The National Human Rights Commission has once again made scathing observations against the Chhattisgarh government for its complicity in human rights abuses. In an order on October 26, the commission held government officials guilty of “deliberately turning a blind eye to the killings and incidents of arson” in Sukma district during the years that Salwa Judum was active in the state.

Salwa Judum, launched in 2005, was a state-supported civil vigilante campaign that targeted villages seen as harbouring Maoists. Backed by the police, armed vigilantes torched homes and forced villagers to flee to government-run camps. The violence often went undocumented and with the villagers having no recourse to justice.

One such case was brought to the commission’s attention in 2013, when the People’s Union for Civil Liberties submitted a complaint to it along with testimonies of the residents of Kondasawali gram panchayat in Konta block of Sukma. The residents alleged the vigilantes had torched at least 95 homes across Karrepara, Kamaraguda, Kondasawali and Parlagutta villages in 2006-’07, and subsequently killed seven villagers in 2009-’10.

Led by then sarpanch Sundam Sannu, a group of villagers filed a complaint with Sukma’s collector in July 2013, identifying the slain villagers as Madvi Bhima of Kondasawali; Barse Nanda, Barse Suklu, Kunjam Boda of Karrepara; and Sundam Bhima Mangdu, Sundam Bhima Goga, Midiam Aiti of Parlagutta.

Madvi Bhima's widow Masa. Photo courtesy: PUCL

One of the complainants was Barse Nande, who alleged her husband Barse Nanda was murdered by Salwa Judum in 2007. Nande, along with the other villagers, sought justice as well as compensation for the loss she had suffered as a result of arson and loot by the vigilantes. The villagers offered to testify to the police to aid an investigation into their complaints.

But within a month of the complaint being filed, Nande was murdered. Sannu was forced to hide in the forest when Salwa Judum leaders came searching for him.

The People’s Union for Civil Liberties wrote several letters through 2013, 2014, 2015 to the human rights commission as well as to senior officers in Bastar division, seeking safety for the complainants.

The commission, in turn, wrote to the state government, asking for a response.

Barse Suklu's son Barse Nanda. Photo courtesy: PUCL

‘Cover up operation’

In a letter dated September 9, 2014, the police informed the commission they had filed a First Information Report on November 19, 2013 against unknown persons, charging them with rioting with weapons, unlawful assembly, murder, robbery, use of explosive substance to destroy houses, and under the Arms Act. But despite the complainants’ willingness to testify, no testimonies were recorded.

To the commission’s query about the sarpanch’s safety, the police said he had not given them a written complaint, nor had he received threats from Maoists. Disregarding the fact that the villagers felt threatened by the police and not by the Maoists, the police expressed its inability to provide security to the complainants because the area was “Naxal sensitive” and it would require a contingent of 150-200 armed personnel. Instead, the police suggested shifting the villagers to a government camp in Jagargunda.

As for paying compensation, the district administration claimed it could not do so “as the names of five deceased from the seven do not appear in the voter list of 2009-10”.

To break the stalemate, the commission formally requested the People’s Union in June this year to visit the villages and submit a report based on testimonies gathered from the villagers. The report, based on field visits on August 21 and 22, was submitted in early October.

Mangdu lost his son and nephew, both named Sundam Bhima, to Salwa Judum. Photo courtesy: PUCL

The commission has now concluded that the investigation conducted by the Sukma district administration and the police was a “cover-up operation”. Its October 26 order stated:

“A mere reading of the enquiry report of Tehsildar Konta and the statements recorded by the I.O. [investigation officer] shows that his objective is not at all to dig out the truth and that he is only conducting a cover up operation. These acts of omission by the public servants of State of Chhattisgarh constitute a gross violation of human rights of the deceased residents of village Kondasawali, Kamaraguda and Karrepara and of those residents of these villages whose houses/huts were burnt.”  

This is not the first time the Chhattisgarh government has been in the dock for serious human rights violations. In October 2016, the Central Bureau of Investigation held the state police responsible for torching over 200 homes and granaries in three Adivasi villages – Morpalli, Tadmetla, Teemapuram – of Sukma district in March 2011 in the course of an anti-Maoist operation. In January this year, the human rights commission found prima facie evidence that 16 women from Bijapur district had been sexually assaulted by police during anti-Maoist combing operations in October 2015.

