On August 16, the office of Bastar’s district superintendent of police RN Dash released a press statement that said: “Notorious Maoist Arjun dead on Chhattisgarh-Odisha border.”

The statement went on to say that the District Reserve Guard and the Special Task Force of Chhattisgarh police had engaged in an hour-long gunbattle with the Maoists. At the end of the encounter, the security forces had recovered “a male dead body with weapon and many other items”. The body, according to the police, was that of Arjun Kodi, the commander of the jan militia, or people’s army of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in the Chandometa area of Bastar district in southern Chhattisgarh.

The statement claimed that Arjun had been involved in three major incidents – triggering an explosion on a government ambulance in 2014 in Kamanar that left seven dead, including five jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force, the murder of a former village sarpanch of Koleng in May 2015, and the killing of a villager from Kandanar village in August this year.

What the statement did not say: Arjun was just 19 years old and was fighting the police charges against him in a juvenile court in Jagdalpur. Arrested in May 2015, he had been released on bail eight months later. Since then, he had appeared before the juvenile court on every single date allotted for the hearings – January 6, February 10, March 30, May 18 and July 27 this year.

According to Isha Khandelwal of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, a lawyers’ collective that was representing Arjun, the teenager stood a good chance of being acquitted. Of the 24 witnesses, most of them security personnel, listed to be examined by the juvenile court, eight had deposed. None of them could recollect the presence of Arjun at the place of incident where the blast on the ambulance was triggered, she said.

The next court hearing was scheduled for August 30. “But well before the court could take its decision, the police carried out a cold-blooded killing of this young boy,” alleged Khandelwal.

Speaking to local activists, Arjun’s family had contested the police version of an encounter. They claimed the police came to their village and took him away on August 15, a day before his body was found. Scroll.in could not speak to the family independently, since the village is difficult to access in the rains.

RN Dash, the superintendent of police in Bastar, did not respond to calls and email messages.

A missing young man

Arjun’s death underlines the precariousness of youth in a region where even children find themselves drawn into the conflict between the Maoists and security forces.

His village, Chandameta, is tucked in the forests along Chhattisgarh’s border with Odisha. It takes nearly three hours to walk down from the village to the nearest road in Koleng. Darbha, the block headquarters, is nearly 35 km away, and Jagdalpur, the district headquarters, about 67 km.

Like the other children in the village, Arjun studied in a government school in Koleng. In 2014, he appeared for the class 10 board examinations, failing in Hindi by a few marks. Keen to study, he did not give up and enrolled in 2015 as an external candidate, while living at home and helping his parents farm a small patch of land and rear animals.

According to a petition filed by his father Sulo Ram, on the morning of May 16, 2015, Arjun had travelled to the Tokapal market to sell a goat. When he did not come back, Ram went looking for him. At the market, he heard that the police had taken his son to Koleng, and were keeping him in the school building. At Koleng, Ram was informed by senior security personnel that Arjun would be released after some questioning.

But the next day, Arjun was shifted to Netanar police station. At Netanar, Ram was denied any information about his son. Ram then filed a petition in the Jagdalpur district court expressing anxiety over his son’s detainment for over 50 hours by Bastar police.

On May 19, three days after he went missing, Arjun was produced before the court. His age then was a little over 18.

Arjun was accused by the police of triggering a powerful landmine explosion on an emergency ambulance on April 12, 2014. The Maoists had targetted the ambulance since a group of CRPF personnel, who were patrolling the area, had hitched a ride in it. The explosion had left seven dead: five CRPF jawans, the driver and the medical technician of the ambulance.

The teenager was also accused of killing Panduram Nag, the former sarpanch of Koleng village in Darbha block in May 2015. He was charged with murder under Section 302 and 307 of the Indian Penal Code, Sections 3 and 4 of the Explosive Substance Act, and various sections under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

But in his petition, Arjun’s father pointed out that the police had made errors in the arrest memo. They had shown the arrest as that of Arjun, aged 30, the son of Kodi. Ram pleaded that the names did not match. His name was Sulo Ram and not Kodi, and his son was only 18 years. As proof of identity, Ram submitted his voter identity card.

The errors raised questions over whether the police had acted against Ram’s son on the basis of mistaken identity.

Ram contested all the charges against his son, pleading that he was innocent.

Not yet adult

Given that Arjun would have been only 16 years at the time of the alleged crimes, Khandelwal petitioned the Jagdalpur court on May 20, 2015, asking for the transfer of the case to the juvenile board. She invoked section 6 (1) of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, that lays down:

“Any person, who has completed eighteen years of age, and is apprehended for committing an offence when he was below the age of eighteen years, then, such person shall, subject to the provisions of this section, be treated as a child during the process of inquiry.”

