The cot she slept on, the plates on which she ate, the clothes she wore, the bags she carried when she went to the weekly market, the corn she harvested, the oil she used, the bangles she wore.
All the meagre belongings of 23-year-old Madkam Hidme were offered at her grave outside Gompad village in southern Chhattisgarh.
In the village, her disconsolate mother Madkam Lakshmi alleged her daughter had been dragged away from their home by security personnel on June 13.
The next day, the police sent back her corpse. “A stark nude body wrapped in plastic,” Lakshmi said.
The body was mutilated, she went on, controlling her voice from breaking. The left hand looked broken and the wrist was placed on the body. Hidme’s teeth were broken. There were cuts on her nose, ears and chest.
While Hidme’s mother saw the cuts on her daughter’s body as mutilations, it is possible they had been made in the course of a postmortem.
There appeared to be two wounds – one on the forehead, a little above Hidme’s left eye, and another somewhere in the centre of the body, Lakshmi pointed.
The official version
Late night on June 13, officials at the police headquarters of Sukma, the district where Gompad lies, issued a press statement offering their version on Hidme’s death:
“The District Reserve Guard (DRG) and Special Task Force (STF) of Konta police station that left on a search patrol engaged in a fierce gun battle with the Naxalites in the forests of Gompad and Gorkha. The DRG and STF fought the Naxalites bravely who managed to disappear into the forests unable to withstand the fierce fighting....
“The police later recovered the body of a uniformed woman identified as Madkam Hidme, member of Platoon No. 8 Kistaram Area. The police also recovered a ‘bharmar’ (country-made gun) next to the body… Superintendent of police, Sukma, Mr Elesela reached the spot to congratulate and motivate the fighting jawans. The police suspect many more Naxalites to have been injured and killed and a search for their bodies was on.....”
The police released a photo that showed the body of Hidme splayed on the ground. She was wearing a crisp, ironed Maoist uniform. The outsized pants had been rolled up neatly around the ankles. For many who saw the image, it did not look like that of a Maoist who had gone down fighting. There were no visible holes in the uniform that the bullets would presumably have made.
Convinced that her daughter had been raped and tortured before being murdered, Lakshmi petitioned the Chhattisgarh High Court at Bilaspur on June 20. Taking a favourable view, the High Court issued an order the next day for Hidme’s body to be “exhumed in the presence of the petitioner and other family members”. An advocate could be present at the exhumation if desired by the petitioner, the court said.
The court also ordered a fresh postmortem by a three-member committee led by the head of the forensic department at the government-run Maharani Hospital in Jagdalpur, the divisional headquarters of Bastar region. A videographed tape along with detailed report determining the cause of death is to be submitted before the court on June 27.
The police superintendent of Sukma, IK Eleselya, expressed his inability to discuss the case in great detail given that it was sub-judice. He maintained that the security forces had engaged in a 45-minutes long encounter with the Maoists in the forests of Gompad on June 13. Declining to disclose the time of the encounter, he said it had resulted in the death of Madkam Hidme. He claimed Hidme featured in the police records as a member of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in Kishtaram area. He said a postmortem had been conducted in Sukma before Hidme's body was handed to the family.
Responding to Hidme's parents allegations that she had been raped and murdered, he said, "I respect their sentiments and await the conclusion of the process of a re-postmortem for the matter to be decided by the court."
What the villagers alleged
A team of Scroll reporters visited Gompad village on June 19 after walking 20 kms. Several villagers had gathered at Hidme’s house. Her parents Madkam Kosa and Lakshmi were away – they had travelled to Raipur to address a press conference. Other members of Hidme’s family and the villagers described what had happened on June 13. Subsequently, Scroll met Hidme’s parents in Dantewada. This account is pieced together based on all the testimonies.
On the morning of June 13, Hidme was resting at home to recover from a bout of illness, they said. Her mother was pounding rice, while the rest of the family had gone to work, some to plough the family’s fields, and others to gather torra, the fruit of the Mahua tree.
