On the overcast morning of July 26, Rahula Nayak, a subsistence farmer in his 20s, joined a few hundred villagers, mostly Kond Adivasis, making their way to Gumudumaha, a village in mourning, nestled in the Eastern Ghats in south-central Odisha’s Kandhamal district. The crowds, most on foot, a few on bicycles and motorbikes or a rare tractor, were heading to a memorial meeting for five Gumudumaha residents who had been shot days ago on the outskirts of the village.
“We have come to cry for the dead,” said Keshamati Pradhan, a Kond woman leader from Raikia, over 40 kms away, who was among the crowds. "When one suffers, we all do."
On the night of Friday, July 8, returning to Gumudumaha in an autorickshaw after collecting NREGA wages at the block town of Baliguda nearly 45 kms away, the five – three women and a baby boy, among them – were killed when a 15-member team of the state’s anti-Maoist paramilitary force, the Special Operations Group, allegedly fired at the vehicle. Several other passengers were injured – for example, the bullet that killed the baby boy Jehad Gehej, also grazed the side of his mother Sangita. Another bullet hit his father Lota in the upper back, injuring him seriously.
The young couple and others who survived the shower of bullets have since narrated the terror of being fired upon, out of the blue, on a dark, rainy night.
Gumudumaha is 12 kilometres away from the nearest black-top road, National Highway 59. It is particularly hard to access in the monsoon due to the absence of a serviceable road – despite multiple public works signs announcing road construction under various government programmes along the stretch, and listing the lakhs of rupees spent on them.
We walked past villages, farms, a church and patches of forest, jumping over mud and slush on undulating tracks, crossing the site of the firing to arrive at Gumudumaha. “I felt I had to come today for the meeting," Rahula said. "How can we protect ourselves against these cold-blooded killings? The same thing happened that night [in Gumudumaha] that had happened with my parents.”
July 26, the day of the memorial in Gumudumaha, marked a year since Rahula’s parents Dhobeshwar and Bubudi Nayak had been shot dead in the nearby village of Madaguda. As they did on most Sunday evenings, the Nayaks set out on the evening of July 26, 2015, to seek a “network area”, a forested elevation in the village to speak on the mobile phone to Rahula, then away in Thrissur, Kerala, to work on a stone-breaking site. On the call, Rahula heard his father making a choking-like sound, and his mother scream before the line went dead. A villager called him later that night to say his parents had still not returned home.
Two days later, after protests and a road block by villagers, the police returned the couple’s bodies, saying an SOG team had recovered them after crossfire with "Left-wing extremists" or LWEs, as they sometimes refer to Maoists. Villagers alleged that a contingent of security forces who had crossed Madaguda on the evening of July 26 had killed the couple.
Faced with criticism over the deaths, the government conceded that Dhobeshwar and Bubudi were “innocent people”, not Maoists. But it never took the villagers’ or Rahula’s accounts seriously, nor did it conduct an independent investigation into how the deaths occurred. This February, an inquiry by the Odisha Police’s Human Rights Protection Cell reproduced the exact account put out by the SOG team, and exonerated them. It ended by saying “... it is possible that the deceased may have died due to bullet fired by LWE Activists”. With the help of lawyers and activists, Rahula is challenging this conclusion at the Odisha State Human Rights Commission.
According to Odisha State Human Rights Commission data released this February under the Right to Information Act, Dhobeshwar and Bubudi are among 85 people killed in police and security force encounters between 2011-'15. Several of these deaths are being examined by the Odisha State Human Rights Commission or the National Human Rights Commission. The latest to join the list of encounter fatalities, Gumudumaha’s dead have drawn attention like no other case.
Since the night of the firing, over 20 fact-finding teams have visited the village in as many days. They range from official bodies like the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes to Opposition politicians, including serving MPs and former union ministers of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, to civil rights groups from within and outside Odisha.
Faced with this growing outcry, the Odisha state government successively announced a magisterial inquiry, a judicial inquiry and an inquiry by the Revenue Divisional Commissioner, a senior civil servant. It has handed out cheques ranging from Rs 50,000 to Rs 7 lakhs to the injured and the bereaved, and enrolled children from these families in government residential schools. It is paying for the medical treatment of the injured in hospitals in the faraway towns of Berhampur and Cuttack. It has also handed appointment letters to bereaved family members for "cook-cum-attendant" contractual jobs with a monthly wage of Rs 7,460.
The deaths have opened the flow of development funds like never before. A few crore rupees have been allotted to build a black-top road from NH 59 to Gumudumaha, according to a senior district administration official. In the village, contractors and workers are setting up electric poles and wiring. “Agriculture, horticulture, medical staff...they all will come,” said another official visiting the village last week.
To deflect questions about how three women and an infant ended up dead in an anti-Maoist encounter, the government has transferred the criminal investigation from the block headquarter’s Baliguda police station to a seven-member team of the Odisha Police’s Human Rights Protection Cell, headed by Additional Director General of Police Mahendra Pratap, based in Cuttack. Though this team is entirely made up of serving Odisha police officers, who have essentially been given the task of investigating their own colleagues, the government is calling it a Special Investigation Team.
