human rights

Extrajudicial killings: How two teenaged girls in Chhattisgarh are leading a fight for justice

Suneeta Pottam and Munni Pottam have filed a petition in the High Court highlighting cases of alleged staged encounters by security forces in the Bastar region.

Surrounded by violence, yet unfazed by it, two teenage girls in Chhattisgarh have taken up a battle of a new kind. Nineteen-year-old Suneeta Pottam and Munni Pottam, a year younger (not related), have made six attempts in the last four months to file police complaints against alleged extrajudicial killings by security forces in Bijapur district, which is part of the Bastar region. They have failed each time and, in the process, drawn unwanted attention to themselves. “The security men threatened us and asked us to stop our human rights activities,” said Suneeta Pottam.

Bastar has seen violence between the security forces and an extreme Left group, commonly referred to as Maoists, for about 35 years now. The Maoists have rejected state institutions, laws and policies, claiming they are unjust to the region's poor Adivasis. Amidst the conflict, the state has sought to encourage villagers to use the state machinery to redress their problems instead of supporting Maoist violence.

But as the struggle of these teenagers demonstrates, the state’s law enforcement machinery has repeatedly failed ordinary villagers in Bastar.

Realising they were making no headway with the police, the girls finally filed a public interest litigation in the Chhattisgarh High Court on September 16 in relation to several cases of alleged staged encounters in Bijapur between November 2015 and August 2016. They claimed that those killed were not Maoists but ordinary villagers.

Encounters and arrests

Korcholi village lies in Gangalur block of Bijapur district. It is about 40 km from the district headquarters, a town also called Bijapur. With the Bailadila hills on one side, the village is not easy to approach. As a result, the girls had little contact with the outside world until four months ago.

They cooked for their respective families and spent their days collecting forest produce such as mahua flowers (from which liquor is brewed) and tendu leaves (used to roll beedis) for sale in the market.

But in May, when a few human rights activists visited Korcholi, Suneeta Pottam saw that their concerns could finally get some attention. Sitting in the middle of a large circle of around 80 women, she translated the stories of the villagers from Gondi to Hindi for the activists.

Many of those activists were from a collective known as Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression. Since 2013, an increasing number of activists have made Bastar their home. Scholar Bela Bhatia, who lives in Parpa village near Bastar’s main commercial centre of Jagdalpur, has documented cases of sexual violence by security forces from far-flung villages in Bastar. Around the same time, two lawyers, Isha Khandelwal and Shalini Gera, moved to Jagadalpur to offer legal assistance to the poor free of charge. Along with women activists from the rest of the country and Aam Aadmi Party member Soni Sori, these women have made many trips to the villages in the jungles on fact-finding missions.

In December 2015, the Bastar police declared they wanted to rid the region of Maoists and announced Mission 2016. Since then, there has been a significant rise in arrests, alleged encounters and violence of all kinds. The police have also targeted journalists who are critical of the state machinery, activists and lawyers.

According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, so-called encounters of Maoists in Chhattisgarh have more than doubled since 2014 in the first eight months of 2016. Also, villagers in Korcholi and surrounding areas have noticed more frequent troop movement.

In the last six months, Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression has unearthed complaints of sexual violence, extrajudicial killing, loot, pillage and other forms of violence in five villages under the jurisdiction of Gangalur police station, which also covers Korcholi.

Mass movement

One of the cases is that of Sukku Kunjam. On November 26, 2015, the Bijapur police announced that a Maoist had been killed after an hour-long gunbattle close to Korcholi. However, they claimed that they did not know his identity and released a photograph of a man in plain clothes. What then makes the police claim he was a Maoist, asked the villagers. Later, Korcholi villagers recognised the dead man as Kunjam, from the neighbouring village of Itavar, who was killed in their village in plain view of other people.

In an affidavit to the Chhattisgarh High Court, Maynu Kunjam claimed her husband was killed in cold blood, unprovoked, while walking with a few villagers in Korcholi.

In May, Suneeta Pottam and Munni Pottam encouraged the villagers to go to the police with several cases. They hiked for three hours through hilly terrain to reach Gangalur village – which has a police station, a camp of the Central Reserve Police Force and another of its specialised unit, the Commando Battalion for Resolute Action or CoBRA. The activists who visited the area believe a large number of security personnel are stationed there to track the activities of civilians closely. Despite the heavy surveillance, the villagers switched to jeeps and tractors to navigate the motorable road from Gangalur to Bijapur town.

On May 7, the girls, along with 70 villagers, arrived at the Bijapur police station. But the police refused to file a First Information Report. Nitin Upadhyay, the officer in-charge, told them the cases brought forth were very old and that he needed to investigate the matter before lodging an FIR.

Most of the complaints are old for several reasons. The villages are home to Gondi-speaking Adivasis who live in relative isolation in areas without roads or telecommunication lines. The tough terrain keeps them confined to their villages, from where news rarely filters out.

The residents’ lack of knowledge of Hindi also makes them wary of legal institutions. Furthermore, the Maoists move around the surrounding forests and the security forces believe the villagers shelter and support them. This makes the police suspicious of them, according to the activists.

Ten days after the unsuccessful trip to Bijapur, half a dozen policemen arrived in Korcholi. But they were not there to investigate a matter. According to Suneeta Pottam, they beat up several residents, including her father, and looted a few houses. Some of the villagers got together and made another trip to the police station, this time to complain against the police harassment. This complaint, too, was rejected.

But the villagers were not disheartened. And the mass excursion to the police station in May proved to be a significant breakthrough. Three more cases of alleged extrajudicial killings have come to light since then, with the help of Suneeta Pottam and Munni Pottam.

