Encounter Raj: Indian Security Forces Are Killing Without Consequences

A family carries the body of a villager slain by Indian security forces. 17 villagers in Chhattisgarh were killed by Indian security forces in June 2012. (Photo: Aman Sethi)

Almost eight years ago in Chhattisgarh, I visited a village enshrouded in a milky haze of pyre-smoke.  Families made a long circuit of the town, attending each of seventeen funerals. Mourners gathered at the homes of victims, lit incense, and sang rhythmic songs of grief while corpses were carried for cremation or burial, according to the traditions of the family. The people of Kotteguda, the village in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region, built pyres, some dug graves, and sang out their grief in high, tremulous voices for those who perished. 

In one hut, a child pulled back the sheets on a cot piled with blankets to reveal the corpse of a boy; his face was bloated almost beyond recognition, a strip of cloth held his jaw shut, a solitary coin had been placed on his forehead. The corpse was of Kaka Nagesh, affectionately known as Rahul. He had been shot through the head and the neck, and his leg was lacerated by a sharp object. Rahul was 15 years old. 

On June 28 2012, Rahul was among the victims of what the Central Reserve Police Force and the Chhattisgarh police dubbed a major military success in their decades- long-war against the Communist Party of India (Maoist): 17 hardened guerilla had been killed in a daring night-time raid. P. Chidambaram, India’s home minister at the time, praised the security forces for their courage and skill. News reports spoke of how the troops had evaded a Maoist ambush, before turning the tables on the guerillas. Television channels beamed images of 6 injured troopers airlifted to a hospital in Raipur as proof of the authenticity of the government’s account.

But soon came photographs of corpses splayed out on a yellow-and-white tarpaulin. None of the seventeen victims looked like battle-hardened fighters, nor were they clad in the dark green garb favoured by the Maoists. Rahul was part of that gruesome tableaux: he was the boy clad in a blue school shirt. Beside him lay the body of a young girl, dressed in a white blouse and a floral print skirt.  Her name, her mother told me, was Kaka Saraswati. Saraswati was twelve years old.

Days later, Chidambaram said he was “deeply sorry” if any children had been killed in the encounter, but only an official probe could ascertain the truth of the events of that night in Bastar. 

Now eight years later, a judicial inquiry constituted by the Chhattisgarh government has finally stated what everyone has long known: There was no ambush that night. There is no evidence to suggest any of the 17 villagers killed in the encounter were Maoists. At least 6 of the dead had been shot through the head, 10 had been shot through the back — meaning security forces mowed down the panic-stricken villagers as they ran for their lives. One villager was killed in cold-blood the morning after the encounter. 

What of the CRPF soldiers injured in the raid? Turns out they were hit by friendly fire; accidently shot by fellow soldiers who couldn’t control their high-powered Kalashnikov and INSAS rifles.

And, because it bears repeating: Seven of the 17 killed were children.

Seven.

The family of 12 year old Kaka Saraswati sit by her corpse. Seventeen villagers were killed by Indian security forces in June 2012 in Chhattisgarh. (Photo: Aman Sethi)

Encounter After Encounter

India’s security forces take lives with terrifying regularity and little justification. Sometimes in Chhattisgarh, sometimes in Kashmir. Sometimes in Uttar Pradesh, sometimes in Telangana. Sometimes the dead are described as Maoists, sometimes as Pakistani infiltrators, sometimes as dreaded gangsters, and in Telangana as four men accused in a gruesome rape.  The rape accused in Telangana, it is worth noting, were in police custody when they were killed.

The killings are followed by a familiar drill: a bevy of cynical politicians and blood thirsty journalists praise the bravery of the forces; a Twitter chorus decrys the human-rights-wallas. Very occasionally, the respective state government orders an inquiry into the incident  — safe in the knowledge that it will take a decade before the results are out.

The results are out in Chhattisgarh: the Justice V.K. Agarwal report establishes that the state police and the CRPF killed seven children, killed ten innocent adults, and even injured six of their own troopers in an orgy of violence. 

If it wasn’t for the Indian Express, the contents of the report may never have seen the light of day. The report was submitted to the Chhattisgarh government on September 30 2019, but its contents were kept from the public until the Express got hold of it. 

Deputy Inspector General S. Elango, the CRPF officer who planned and led the botched operation led a charmed life in the eight years it took for the probe. 

In 2017, he was valourised as the “Iron Man of the CRPF” despite his indisputable incompetence in planning and executing a botched operation. Earlier this year, he was spotted at the opening ceremony of the Indian Premier League, accepting a cheque for CRPF martyrs from M.S. Dhoni, captain of the Chennai Super Kings. 