The court meticulously verified the age of Arjun through school records, marksheets and enrolment records as well as summoned the school headmaster who testified before the court. According to the documents, Arjun was born in 1997. Convinced that Arjun was underage at the time of the crime for which he was booked, the Jagdalpur court transferred the case to the Juvenile Board.

Despite the order of the Jagdalpur court, Arjun was kept in prison for nearly three months, in complete violation of the Juvenile Justice Act, said Khandelwal. He was transferred to the juvenile home only after the court passed another order on August 19, 2015.

This reporter met Arjun in early September 2015 when he was being shifted to the juvenile home. He looked tense as he was ushered into the room at the juvenile court by two police personnel holding his elbow to guard him from escaping. He told Shalini Gera of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group that he did not want to spend time in the prison.

While he appeared before the Juvenile Justice Board members, his parents, Sulo Ram and Sanki Bai, waited patiently outside. They felt relieved when Gera explained that Arjun would henceforth stay in a home for children and not as a criminal in prison.

Police harassment

Accompanying the parents was another resident of Chandameta, Hidma Korram. He had come to depose before the board which wanted a villager and the school headmaster to vouch for Arjun’s character.

While waiting for his deposition, Korram, a wiry man in his forties, spoke about the predicament in which the residents of Chandameta found themselves. The village lies close to Tulsi Dongar, a hill said to be frequented by Maoists when they transit between Odisha and Chhattisgarh. The location puts the 100-odd families of Chandameta in a difficult position. Every villager was a suspect in the eyes of the police, Korram said. Even walking to the weekly Darbha market on Wednesdays to buy and sell goods was a high-risk activity.

That month itself, Korram claimed he had been picked up by the police along with another villager while they were at the market. He alleged he was slapped, pulled and hit with the umbrella he was carrying, and asked to give news about the movement of Maoists. From Darbha, the men were taken to another police station at Parpa, 30 kms away. Detained for two days, they were asked to clean the building and clear the weeds growing outside. Before they were released, they were made to sign on blank papers.

Contested versions

There are different versions for the events leading upto Arjun’s death.

According to reports that have appeared in local Hindi newspapers, soon after the police heard that Purru Nagesh, one of their gopniya sainiks or informants, had been killed by the Maoists, they decided to launch an operation in the forests in Darbha.

Nagesh, who had recently surrendered as a Maoist, had travelled to Darbha to attend the weddings of other surrendered Maoists on August 9. The weddings had been organised by the police, and saw the attendance of senior officials, including the district collector, the divisional commissioner, the police superintendent and the inspector general of Bastar.

After Nagesh returned to his village Kandanar, the Maoists allegedly kidnapped him on August 10 and beat him to death. The police reportedly sent their troops to the forests of Chandameta the next day. The security forces camped in the area, and according to the police, engaged in an encounter with the Maoists for an hour on August 16. After the encounter, the police claimed to have recovered the body of a Maoist identified as Arjun Kodi who carried a reward of one lakh.

A report dated August 17 in the local edition of the Hindi newspaper 'Patrika'.

This account is contested by Arjun’s family. They have told activists that when the young man was taken away from his home on the night of August 15, he was marched into the forest with both his arms tied behind his back. Two days later, his parents were called to Darbha police station. They were kept at the police station the entire day and then escorted to Jagdalpur, where in a matter of few seconds, the body of their son was handed over to them.

Keeping the young safe

Young people in the far-flung villages of Bastar are highly prized by both the security forces and the Maoists. Both woo them with promises of a better future. Both invite them to embrace violence.

While the police and the CRPF entice them with the salaries and perks of a job, the Maoists encourage them to join the jan militia. Children are exposed to the political ideology of the Maoists at a young age, and are even enrolled into bal sanghams or groups for children.

On May 29, 2015, while hearing Khandelwal’s arguments, pleading for bail for Arjun, two members of the board wryly commented that young boys were better off in custody in Bastar, a highly-sensitive area. Should all the young boys and girls in Bastar then be kept in custody, away from their families, Khandelwal responded.

The bail finally came through in December 2015.

In retrospect, Khandelwal rues: “Perhaps we should have let Arjun remain in custody and saved his life from the police.”

Said Deepak Nathan, a member of the Juvenile Justice Board who was present during Arjun’s hearing: “You know how it is in Bastar. Once the police decide on something, they will only take it ahead.”

If the family’s account was true, a juvenile undertrial had been killed in cold blood. Wasn’t this a violation of the rule of law? He mumbled helplessly: “Ab main kya bataon? What can I say.”