Voice of the people 

One of the cases was from Andri Harrappara village under Gangalur police station. In June, a few residents from this village came to Korcholi looking for Suneeta Pottam and Munni Pottam. They wanted their help in filing an FIR. In these parts of the country, even failed attempts at lodging a complaint is an experience worth emulating.

They said the security forces had come to their village on February 16. Kuhdami Ganga was collecting siyadi leaves used for wedding decorations in the jungles nearby when he noticed the policemen. Afraid they would arrest him or open fire at him, he tried to run and was shot dead.

Three days later, the villagers heard gunfire again. Ten-year-old Sodhi Sannu, who was working in the tomato fields near his home, was not seen after that day. His mother, Sodhi Bhime, believed he was dead because repeated pleas to the police for information on him had gone unheard. She wanted help to file a case about her son’s disappearance. Both cases figured in the PIL filed by the girls in the High Court last month.

The Maoist violence in Bastar brought with it the now defunct Salwa Judum, a state-funded civil vigilante group to take on the rebels. In 2004, their atrocities forced Suneeta Pottam and Munni Pottam to discontinue their education because their families felt they would be safer at home than at the boarding school run by the Vivekanand Ashram that they attended. Suneeta Pottam was in Class 3 then and Munni Pottam in Class 1.

However, their school years were crucial as they learnt some alphabets in Hindi and understood the importance of literacy. Now, they can communicate in Hindi, although with some difficulty. Suneeta Pottam struggles to frame sentences, but manages to make herself understood. Munni Pottam needs some prodding but when she speaks, her sentences are short, crisp and effective. This ensures that both girls connect with their lawyer, Shalini Gera.

More importantly, they are the voice of their people, helping alleviate their sense of alienation towards legal institutions that function in Hindi rather than in the local languages they are comfortable in.

Villages rise

Another case the girls have taken up came from Kadenar village, also under Gangalur police station.

On May 21, the Bijapur police proudly announced that they had ‘neutralised’ the prime accused in the 2013 Jeeram Ghati massacre in Darbha valley where 27 people – including senior Congress leaders VC Shukla and Mahendra Karma – were killed.

“Armed Maoists who were around 20-25 in number opened indiscriminate fire on the troops from the front in the wee hours on 21/5/2016,” reads the CRPF ‘operational achievement’ document, detailing the anti-Maoist operation. "The attack was promptly retaliated. The exchange of fire that ensued lasted for nearly 15 minutes, after which the Maoists fled leaving behind two dead bodies of their comrades."

The dead were identified as Manoj Hapka and his wife, Tati Pande, of Kadenar.

On May 22, the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar reported that Hapka carried a reward of Rs 5 lakhs and Pande of Rs 1 lakh. It said the couple had been identified by surrendered Maoists.

Pande’s mother, Tati Bandi, and brother approached Suneeta Pottam and Munni Pottam to help lodge a case in what they claimed was a cold-blooded murder.

In an affidavit filed along with the PIL, Bandi said the couple was taken away by the forces in the evening while they were eating their dinner. She conceded the two had joined the Maoists for about six months, but that was five years ago. Bandi said they were not with the Maoists when the Jeeram Ghati massacre occurred. They had fallen in love and decided to settle in Kadenar as farmers and forest produce collectors. The photographs of their bodies taken by the police showed no trace of blood on their uniforms.

Tati Ramulu, Pande’s brother, claimed Hapka had gathered enough mahua flowers this season to afford two cows. He added hat Pande had been to Bijapur just a day before the alleged encounter to receive payment for the tendu leaves she had collected. “Hard-core” Maoists do not roam around freely in towns, the PIL stated.

Suneeta Pottam and Munni Pottam relayed the information to a few activists in Raipur and Delhi, but it wasn't enough to counter the innumerable media reports calling Hapka a “dreaded Maoist”.

Then in July, residents of Palnar village in Bijapur district approached the girls with another case.

On July 5, the police claimed, a team of the District Reserve Guard – an armed group of surrendered Maoists – had been patrolling the jungles of Cherpal, Kikler and Palnar when they encountered a group of Maoists and engaged them in an hour-long gunbattle that resulted in the death of one Maoist. They claimed the body was that of Chaituram, a member of the Jan Militia – a village-level militia that supports the Maoists.

However, the residents of Palnar claimed in their affidavit that the dead man was 25-year-old Seetu Hemla, who was picked up from the village by the security forces while ploughing his fields and later killed in cold blood.

Facing harassment

Suneeta Pottam and Munni Pottam have had to make sacrifices to carry on the work they are doing. Both of them usually travel to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana for a few months in the summer to process chillies. Chilli farms in Andhra Pradesh regularly hire labour from Bastar. This adds to the family income significantly. However, this year, they stayed behind to highlight the human rights violations in their region.

Along the way, they have faced harassment. On August 7, the girls were on their way to Dantewada district to join Aam Aadmi Party leader Soni Sori on her padyatra to protest sexual violence by security forces. Since the journey was a long one, they spent a night in Bijapur with an acquaintance. No sooner had they left town the following morning, the police arrived at the home of the acquaintance and inquired after them. “This is a common harassment technique,” said Shalini Gera of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group. “So that people are fearful of hosting them again.”

Suneeta Pottam said she had faced such police pressure before too. “Some plainclothesmen arrived in our village and announced that they were press reporters from Delhi,” she said. “They asked us if the forces had committed any atrocities against us. But we recognised them instantly and refused to talk to them while they were in disguise. We wanted them to file our complaints.”

Repeated phone calls to the superintendent of police in Bijapur, KL Dhruv, went unanswered. When called his office for a response to the allegations that the police had beaten up Suneeta Pottam’s father and harassed her acquaintance in Bijapur among others, they promised to call back but failed to do so.

Although perturbed, the girls are undeterred. They said they hoped their efforts are not in vain.

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