
In incidents such as the above, it is clear that many of the deceased are ordinary, unarmed villagers, killed as bounty by security forces desperate to score “successes” in the fight against Maoists. Even where the deceased have been uniformed Maoists, there have been questions whether they were indeed posing a live threat to the security forces, or were they killed in cold blood after they had surrendered and had been successfully disarmed.  Such questions can only be answered by an independent judicial enquiry commission, where the villagers would also be free to lead evidence about the identities of the deceased and the circumstances surrounding their killings.   
What is alarming is that instead of trying to build trust in the citizenry by holding independent probes into these incidents, the Chhattisgarh government has reacted by arresting one of the foremost activists from Bijapur, a young woman called Suneeta Pottam, on 3rd of June.  Suneeta Pottam had protested the spate of extra judicial killings of villagers in Kadenar, Palnar, Korcholi, Andri and Pedda Karma in Bijapur in 2016 by gathering evidence that the deceased were ordinary villagers shot in cold blood, and filing a Public Interest Litigation on this before the Chhattisgarh High Court, seeking an independent Special Investigation Team to inquire into these[7].  Eventually, this case was transferred to the Supreme Court and tagged with another case, Nandini Sundar and Ors v State of Chhattisgarh, better known as the Salwa Judum case, where it is still pending[8].
PUCL is of the firm belief that the peace in Bastar can only be established if justice also prevails.  Endless military action and the wanton killings of villagers will only succeed in establishing the silence and peace of the cemetery, nothing more.  For a just and lasting peace, the government has to look beyond military action, and win the trust and faith of its people by establishing inquiry commissions to establish the truth of what happened during these so-called “encounters.”  The government needs to actively establish an atmosphere of trust which is conducive to dialogue, without insisting on a unilateral ceasefire from the Maoists.  Any dialogue needs to include all stakeholders – representatives of the villagers, Adivasi society and the Maoists.  Trying to contain discontent and strife by building a dense network of military camps and populating it with battalions of armed personnel will only create conditions of hostile occupation, which will always be detrimental to long lasting peace and security.

We demand that: 

  • Immediately, ensure that unchecked violations by the state relating to the right to life and liberty are stopped NOW!
  • Release all Tribal activists and innocent villagers arrested in the last few years, including Sunita Pottam, Surju Tekam, and other Moolwasi Bahao Manch activists at the earliest. FIRs be lodged and Police investigation be undertaken against the false cases filed against all Tribals including activists.
  • FIRs be lodged against all the encounters listed above. This should be done urgently so that the rule of law may prevail.
  • Institute a judicial commission, headed by a Supreme Court judge, enquiring into all the encounters listed above.
  • Cease all hostilities and create conditions for peace and security talks with the local population, Adivasi samaj and the Communist Party of India (Maoist).
  • Stopping the targeting of democratic rights activists and lift all restrictions on Democratic movements including of the anti-mining movement, and people be allowed to express their dissent publicly including against Government policy and decisions.   

References: 

[1] https://www.businesstoday.in/india/story/home-minister-amit-shah-congratulates-security-forces-after-they-gun-down-29-maoists-in-chhattisgarhs-kanker-425857-2024-04-17, https://theprint.in/india/12-maoists-killed-in-bijapur-encounter-chhattisgarh-cm-congratulates-security-forces/2079464/ 
[2] https://tribe.article-14.com/post/baby-2-teens-3-men-die-in-january-as-bastar-s-anti-maoist-war-intensifies-families-accuse-police-they-blame-maoists-65c05f5bd0d1c
[3] Ibid, https://you     tu.be/8Hj_2xXESXQ?si=TT_ew3jA2zvuhmoD
[4] https://www.deccanherald.com/india/chhattisgarh/3-men-killed-in-fake-encounter-not-naxalites-claim-kin-chhattisgarh-police-denies-2911723, https://youtu.be/iyW3WIpOu8U?si=JZXukOQMqySBGGwe
[5] https://behanbox.com/2024/04/18/those-killed-include-innocents-say-adivasis-of-recent-anti-naxal-operation-in-bastar/
[6] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/10-villagers-shot-tribal-activists-claim-fake-encounter-in-chhattisgarhs-pidiya-village/articleshow/110475915.cms,  https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/pucl-team-rebuts-police-on-bijapur-encounter-says-it-was-extra-judicial-killing-101716378531136.html
[7] WP(PIL) 82/2016 Suneeta Pottam & Ors v State of Chhattisgarh & Ors, transferred to the Supreme Court vide order dated 01.08.2017 in TC(C) 578/2017
[8] TP (C) 64/2018 Suneeta Pottam & Ors v State of Chhattisgarh & Ors

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