Around 8 am, a large group of uniformed and armed security personnel barged into the house. By then, several people in the village had been alerted to the presence of security forces from the nearby Gorkha camp, about eight kms from the village. The camp houses a company of the Central Reserve Police Force, which patrols the area, often in joint operations with Chhattisgarh police.
As is the usual practice in villages that lie in Maoist-dominated areas, the young men escaped into neighbouring villages or into the forests. Hidme and her mother were among those who had not managed to escape.
After barging into their mud house, the security personnel dragged Hidme out. Her mother Lakshmi screamed at them to let her daughter alone. Hidme began to wail and held her mother’s waist as she was being dragged out. She was slapped a couple of times, people said. Her mother was beaten with a stick till she fell unconscious.
Three women from the neighbourhood, Bhoome, Linge and Unge, tried to intervene, pleading that they leave the girl alone. The security men shoved, pushed and beat up the women, threatening them with guns to not to follow them.
A little while later, Lakshmi regained consciousness. Many security personnel were still around, looting the homes of the villagers, taking away their axes, bows and arrows, coins, hens, eating the mutton cooked as part of a wedding feast.
Along with a group of women, Lakshmi tried to follow the group of men who had taken away her daughter but they could not be traced.
The search for Hidme
In the afternoon, the village head of Gompad, Soyam Dharma, led about 50 women and men to Gorkha camp, eight kms away, pleading with the security personnel to release Lakshmi’s daughter. The men at the Gorkha camp feigned ignorance and asked them to check in Konta, which is 20 kms away. Since it would be impossible to get there before sunset, the villagers from Gompad stayed in Gorkha.
Early next morning, on the way to Konta, they ran into the panchayat secretary who had been summoned by the police with a message: they had the body of a woman from Gompad and they wanted him to help them identify her.
Fearing this could be her daughter, Lakshmi was stricken with grief. The long hours of walk the previous day and the trauma she had gone through had drained her physically and emotionally. She could not walk further.
After an agonising wait, around 4 pm, the body arrived in an auto accompanied by a policeman. It was wrapped in a tarpaulin sheet. Just the sight of the bare toes sticking out of the plastic cover was enough for Lakshmi to know it was her daughter's corpse.
With the auto that had brought the body refusing to travel to Gompad, the villagers carried back Hidme’s body for the rest of the 15 kms, reaching home in the early hours of June 15.
It was only after the daylight broke that they removed the cover and saw the cuts on Hidme's body. The villagers then contacted Soni Sori, the activist and leader of the Aam Aadmi Party. She advised them to bury the decomposing body until a petition could be filed seeking a postmortem of the body.
Lakshmi feels her struggle has partially paid with the High Court order. “Nothing can bring my daughter back to life,” she said, fighting her tears. But she feels the court will vindicate her claims that her daughter Hidme was brutally raped, tortured and murdered, demolishing the police version of an encounter. If she is able to get justice for her daughter, that will to some extent let her move on in life, she said.
The case in the court
While many feel vindicated by the court orders, activist Himanshu Kumar remains sceptical. Kumar ran an NGO called Vanvasi Chetna Ashram in Dantewada until he was forced to leave in 2010 after he protested against Salwa Judum, a civil milita supported by the state.
He recalled another case of alleged encounter killings that took place in Singaram village in January 2009. Nearly 13 bodies were exhumed and a postmortem was conducted. The reports were submitted but the files are still lying somewhere in the court. Seven years from now, people are still waiting for justice, he said.
However, if people read about encounter deaths or the arrests of Adivasis and pause to consider whether the claims made by the police are actually genuine, then the outrage has served at least some purpose, Kumar added.
Activist and leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, Soni Sori, shared Kumar’s scepticism. She and her party members were barred from travelling to Gompad. They spent two-and-half days in Konta, where a mob attacked them, calling them Maoist supporters. The police did not take any steps to quell the mob and the sub-divisional magistrate of Konta urged them to return.