Joga's father Kunjam Boda was among the seven people killed in 2009-10. Photo courtesy: PUCL

People’s Union report

Kondasawali village is located about 450 km from the capital Raipur and 94 km from Sukma district headquarters. In their report, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties team noted that they reached the villages from Dantewada via Aranpur after great difficulty, making precarious bike rides and covering long distances on foot.

The seven-member team comprised Adivasi activist and Aam Aadmi Party leader Soni Sori, researcher JK Vidhya, video documenter Lingaram Kodopi, local journalists Pushpa Rokde and Nitin Rokde, Aam Aadmi Party member Sukul Prasad, and interpreter Danti Poyim.

They recorded testimonies of the family members of the seven slain persons as well as of villagers whose homes were burnt in 2006-07. People in Karrepara, Kamaraguda and Kondasawali described watching their houses and granaries go up in flames as they ran into the forest. Salwa Judum vigilantes also looted valuables, including gold and silver, and confiscated their cows, buffaloes and goats.

The villagers said they lived in the forest for four years, surviving on wild roots and food provided occasionally by people from nearby villages. They began returning in 2009-10 and started to rebuild their homes. But they were again attacked by Salwa Judum members, who had now become special police officers. The villagers identified by name the officers who, accompanied by the security forces, shot dead their family members. The attacks took place while the villagers were returning from their fields, or from collecting mahua flowers in the forest. They were chased, fired upon, even stabbed.

Two young men were held while they were working in their fields and taken to Jagargunda police station, the villagers said, and presumably murdered because they never returned. A young girl, Midiam Aiti, who had gone to the forest to collect bamboo shoots, was shot. Her body too was never returned.

Malla's niece Midiam Aiti's body was never returned. Photo courtesy: PUCL

Older reports, similar charges

About 10 kilometres from Kondasawali lies Jagargunda and 58 kilometres further away is Dornapal, sites of two of the government camps set up during Salwa Judum years. The Jagargunda camp housed about 2,000 people forced to leave their homes, while the one in Dornapal housed about 25,000 villagers.

A report by the Human Rights Watch in 2008 recorded testimonies of special police officers who had helped set up the Jagargunda camp. “About 40-45 of us would go each time and bring people to the camp,” they said. The report also recorded villagers recounting the killings of at least 55 family members, friends and acquaintances, but the state’s investigators later found it “difficult to verify each case”.

One villager told the Human Rights Watch that Salwa Judum members and the police had burnt 50 huts in his Kamaraguda village in Kondasawali gram panchayat. As the villagers fled, the police caught three of them – a 70-year-old man and two young men. When the villagers returned, they found the bodies of the three men in the forest, their throats slit.

Reliving their trauma 10 years later to the People’s Union team, the villagers collectively demanded justice. They put together a list of the names of special police officers who they said had killed their family members and asked for their dismissal as well as action against them.

To ensure their safety and free movement, they asked that the police and the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force must not be allowed to enter their villages and harass or arrest them.

Another demand was that no security forces camp be set up near the villages. Women were especially apprehensive. “The camp people come to our village and give us a lot of trouble,” they said. “They threaten us and sexually molest and rape us…If the camp is set up in the village, they will catch us, beat us and rape us.”

The People’s Union report noted that security forces have allegedly raped at least 50 women, and killed some of them, in Kondasawali panchayat. The team requested the human rights commission for a wider mandate so that these atrocities against women could be recorded at a later stage.

'If a security forces camp is set up in the village, they will catch us, beat us and rape us.' Photo courtesy: PUCL

That the villagers agreed to give video testimonies demonstrates “their courage and touching faith in the NHRC”, said Sudha Bharadwaj, general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.

The union has asked for a comprehensive investigation by the human rights commission given the complete “apathy, harassment and outright hostility” from the district administration and police.

“So far, the record of the state of Chhattisgarh has been of repression against all complainants,” Bharadwaj said. “We hope that at least in this case where the NHRC had to step in, the state will perform its constitutional duty.”

The Chhattisgarh government still has a chance to demonstrate to Adivasis that as citizens, they are entitled to justice, even if it is delayed, she added.