The official version, as reported in the media, of the so-called encounters in the Gadchiroli region of Maharashtra on April 22 and 23 is that there was a "fierce encounter" with Maoists on April 22 in which, after a four-hour fight, an unspecified number of Maoists were killed. This was followed, says the official version, with more searches leading to another "encounter" the following day in which more Maoists were killed. This most "successful" ambush by the special force of the Maharashtra police, the C-60, along with the CRPF, has led to the elimination of three Maoist dalams. It is said that among those killed were 12 Maoist commanders who had a combined "bounty" of 86 lakh rupees on their head.
39 bodies have so far been found. Among the dead, at least 19 are women. According to a report, of the ten postmortems done, some deaths occurred due to "multi-organ failure due to bullet injuries and some due to drowning."
The official version raises many questions. If there was a fierce encounter, how is it that the casualties are all on one side? The number of arms displayed by the police as having been found on the Maoists is far fewer than the number of those killed. Does this not mean that most of those killed were unarmed? If indeed the fight went on for hours as claimed, how is it that so many bodies were found only a day later floating in the river Indravati, bodies of those reported to have died due to drowning? What about the reports that on the banks of the river, where the so-called encounter is reported to have taken place, lie the remains of food being cooked, of toothpaste, toothbrushes and pieces of soap? Is it not more likely, as reported in some sections of the media, that the intelligence received of the Maoist presence in the area enabled the security forces to track their movements; they were surrounded by security forces while they were cooking food or bathing; not given a chance to surrender and killed in cold blood?
What is the proof that all those killed were Maoists? A report by a Hindi news channel shot in collaboration with the personnel involved in the operation shows them walking in the forest to the place where the encounter is supposed to have taken place. However, according to this news report there was more than one place where the killings took place. Which were these places? There are reports that some of the Maoists had gone to attend a wedding in the area. Did one of the so-called encounters take place there involving not just Maoists but local people?
The questions have a greater significance when seen in the context of what happened in the tribal hamlet of Gattepalli in the same region. On April 21, the evening before the encounter, eight young people of this small village, five of them girls, left to attend a wedding in the neighbouring village of Kasansur. When they did not return the next day, their families filed a missing persons report with the police. Most of them were minors. Their names as reported by journalist Tameswar Sinha are: Mangesh Buklu Atram, Raso P Mandavi, Ankit Devi Gawde, Bujji Asendi, Irpa Mandavi, Mangesh Chundu Mandavi, Rasso Mandavi, Nusse Pedu Mandavi. Even though the police were aware of the killings, they did not inform the parents.
The Wire has published a most moving and detailed report by journalist Sukanya Shantha of the families involved. So far, one of the children missing has been identified as having been killed in the encounter, a young girl of sixteen, Raasu Chacko Madavi. Her sisters recognized her from the photographs of those killed released by the police. The other bodies have decomposed and are unrecognizable, so all the eight families have had to give their DNA to check whether there are any matches with those who were killed. It is almost certain that among the killed are the children of Gattepalli.
The two magisterial inquiries reportedly ordered will serve little purpose to get to the truth since it will have to inquire into the role of officers more senior in status. It is essential to have an independent probe, a time-bound judicial inquiry under a senior judge.
Such a demand is rooted also in opposition to the one-dimensional approach of successive governments at the centre to use extreme repression by security forces in all extremist affected areas in the name of eliminating Maoists, while actually inflicting untold damage to the lives and livelihoods of ordinary adivasis. In the fight between the heavily-armed security forces and the hit, kill and run tactics of mindless violence of the Maoists, the greatest casualties have been the adivasis. Caught in the vice-like grip of this pincer of violence, they are targeted by security forces as being supporters of the Maoists and called collaborators and attacked by the Maoists if they do not follow their orders.
Today, hundreds of adivasi youth are locked up in jails as undertrials on false charges of being a Maoist. The worst kind of state repression has been in Chhattisgarh under the BJP government. The human rights violations include physical torture, illegal detention, police custody without trial, looting of tribal homes, burning of houses and shamefully, the rape of tribal women. False cases have been foisted on intellectuals, including professors specializing in adivasi studies, who have visited the area and exposed the brutalities of the security forces. The Supreme Court had to intervene to prevent their arrests.
Another aspect of the present situation is that adivasi resistance against the pro-corporate policies of the BJP governments ruling almost all the mineral-rich states is intensifying. Democratic and mass-mobilization of adivasis in states like Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh are a strong and growing force. It is to break this unity in action of adivasis and their organizations, that the so-called anti-Maoist operations by the state become the cover to disrupt and suppress these movements.
This is not to condone the extremist violence of the Maoists. Most Left parties, certainly the CPI(M), have always condemned, opposed and fought back the destructive and sectarian violent politics of the Maoists who often target Left forces. Almost 200 CPI(M) cadre, including adivasi activists, have been killed by the Maoists, mainly in Bengal. The CPI(M) has been in the forefront of the ideological and political battle against Maoists and the destructive politics they represent, and succeeded politically in diminishing their base in Bengal where they claim their organization was formed. If they were resurrected in Bengal, it is because parties like the Trinamool Congress and its then coalition partners including the BJP used the Maoists in their united and unprincipled alliance to defeat the Left Front Government. In neighboring Jharkhand also there is ample evidence of how many of those parties who have ruled Jharkhand utilized the Maoists against their opponents.
There are examples from other states too of such mutually beneficial underhand deals between the Maoists and mainstream parties. But such inconvenient political truths get covered up and whitewashed in the drums of war sounded by operations like Green Hunt, Salva Judum, or the operation in Gadchiroli, named Operation Samadhan, where fake encounters masquerade as administrative action against Maoists.
In its important judgement in PUCL vs State of Maharashtra, the Supreme Court in September 2014 had laid down a 16-point set of guidelines to be followed "in the matters of investigating police encounters in the cases of death as the standard procedure for thorough, effective and independent investigation." The Maharashtra government is in clear contempt of court as it has not followed a single one of the requirements mandated by the Supreme Court.
This makes it all the more urgent to have a high-level judicial probe into the entire incident. Even as more shocking details emerge as to what actually happened, the families of Gattepalli mourn the deaths of their innocent children.