Abhishek Meena, Superintendent of Police (SP), had stated that 160 personnel conducted a search operation on the night of 31 July, after learning that Maoist leaders were holding recruitment meetings for the Jan militia.

The Jan militia are the support base for villages, under the Maoist Janatan Sarkar governance model. Functioning as village defence committees, they provide help in logistics but are, in general, not heavily armed. The security forces said they missed this recruitment meeting, but returned to the forest on 4 August and on the morning of 6 August they ‘chanced upon the Maoists’.

Villagers and eyewitnesses to the shooting told the fact-finding team an altogether different story. They said those villagers sheltering in the ladhi were quietly conversing among themselves. Some had gone for a wash when the security forces arrived and surrounded them.

Even though the villagers put their hands up to show they were unarmed, they were assaulted. First came beatings, then the firing.

Among the first to be killed was Soyam Chandra. His head was then bludgeoned with a shovel. He had shouted out aloud that he was the ward watch for the panchayat or village council, but it made no difference. His family members later produced his Aadhaar card to disprove the security forces’ claim that those killed were Maoists. Printed below the ‘Mera Aadhaar Mera Pehchan’ (in Devanagari script) insignia is his address shown as Gompad, Mehta.

Ration cards were also produced by the women to show that many killed were minors. Chandra was
among the first in the village to be documented under Aadhaar. In Kashmir, the burden of proof of identity falls on the local inhabitants, who must, at all times, have their crucial identity cards with them or risk being imprisoned or even shot. In Chhattisgarh, politics of identification is even more arbitrary.

When questioned by press persons why unarmed villagers who had Aadhaar cards could be shot as Maoists, the spokesperson for the security forces claimed that even Maoists are known to have acquired Aadhaar cards.

The cynical retort is an example of how the Indian State chooses to recognise identity and determine who or who is not a citizen entitled to rights under the Constitution. It is a chilling enactment of its power.

One of the survivors, Karti Sukka, said when the shooting began he started running, his twelve-year-old son Karti Aayta, following behind. Sukka jumped into a flowing rivulet when a bullet hit his leg since he feared the blood would leave a visible trail. Choosing to hide in the forest, he learnt of his
young son’s death only when he returned home. There were no considerations of age even when firing at a running boy.

Sukka’s son used to attend a Porta Cabin school in Konta, one of the bamboo and prefabricated creations set up as a state initiative to make education accessible in zones where schools had been destroyed by Maoists. Aayta was forced to drop out because of the sheer distance. His schoolbag, as a poignant testimony to his school days and aspirations for education, was draped across his grave.

Another minor, seventeen-year-old Muchaki Hidma, used to help look after his blind father, Muchaki Lakhma. When the team met the father he was being guided around the village by a younger son and wept inconsolably as he recalled the shooting. According to the villagers Muchaki did not die immediately; he was in grievous pain and begging for water before he succumbed.

Hearing the gunshots, the women had come running to the spot and security forces began to viciously beat them. Among them was a pregnant woman. Four villagers were taken away, including a woman named Budhri.

Two men were released but Deva and Budhri remain incarcerated. Deva, who was initially mistaken for another Maoist leader with the same name, is now accused of being a member of the party.

The villagers were also ordered to vacate their homes for a few days after this incident, on the pretext that fresh combing operations would begin and intense cross-firing with Maoists could pose a risk to them. When the Civil Liberties Committee’s fact-finding team arrived in Gompad, it came upon many
villagers returning to their homes from Durma.

Padmaja Shaw, who was part of this team, told me the sheer physical separation from the world as we know it and the spaces that these Adivasis occupy, made a profound impression on her. ‘There was no access road. We used a tractor for part of the distance on the slippery paths. There was no electricity. No kerosene lamps. No proper drinking water supply. People were placing pots on thatched roofs to catch the rainwater. They had to walk miles to procure a matchbox.’

Nothing of such precariousness is reflected in the media discourse. She found it horrifying that wild allegations were made that these marginalised villagers were Maoists hellbent on blowing up atomic plants or such like.

The saddest part, she felt, was they were not demanding any entitlements from the state. They were subsisting in their own way. It is the state that so violently intrudes into their lives, she added.

Akash Poyam told me, ‘This is a place where anyone can get shot at any time and no one will know. No one outside cares. It is numbing to think of the powers of the State even when there is no functioning. Most of these people have not voted in seventy-one years.’