 Meanwhile the lawyers who fought for justice have been persecuted. Sudha Bhardwaj has been in jail for a year and a half  on charges of being an “urban Naxal”; Shalini Gera is among the Indian lawyers and activists targeted, most likely by the Indian government, through the intrusive Pegasus surveillance software. The Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, a collective of fearless women lawyers including Gera, who fought this case, have been hounded out of Bastar by the Chhattisgarh police.

Indian security forces kill, and leave it to the Indian people to first praise, then justify, then forget, and ultimately resign themselves to the killings. 

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Uniformed Killers

Rahul, the 15 year old child killed by DIG Elango’s troops, was universally regarded as the most promising boy in Kotteguda: polite to his elders, devoted to his studies, and well-set to become the sort of success story — an adivasi eschewing the Maoist movement and going to college — that would lend credence to the India state’s stated aim of absorbing the adivasi community into the national conversation. 

In 2005 Kotteguda was destroyed by the mobs of the Salva Judum, now judicially established as state-directed pogrom in Bastar. Rahul’s family fled to the neighbouring village of Pushbaka, while he was sent to Avapalli to continue his studies. For five years, Rahul and his family lived in fear of being hunted down by the Judum. In those years, Rahul often said he wanted to drop out of school but his aunt, Kaka Kamala, pushed him to stay on. In 2010 his family finally returned to their ancestral village while Rahul moved to a school in Basaguda.

Three years later, at his funeral in 2012, his family members spoke of him with deep affection and profound sorrow.

“He always said I will become a big officer—I don’t want to become some school teacher,” his aunt Kamala said. 

“I wanted Rahul to become an engineer,” Ritesh Kumar Sawragiri, his teacher at Basaguda, the closest town to Kotteguda, told me when I visited his school in 2012. “I dreamt of becoming an engineer myself but couldn’t, so I wanted him to try.” 

In January 2012, a few months before Rahul was killed, Sawragiri had taken him and his fellow students for a three-day trip to the port city of Vishakapatnam. “The children loved it. They saw the sea for the first time; they saw ships out in the distance.” 

When Rahul came back, Kamala said, he decided he wanted to study somewhere else, possibly in a bigger town. But his school was shut, and they couldn’t get his paperwork sorted out in time.  “I told him, ‘Pass this year and I will send you somewhere outside.’ ”

Then in June that year, Kamala said, Rahul was in the village for a few days and decided to attend a village meeting where adivasis from the three adjacent villages gathered to set a date for this year’s sowing. The meeting began at about half past eight. It was cloudy, but moonlit. “The village elders were talking about how it was almost July, and we hadn’t started sowing,” Madkam Ganpat, a resident of Rajapetta who attended the meeting, said. 

That night, the Justice Agarwal report establishes, 196 CRPF troopers were out on a mission to raid a neighbouring village called Silger, when they chanced upon a gathering of adivasis sitting on an open ground at about 10:30 PM at night. 

Only DIG Elango, who was leading the mission, can explain just why they decided to open fire without even trying to ascertain if the men, women and children sitting in a clearing not far from their homes, were actually Maoist fighters. 

“Suddenly, at about half past ten at night, the police opened fire.” Kamala said, “I heard the firing from my hut. It was so intense that I felt like the bullets were raining down on me.”

In his testimony, Elango claims the troops began shooting only after they first came under fire. But Elango’s conduct that night and testimony thereafter, Justice Agarwal has observed, “does not stand the test of scrutiny”. The police investigations into the incident, Justice Agarwal observes in his report, “show clear manipulation”. To put it bluntly, Elango lied.

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The family of a villager killed by Indian security forces sit by his corpse. Seventeen villagers were killed by Indian security forces in June 2012 in Chhattisgarh. (Photo: Aman Sethi)

Where Is The Justice?

When dawn broke over Kotteguda that fateful day after the encounter, Rahul’s family went looking for him.

“We went to the police station to look at the bodies,” Kaka Kamala told me, fighting back tears, “I kept asking, ‘who died, who didn’t?’ But everyone kept crying. Then I saw the body and I knew. Rahul is dead.” 

Rahul’s mother, Kaka Lakshmi, had sat quietly by Kamala. Now she rose to speak, and Kamala translated.

“She says she worked hard as a labourer during the Salwa Judum,” she said. “She went to Andhra Pradesh and picked chilies in the fields. She made liquor and sold it in the market; she picked mahua flowers so the children could be educated. If Rahul had died in the Judum during the firing, I could understand, or if they killed him in the forests, thinking he was a Maoist. But this happened in the village. How could the police kill him?”

Eight years later, when the Justice Agarwal report finally saww the light of day, Kamala called me. I asked her how she had spent the past eight years.

“It has been hard,” she said. “The police and CRPF kept saying I was speaking up only because I took money from the Maoists. But I stuck to my testimony.”

The truth was out now, Kamala said. “Now justice should be done.”

But will it?

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.