On Saturday, over 40 hours after the “biggest encounter” involving security forces and Maoists in Chhattisgarh, bodies of 19 alleged “hardcore Maoists and Jan Militia members” lay outside their huts in the three villages of Sarkeguda, Kottaguda and Rajpenta in Bijapur.
Villagers alleged no government official had spoken to them or visited their homes, and no autopsies had been carried out on the bodies.
Several bodies appeared to have been brutalised. This correspondent saw deep, hacking cuts, apparently made by axes, on some chests and foreheads. A senior CRPF officer rejected the possibility that the wounds might have been inflicted by security forces. “Our forces have never done such things and will never do this,” the officer said.
Bijapur superintendent of police Prashant Agarwal said, “Proper post mortem was conducted in Basaguda thana. A team of doctors visited the thana and a report will be prepared.”
Policemen at the thana — where the bodies were kept for about 12 hours before being handed to the families — were unable to say when the post mortem happened. No stitches or other tell-tale marks of an autopsy were visible on the bodies that this correspondent saw in the villages.
At Sarkeguda, the spot deep in the Dandakaranya jungles 520 km south of Raipur where the encounter happened, the stench was overpowering. A rotting pig lay nearby, a bullet in its jaw and two in the torso.
Late in the afternoon, one by one, the villagers began to cremate the bodies.
Yesterday, Home Minister P Chidambaram said three important Maoist leaders, Mahesh, Nagesh and Somulu, had been killed in the encounter.
There is no Mahesh in the official list of those killed. There are two Nageshes.
Kaka Nagesh, also called Rahul, was a 17-year-old student of Class 10. His aunt Kamla pointed out his disfigured body. “After shooting at him, the forces took up an axe,” she alleged.
The other Nagesh, Madkam Nagesh, was a 32-year-old professional dholak player who was called in to play during festivals, villagers said. He had two young children, and his wife Madkam Shammi is pregnant with their third child.
“When did you ever hear of a Maoist who plays the dholak? Naxali hota to dholak bajaane shaadi mein jaata?” Nagesh’s sister Sushila asked.
Irpa Somulu was a marginal farmer who often visited neighbouring Andhra Pradesh for work as a labourer. Somulu and Korsa Bijje (alias Bichham) are the only two people that the Chhattisgarh Police described as Naxals in their assessment sheet, even though they said “six (of those killed) were hardcore Naxals and other hardcore Jan Militia”.
Korsa Bijje was an 18-year-old orphan who lived with an uncle.
None of those killed in the encounter had any criminal record at Barsaguda police station, in whose jurisdiction the three villages fall. Policemen at the station said they knew nothing about their being Naxalites. SP Prashant Agarwal said, “They have cases in other thanas. Their record is being prepared.”
So, how were they established as Maoists?
Both ADG (Naxal) Ramniwas and CRPF IG (Ops) Pankaj Kumar Singh said villagers had identified the bodies in the morning at Basaguda thana and informed the police that they were Naxals. All the villagers with whom The Sunday Express spoke denied this.
“When did I say my father was a Naxal? To whom did I say this? When did anyone say this? On the contrary, we have repeatedly told the police we are not Naxals, and our relatives are not Naxals either,” said Mahesh Irpa, son of Irpa Dharmaiyya.
All the alleged “hardcore Maoists” seemed to have been living with their families in the three villages. The thana is virtually next door, and a large CRPF camp stands only three kilometres away. One of the deceased was a 12-year girl; five were boys aged around 18. The CoBRA team alleged faced “heavy firing” from them for three hours — but could recover only one bharmar (countrymade gun) along with the 19 bodies.
Some villagers suggested that the patrolling forces may have mistaken a routine village meeting at which two “uniformed boys” were present, to be a Maoist gathering.
“We were sitting together around 11 pm on Thursday when suddenly the forces surrounded us and began firing. I threw myself flat on the ground and was somehow not hit,” eyewitness Madkam Rama said. “Pehle goli chalaayi, fir unhone kulhaadi maari (they fired, and then hacked with axes),” he added.
Said Vella Ram, “Yes, there were two boys who were in uniform, but they were not Naxals. And there was certainly no firing by the villagers. Still, if they had any doubt, they should have questioned us instead of firing.”
While CRPF IG (Ops) Pankaj Kumar Singh yesterday conceded that “a few villagers could have been killed”, personnel in the area said it was unusual for villagers to meet that late in the night.
But villagers said they did so quite often.
A Maoist leader active in the area told The Sunday Express that none of those killed was a Naxal. “If they (security forces) killed 21 Naxals in one encounter, do you think we would not be able to kill at least some of them? Have they ever killed so many of us in one go?” asked Sandeep, who identified himself as the commander of the Basaguda Area Committee of the CPI (Maoist).