Sori felt that the police and the government would try their best to subvert justice in the case.
The unanswered questions
As the body was reportedly exhumed for post-mortem on Saturday, large questions loomed: Will the postmortem reveal that Hidme did not die in an encounter but was murdered? Will it prove whether Hidme was raped? Was she tortured before she succumbed to death?
What the postmortem will certainly not be able to prove is whether Hidme was a Maoist.
On their part, through a poster pinned on the trees in the forest surrounding Gompad, the Maoists have declared that Hidme was an ordinary Adivasi woman and not one of their cadres.
Her mother claimed Hidme was never a Maoist. The eldest of five daughters, Hidme was a cheerful and talkative girl, her friend Nagmani said, recollecting their times together.
The villagers, including her friends, were not able to cite any particular reason for such a brutal assault, but neither did they express much surprise.
Many in the village had been arrested, rounded up, detained and beaten merely on the suspicion of being Maoists, they said.
Twenty year-old Madkam Budra recounted how he was picked up from his field in December 2015, detained in Bhejji camp for five days, sent to Sukma thana for two months, before he was let off. In Bhejji, he was once hung upside down and beaten with a stick at his waist, he alleged. In Sukma, he was made to wash clothes of the jawans, wash utensils, sweep the camp until they decided to release him, he claimed.
Himanshu Kumar offered a possible reason for why Hidme had been targetted. She may have been mistakenly identified for one of the 12 petitioners who filed a criminal writ petition in the Gompad massacre of 2009, he speculated.
In October 2009, 16 men, women and children – nine from Gompad and seven others from the neighbouring villages of Velpocha, Nalkathong, Bandarpadar – had been brutally attacked and murdered by Salwa Judum activists. The case had recently come up for hearing in the Supreme Court. “The state for reasons known well will want none of them to appear before the court on June 29,” said Kumar.
In Gompad, villagers said an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty has loomed in their village after the 2009 massacre. A young woman said she barely stepped out of the village. She was about eight when the carnage happened. She lost her mother, father and sister. Dark memories surfaced as she sat on a cot, staring at the empty space, narrating what she remembered.
Could the recent raid on the village be part of this long-running feud that had split the area's Adivasi community?
Hidme’s mother Lakshmi claimed she knew at least five of the men who had barged into her home on June 13. According to her, they were Podiam Judev, Madvi Erra, Madvi Raju, Kurram Santosh and Muddaraj.
Erra and Raju are from Gompad. The others were from nearby villages.
Muddiraj of Mosalmadgu village had been with the Judum since 2005.
Raju had run away with a girl the elders in the village did not approve of.
The other three were former members of the village-level Maoist political committee called the sangham and had surrendered to the police last year.
Lakshmi claimed that Santosh, while he was still with the sangham, had come to visit the family and had asked them to let Hidme join the Maoists. Lakshmi had refused, stating that she needed Hidme to help her at home.
She said she was shocked to find the men who worked with the Maoists were now part of the police force.
One of the key strategies deployed by Bastar police in its anti-Maoist operations has been the wooing of Maoist cadres. Many of them have surrendered to the police, attracted by jobs offered by the government. However, with few other jobs available, a large number of them have been placed in the District Reserve Group, a special unit made up of Adivasi constabulary. Drawn from the villages, these men are well versed with the terrain and language, as well as familiar with people who have been associated with the Maoist movement.
Activists fear the newly-recruited District Reserve Group men, keen to secure professional rewards, and eager to impress their seniors, target even those who had long given up their arms and association with the Maoists and were leading a quiet life as farmers in the villages.
This strategy might be working to the extent that it had ratched up the body count of so-called Maoists, while ensuring there are minimal casualties to the security forces.
But in the long-term, this strategy is nothing short of counter-productive, as it creates fresh resentments in the village, keeping a long-drawn conflict alive.