But despite all the special attention for the July 8 killings, many on the ground in Gumudumaha and beyond remain certain that no one will be held to account for the deaths of the villagers.
On July 14, nearly a week after the firing, the Kandhamal police reported that a First Information Report had been filed on the morning of July 9 in Baliguda police station, based on a statement by SOG Sergeant Nilakantha Kanhar. Kanhar’s statement provides a tidy account of what unfolded in the hours before and after the deadly firing in Gumudumaha.
Kanhar states that he and 14 team members reached Gumudumaha around 8 pm on July 8 for anti-Maoist operations, and “laid an ambush at a tactical place”. Around 9.30 pm, they noticed “movement of a suspected group of banned outfit of CPI (Maoist) at a height some distance away, who flashed torch lights and all of a sudden fired on us”. The SOG team, Kanhar says, warned them not to fire, but they continued firing. “When our life was in danger, and finding no other alternative, and to save our lives, we opened controlled and restrictive fire,” he says.
Kanhar went on to state that while the exchange of fire was proceeding, “all of a sudden, an autorickshaw with people inside came on the kucha road and got stuck in the wet mud.” On seeing it, he asked his team members to “stop firing and take tactical position to prevent any collateral damage and casualty”. The firing, reported Kanhar, “went on from the other side and kept increasing. We suspected some persons in the auto got injured as they were shouting for help.”
Kanhar added that a colleague of his also got injured. “Apprehending danger, we tactically retreated and came to safety...As there was apprehension of further attack, we came and informed about the incident at the police station. As we suspected injuries on the passengers in the auto, we requested to render necessary help after we came to know that some people have died in the incident.”
As per the record, Kanhar provided this account to the police station around 11 a.m. on July 9, over 12 hours after the villagers were fired upon. But the fact that the FIR had been filed came to light only on July 14, triggering much disbelief. The Times of India reported in a front-page story in its July 15 Bhubaneshwar edition, “The SOG FIR is widely suspected as an afterthought of police with date manipulated ostensibly to shield its blunder.” A senior state BJP leader Suresh Pujari called the FIR “a conspiracy to shield the truth”.
Besides the questions over its timing, the account provided by Kanhar and seconded by police officials is sharply at odds with what survivors of the firing continue to state, several of whom I spoke to, over three different days.
For example, Kanhar says there was crossfire between his team and suspected Maoists when suddenly, the auto came by, got stuck and was increasingly fired upon “by the other side”.
Multiple accounts of villager passengers, as well as the driver of the auto, tell a very different story. The driver, Johan Majhi, a baby-faced man in his mid-twenties, was still in great shock over the incident when we met late in July, and spoke in a measured manner. He said the auto had got stuck in the slush over a culvert on the outskirts of the village, as the group was returning from Baliguda. All the passengers alighted, he said. He and the men began putting stones over the mud so that the auto could be pushed out. “All this took us several minutes," he said. "There was no firing going on when our auto got stuck.”
This was corroborated by another passenger Bibi Mullick, who helped dislodge the auto from the mud. Mullick has lost his wife in the firing, and his elder brother is recovering from bullet injuries in a hospital in Cuttack.
One of the woman passengers, a slender woman in her 40s, Gadesi Digal, recalled that after alighting from the stuck auto, she and other women with children and infants walked up the incline on the road to wait at its head for the auto to be freed. “If there was firing going on, would anyone ever walk into such a situation?" she asked. "Would we not fear for our lives?” The account by the forces, she said, is “a complete lie”.
The villagers also challenge the SOG account that “the other side” fired on the auto. All the firing came from the left, they asserted. Corroborating this, all the bullet holes on the auto, now taken away by the police as part of the investigation, are on the left hand side. The right side of the dirt track on which the auto was coming up from is at a lower level, flat and with little foliage; the left is an incline with trees, where the SOG are said to have been positioned for the ambush.
When the passengers were re-entering the auto at the head of the road’s incline, Gadesi and others said, they suddenly found themselves hit by a volley of bullets from the left. Gadesi received a bullet in her right wrist before she could flee towards the village with several others, where residents spent the night in their homes in fear. Among them was Sangita, the mother of the infant, Gehej, who said, “I ran for my life, holding my bleeding child. When I reached home and placed him on the bed, he was dead.” Her husband, Lota, who was hit by a bullet on his back, spent the entire night bleeding, lying on his stomach on the floor of their mud home.
At day break, Gadesi and other villagers summed up the courage to return to the spot to look for their missing neighbours. A cloth tied around her bullet wound on her hand, she found her husband, Kukala among the four corpses of villagers around the auto, and broke down. There was heavy deployment, she said, and security forces prevented her from coming close to her husband’s body. Dulara, her son who tried to get close to his father’s body, said, “A jawan threatened me to stay away saying, ‘Your father has eaten a bullet, do you want to eat one too?’”
Several villagers said they saw forces picking up cartridges from the site of firing in the morning rain. Villagers wanted to take the dead and the injured to “medical”, but the forces had cordoned the only road leading out of the village. “No one can leave, nor can anyone come,” several recalled being told. Anguished and helpless, Gumudumaha’s villagers gathered around the spot and began crying for their dead.
