Sodi Nande’s brother was executed by the Maoists, supposedly for being a police informer. Her husband was killed by the police, allegedly for being a Maoist operative who had a hand in his brother-in-law’s murder.

Nande lives in Tadmetla, a village of some 250 households in Bastar’s Sukma, deep inside Chhattisgarh’s Adivasi heartland that has long been the epicentre of the Indian state’s war on Maoist rebels and where, as a consequence, violence, death and injustice have become enmeshed in everyday life.

Tadmetla is synonymous with the bloodiest Maoist attack ever on the Indian security forces that left 76 Central Reserve Police Force personnel dead in April 2010. That attack set off a chain of events that would scar Tadmetla forever, and destroy Nande’s family.

A year after the ambush, in March 2011, dozens of homes were burned down in Tadmetla and neighbouring Morpalli and Timmapuram. Nande’s was one of them.

The police pointed to the Maoists but the villagers squarely blamed the security forces. The arson sparked public protests, compelling the state’s government to order a judicial inquiry by a retired judge, TP Sharma, whose report was tabled in the assembly in March 2022.

Sharma gave a clean chit to the security forces, even though a 2016 interim report submitted to the Supreme Court by the CBI, which is investigating the attack separately, had prima facie indicted the police.

While the CBI inquiry, monitored by the Supreme Court, was still going on, Bhupesh Baghel’s Congress regime accepted Sharma’s report and announced a compensation package of Rs 5 crore for 244 families, or about Rs 2 lakh per household – 154 in Tadmetla, 51 in Timmapuram, 39 in Morpalli – who had lost their homes in the attack.

The urgency with which Baghel’s government acted on Sharma’s report was in stark contrast with how it had handled Justice VK Agarwal commission’s reports on similar incidents of violence in Sarkeguda and Edesmeta in 2013. Those reports had been tabled in the state assembly in December 2019 and September 2021 respectively and, unlike Sharma’s report, they indicted the security forces. The Congress regime chose to ignore them.

In the case of Sharma’s report, the state issued the order for distribution of the compensation money within two months. The money, it declared, was for “victims of Naxal violence and arson”.

As Chhattisgarh was due for election in a few months – it will be held early next month – local elected representatives were reportedly pressured to pay out the money quickly. This required, in many cases, opening bank accounts and obtaining documentation like Aadhaar cards on the fly. A situation ripe for corruption.

This is where Nande’s family entered the picture.

Sodi Nande and Sodi Kosa’s home in Tadmetla. Credit: Malini Subramaniam

The executions

On June 22, several villagers who asked not to be identified said, the Maoists summoned Nande’s brother, Kawasi Sukka, a teaching assistant in Tadmetla, to their hideout in the forests.

Six days later, they called a jan adalat, or a people’s court, which requires the attendance of at least a member from each family in the area. Summons to a jan adalat cannot be ignored as the Maoists have immense sway in the region – through fear or popular support for their cause or a mix of both – even though there is a security forces camp every five kilometres or so.

The court came to order and the Maoists stood up Sukka, along with Madvi Ganga, the deputy sarpanch of Tadmetla who had been held four days before Sukka. The two of them, the Maoists would claim in an unsigned statement later that same day, had helped the security force kill an innocent villager named Madvi Bhima in 2021 and then scuttled mass protests against his extrajudicial murder. For rendering this service to the police, the statement added, they had each received Rs 20,000. Moreover, they had taken their cut from the compensation paid to victims of the 2011 arson. Sukka and Ganga had admitted to their crimes, the Maoists added.

The assembly had to decide their punishment and the majority asked for the death penalty, ignoring the pleas of their wives and children and the villagers of Tadmetla. “Us taraf ka palda bhari tha,” said Madvi Umesh, a relative of Nande, explaining that there were more people from outside Tadmetla and they prevailed.

The disappearance

Nande, 26, was still mourning her brother when her husband disappeared on September 4. Sodi Kosa, 35, farmed, drove a tractor and worked a rice mill to provide for his wife and three children and his aunt’s family. He had left that morning with Rava Deva, 39, who ran a small shop in the village to augment his income from farming. Sodi Kosa was headed to Timmapuram, nine km away, to collect money that his sister’s husband, Mana Muchaki, owed him. Rava Deva had to purchase supplies for his shop at Chintalnar. They were travelling on foot, through the forests that separate settlements in the area.