For Soni the trip held painful memories of the unrelenting history of fake encounters and of her tiranga rally. A bid she had made to explore the connotations of the flag and citizenship, emotively and radically different from the one deployed in the politics of nationalism. The saddest moment, she said, came when Lakshmi, Madkam Hidme’s mother, returned the Indian flag she had given her some years ago, when her daughter became a victim of gunfiring.

‘Lakshmi told me that this flag cannot bring justice for Adivasis. “Le lo waapas (Take it back)” she said.’

In 2016, Soni undertook a padayatra from Dantewada, beginning on 9 August and culminating at Gompad on 15 August with a flag-hoisting. The story behind the hoisting of the national flag, for the first time, in this ‘door naxal prabhavit kshetr’ (Maoist-affected zone), as Gompad is described in officialese, is deeply moving.

The impetus for the padayatra was the brutal killing of twenty-three-year-old Madkam Hidme of Gompad and the manner in which the official narrative was played out, branding her a Maoist.

According to her village members, many of whom were witnesses, Madkam Hidme was threshing paddy when she was dragged away from her home on the morning of 13 June, 2016 by CRPF forces from the Gorkha camp.

An official statement the next day claimed that, following a fierce gun battle, a dead Maoist, identified as Madkam Hidme, a member of Platoon No. 8 Kistaram Area, had been found in the jungles between Gompad and the Gorkha camp.

The deeply distressed mother, Lakshmi, had trekked with the villagers to the CRPF camp to inquire after the whereabouts of her daughter. But when the news of the dead body came in she had no energy or spirit to proceed to Sukma. She waited whilst the others went to claim the body and bring it back in an autorickshaw.

Wrapped in the familiar black tarpaulin used by security forces to ferry corpses, Lakshmi identified the toes peeping out. When the tarpaulin was unwrapped she saw the stark nude body of her daughter, mutilated with a long cut across the abdomen, cuts on the nose, ears and chest; the left hand appeared broken at the wrist. It is possible that the post-mortem may have been the cause for some of the mutilations but no explanations were given for the rest.

It is as if the state agencies believe the Adivasi body is not even deserving of the basic standards of dignity in death. Post-mortems are performed in the crudest manner possible.

One of the most gut-wrenching comments on this indignity comes in an affidavit filed by a grieving woman, whose husband and son had both been killed in the gunning down of eight civilians during the Edesmeta encounter. Post-mortems had been carried out in the police station and bodies were handed back to the relatives in a horribly mutilated state.

Karam Sukki stated, ‘The bodies had been ripped from the chest to the abdomen. I asked, how can I take them back in this condition? I had brought thread for them to be sutured up but all they did was to tie them in gamchas and return them to us.’

In the case of Madkam Hidme, there were also startling differences in the way the visual images played out. Whilst Lakshmi got a mutilated and nude body wrapped in tarpaulin, the image released to newspapers, shows a body splayed on the ground, wearing a crisp ironed Maoist uniform and outsized pants, neatly rolled up near the ankle.

There were no holes in the clothing even though the body bore the marks of ten bullet injuries. It does not suggest a fierce fight before the Naxalites managed to disappear into the forests. The writ petition filed by the Human Rights Law Network states that Madkam Hidme is seen wearing bangles and sporting nail polish. Hardly combat gear of a platoon member.

The killing forced the anguished parents to step out of their isolated hamlet and to venture all the way to the Bilaspur High Court demanding a probe into her killing and possible rape.

They also addressed a press conference in Raipur. It was Lakshmi’s continual cry for justice that impelled Soni to start her tiranga yatra. ‘I saw it as a test. The state was insisting Madkam Hidme was a Maoist and her village was a Maoist zone, whilst her mother wanted justice and said she was an unarmed civilian. If I took a tiranga into the village would the villagers respect it? I also wanted this to be a test for a nation and its notions of citizenship and equality.

‘Lakshmi asked me what the flag meant. I said the jhanda was a symbol of azadi achieved after the huge struggle against the British and the identity of a new nation. Bharat. We were slaves and then we became free. The villagers then asked, if they were citizens of the country, why was there no aam azadi (freedom for the ordinary person?) They told me they would respect the flag since they belong to India but wondered why the state never accepted them.’

Flaming Forest, Wounded Valley: Stories From Bastar and Kashmir

Excerpted with permission from Flaming Forest, Wounded Valley: Stories From Bastar and Kashmir, Freny Manecksha, Speaking Tiger.