Villagers and other eyewitnesses from outside such as journalists and residents of the surrounding area said that it was only much later in the morning, as the news of the killings spread, that crowds began to arrive, public pressure built up and security forces eased access. It was early afternoon by the time the seven injured, some with life-threatening bullet injuries, could begin the journey on bicycles and upturned cots towards the National Highway to eventually reach hospitals in Baliguda, Berhampur and Cuttack.
The account in the FIR raises several questions, said E N Rammohan, a former Director-General of the Border Security Force: "How did the jawans see suspected Maoists in the dark of the night? Why did they retreat while they were hearing cries from injured villagers? What is the evidence of cross-fire? What were they doing until the next morning?” Rammohan who has investigated combatant and civilian deaths in the state-Maoist conflict zone, in areas such as Bastar, dismissed the narrative in the FIR as “concocted rubbish".
Biswapriya Kanungo, a civil rights activist and lawyer in Bhubaneshwar, questioned the police decision to lodge the FIR based on the SOG commandant’s account. “Here, the SOG jawans are a party to the dispute," he said. "They provide a narrative absolving themselves of any wrong-doing , and the police station just accepts it and lodges a case against Maoists on the basis on it?”
On July 17, the local police transferred the July 9 FIR and various evidence (for example, guns, bullets, cartridges, soil samples, and clothes) to the Special Investigation Team headed by ADG Mahendra Pratap. Pratap’s team spent July 17-July 19 in Kandhamal, including making a visit for a couple of hours on July 18 to Gumudumaha village.
In an interview last week in his office in the police headquarters of Cuttack, Pratap emphasised that the area of Gumudumaha “was very sensitive from the Maoist point of view”. Even as he noted that his investigation was still underway and conclusions had not been reached, he said that “firing was on and these people suddenly came in-between...that is how it must have happened.”
This is at odds with the account of the villagers. But Pratap described their statements with reservation. “In the dark, in the dead of the night, it was dense forest, heavily raining," he said. "They are emerging from 5-6 feet down. What did one see, what did one not, one can only estimate.”
Pratap said the bullet holes on the left of the auto’s body suggested firing from one side. But “the possibility of cross-fire” was indicated by the “seized evidence. Two-three different types of bullets and empty cases were recovered from the spot the next morning by the local police and the CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] – our side and their [the Maoists'] side.” He asked, "Where did the rest of the empty cases come from?”, emphasising that this needed investigation.
Continuing to speculate about possible cross-fire, he said “Maybe the other side fired...not necessary that all the bullets fired hit the auto.” The material along with the firearms, bullets and empty cases had been sent to the state forensic lab for expert opinion, he said. Asked if the evidence collected by the police included bullets from the bodies of the dead and the injured, he said, “I think one was found...yes...yes.”
Asked about why the SOG team did not come to the aid of the villagers hit by bullets, and whose cries they reported hearing, Pratap said, “They might been on the job since noon. The firing happened at night. They might be thoroughly fatigued. It isn't right to expect everything from them. If there was firing in retaliation and something had happened?”Pratap shrugged off the widespread criticism that the investigation is neither independent nor fair. “The decision was not mine to make the SIT," he said. "I know people are saying police is investigating police. But in our country, who else will investigate?”
Emphasising that he would collate and assess various evidence to come at the “true picture”, he added, “I think we will be able to do justice.”
In Gumudumaha, few believe that any action will actually be taken against those involved in the killings. “Shoot them, just the way my husband was shot dead,” said an angry Gadesi Digal. Bibi Mullick, whose wife was killed in the firing said he wanted a fair investigation and the forces who shot at them to be arrested, tried and punished. “The forces must go away from our village and the forest,” he said. “We are living in constant fear because of them.”
The withdrawal of the forces from the villages and forests – a crucial source of food, produce and livelihood for the locals – was a demand vociferously expressed by several residents, especially women, at the July 26 memorial meet.
A July 20 fact-finding report of activists, who have investigated 17 encounter deaths in six cases, commented on this widespread demand for withdrawal, saying, “While the impunity given to these special police is a matter of serious concern to society at large, to those residing in the Fifth Scheduled districts of South Odisha, it is a matter of life and death.”
When the question of justice was put to the auto driver, Johan Majhi, he too said that the guilty should be hung. “How could the force shoot at us defenceless villagers travelling in an auto in such a cold-blooded manner?” he asked.
While families of the dead and injured have received some state relief, Majhi's plight has been overlooked. His auto has been taken away as part of the investigation, leaving him without any means of livelihood since the firing. He bought it last year, making a Rs 60,000 down payment on a loan of more than Rs 2 lakhs, which requires him to pay a monthly installment of Rs 5,500.
“We have not forgotten him," said a senior official in the district headquarters of Phulbani. “As soon as this probe is over, we will repair the body of the auto and restore it to him.”
The official’s assertion about repairing this crucial piece of evidence in a homicide case was further testament to how the outcome of the investigation is a foregone conclusion for most people.