Neither had returned by nightfall but their families were not alarmed. It had rained heavily in the evening, making it difficult to walk the forest paths, and the families assumed that they had stayed with some relative in one of the nearby villages. Sodi Kosa did not have a phone. Rava Deva did carry one but since connectivity is poor in the area his family could not get through to him.

The next afternoon, having still not heard from her husband, Soni Deva, 40, started searching for phone numbers of their relatives to try and get through to him. That is when, at around 4 pm, a villager named Kawasi Hidma came looking for her. Hidma showed Soni Deva a police press release that he had received on his phone from a relative in Andhra Pradesh.

The statement, dated September 5, announced that the police’s District Reserve Guard and CRPF’s 223rd battalion had killed two Maoists in a gunfight in the forest between Tadmetla and Duled that morning. There was a picture of the slain men’s bodies, each wrapped in a polythene sheet with the face visible. Soni Deva needed only to take a glance: it was her husband and Sodi Kosa.

Madvi Ganga's family's in Tadmetla. Credit: Malini Subramaniam

Staged encounter?

The police claimed that the security forces were alerted to the presence of a dozen Maoists in the forest and they promptly set out to track them down. They made contact at 6 am and engaged them in a gunfight. Afterwards, they found the corpses of two men who were identified as Rava Deva and Sodi “Deva”, both from Tadmetla. They also found a rifle, pistol, torch, first aid kit and wires. The picture in the statement showed the recovered materials laid out alongside two sets of neatly folded uniforms – all looked clean as did the dead bodies and their polythene wrapping. Not a spot of mud anywhere even though it had poured the previous night.

Their families countered that Sodi Kosa and Rava Deva had no association with the Maoists and that they had been killed in a staged encounter. When Scroll met them in their village on September 19, Nande and Soni Deva each fished out a plastic folder and emptied the contents on to a cot: a modest pile of Aadhaar and rations cards, bank passbooks, a cheque book, sale deed for a tractor, purchase receipt for a motorbike, a driving licence, and a PAN card. A lifetime of documentation to prove, the women said, that their husbands were ordinary people living ordinary lives.

About 7 km away at Mukram, Adivasi villagers had gathered from across Sukma and neighbouring Bijapur for an indefinite dharna to demand an investigation into the killing of Sodi Kosa and Rava Deva. There were several villagers from Duled, the village closest to the scene of the alleged encounter, who disputed the police’s story. The two men were killed in the evening on September 4 and not the next morning, they pointed out, because that was when they heard gunshots ring in the forest.

Kosa’s brother-in-law Mana Muchaki, whom he was visiting that day, told a reporter that the two men had reached his home in Timmapuram at around 10 am. They borrowed Muchaki’s motorbike as they needed to pick up fuel and supplies from Chintalnar on the way home.

In Chintalnar, 13 km from Timmapuram, several villagers reported that the two men bought fuel and supplies for Deva’s shop and were about to leave when they were accosted by a CRPF contingent and taken away to a camp nearby.

Manish Kunjam, a former Sukma legislator who is contesting the upcoming election, had lined up several public meetings that day. “As soon as I reached Chintagufa at around 10 in the morning on the 5th, I got a call from the SP asking me to return because there was an anti-Naxal operation underway,” he recalled, referring to the district’s police chief. Chintagufa is around 15 km from Tadmetla.

Kunjam abandoned his programme and returned to Sukma. He was soon fielding calls from his supporters in Elmagonda, Minpa and Tadmetla – three villages closest to the forest where Sodi Kosa and Rava Deva were supposedly killed in an encounter – asking why he had not arrived yet. When Kunjam mentioned the anti-Maoist operation that was supposedly underway, they were surprised. They had not seen any unusual security presence, they told him, or even heard gunfire. In the evening, Kunjam said, he learned that the encounter in which two Maoists were supposed to have been killed that day had actually been staged the previous evening.

Hasty cremation

At Tadmetla, meanwhile, as the rain poured, the streams swelled and the dark approached, the villagers found it impossible to leave for Sukma to collect the bodies of Sodi Kosa and Rava Deva. They left early the next morning, piling into a couple of tractors. They did not get to Sukma, however. They were stopped by the police at Chintagufa, about 14 km in their journey. It took some pleading with the Station House Officer for eight of the slain villager’s relatives, including their wives, to be allowed to proceed to Sukma, on three motorbikes.

At the Sukma police station, four of the relatives were held back and the rest, including Nande and Soni Deva, were taken to the town’s hospital. But not before SHO Rakesh Yadav had allegedly warned that they would receive the corpses only if they accepted that the slain men were Maoists. They refused.

Scroll contacted Yadav to ask about these accusations. He agreed to meet at the police station, but after making this correspondent wait for 45 minutes did not turn up.

“We were shown their faces for about five minutes,” Nande said. They were not shown the bodies fully, she added, so they could not assess the nature of the injuries. Nor were the families provided the postmortem reports.

When the families asked to bring the tractors held up at Chintagufa to take the corpses home, the police offered to drop them in Tadmetla the next day. The night the eight villagers would have to spend in the police station. They wanted to stay with their relatives in the town, but the police refused to entertain the idea. They were given food and locked in. “You are in our custody. You will not leave. If you try to leave and anything happens to you, we will not be responsible,” Umesh claimed the police told them. “You are safe inside the kotwali.”

They were woken up at around 3 am and told to get ready to leave, Umesh said. The women were taken in a police vehicle and the men were to follow on motorcycles. They reached Chintagufa at around 5 am and shifted the bodies onto a tractor. When they reached Tadmetla, Umesh recalled, they found the village surrounded by security forces. “Jahan bhi dekho force hi force,” he said.

The dead bodies were laid down at Sodi Kosa’s house and armed policemen went around collecting dry wood. The villagers pleaded with the police and the CRPF to let them perform their traditional Adivasi cremation rites first, Rava Deva’s brother, Rava Sona, said. But the police hurriedly assembled a pyre, poured diesel they had brought along and lit the match. “We do not allow our dead to depart in this manner,” Umesh said, shaking his head in indignation. “Aisa kabhi nahi hua.”

The security forces left by 4 pm and soon after photos of the partially burnt corpses appeared on social media. A video shot from a distance by a villager narrating how the police were forcibly cremating the two men started circulating the next morning.

Subhash Choubey, head of the police’s District Special Branch in Sukma, said they dutifully handed over the bodies to their families and helped the villagers conduct the cremation. Asked about the video, Choubey said it was a piece of propaganda made at the behest of the Maoists.

Kawasi Sukka's family. Credit: Malini Subramaniam

A family’s tragedy

Sukma’s police superintendent Kiran Chavan maintained that Sodi Kosa and Rava Deva were Maoist operatives who led regular lives but helped the rebels by carrying messages, doing reconnaissance, planting explosives and planning ambushes. It was not unusual for such operatives to have government identity cards, he added. Chavan disputed the allegation that the two men had been picked up by the security forces from Chintalnar and maintained that they were killed in a gunfight.

The superintendent of police went on to make a startling claim: Sodi Kosa, Nande’s husband, was responsible for her brother’s execution. He and Rava Deva, Chavan alleged, were wanted for the execution of Kawasi Sukka and Madvi Ganga as well as the murder of Kawasi Kosa, of Silger village, whose body was found in the forests of Minpa on August 31. Although the police claimed that Kawasi Kosa was executed by the Maoists, there was no press release from the rebels stating the reason for the killing, as is their practice.

Still, the police chief insisted that there was clinching evidence against Sodi Kosa and Rava Deva. He would not be specific, however.

If the police indeed had evidence against Sodi Kosa and Rava Deva, why did they not arrest them from their homes? Why wasn’t there even an arrest warrant for them? That would not have been possible, Chavan claimed, because as soon as the security forces approach an interior village, the men run away into the jungle and the womenfolk refuse to engage. “I am telling you, this is what happens,” he stressed.

Chavan promised to share details of the cases the police had supposedly filed against the two men. He never did.

The families of Kawasi Sukka and Madvi Ganga rejected the police’s claim that Sodi Kosa and Rava Deva were involved in the murder of the deputy sarpanch and teaching assistant. “How could Sodi Kosa agree to kill his own wife’s brother?” asked Umesh.

Nande, too, maintained her husband’s innocence. “Policemen who killed my husband should be put behind bars,” she said, suckling her infant son. What about the Maoists who executed her brother? “What can I say,” she said after a deep pause. Her head was bent and her eyes fixed on the muddy courtyard. “My brother was killed after a jan adalat. People were asked what should be done... whereas the police just picked my husband and killed him. They declared him a Maoist which is not true at all.”

Her fellow villagers continue to sit on protest in Mukram demanding action against the forces they claim murdered Sodi Kosa and Rava Deva in a staged encounter. “We will continue the protest until we hear from the authorities,” said Umesh.

A magisterial inquiry ordered by the state is underway.