As India was unfurling the tricolour to mark 71 years of freedom, Muchaki Sukdi sat under the thatched roof of her home at Nulkatong in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district, still numb from the killing of her young son, Muchaki Muka. Her son was one of the 15 people killed by security forces in the early hours of August 6 in what the police euphorically described as “one of the biggest anti-Naxal operations in the history of Chhattisgarh”.
Shortly after the killings, the police released to the media photos of several bodies tightly wrapped in black plastic. In one picture, Muchaki Muka is in a camouflage outfit – but it does not appear to have any bloodstains on it. Of the 15 dead, six were from Nulkatong. The others were from hamlets in the vicinity: six from Gompad and one each from Etegatta, Belpojja and Kindrelpad. The police claimed they were all members of jan militias, or people’s militias, which work with the Maoists. But two weeks after the killings, when Scroll.in met the families of 10 of the dead men, they insisted their relatives were not associated with the Maoists.
Muchaki Sukdi claimed her son was not older than 14 or 15. To demonstrate he was not tall, she raised her hand to indicate his height and, to draw a comparison, pointed to a boy standing nearby who was around the same age as her son. Muchaki Muka did not attend school since his village had none. His father had died in 2007. He and his older sister, Hidme, helped their mother tend to their farm. The youngest brother, Pojja, studies in a government residential school in Konta, the tehsil headquarters.
“If it requires me to go to Delhi to prove that my son was innocent, I will go,” Muchaki Sukdi declared.
On August 8, the Civil Liberties Committee of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court challenging the police’s version of the killings. The court has asked the civil rights group and the Chhattisgarh government to explain the matter on August 29.
A tragic decision
The spot where the 15 people were killed is about 2 km from Nulkatong village. The villagers called it “kheta” or “ladi” – a makeshift shelter erected during the farming season. A fortnight after the killings, evidence of the violence was still visible at the kheta. The palm leaves that formed the roof lay in a heap, clothes and a pair of slippers were hanging on the rudimentary fence. Pieces of broken bangles were scattered on the ground nearby.
When the security forces opened fire on the kheta early on August 6, there were 30 people inside – 26 men and four girls, said Mangdu, who helped Scroll.in contact the families of the dead. Fifteen were killed, four of them teenagers not older than 14 or 15, their families said. Four people were taken into custody. Madkam Dewa is still being held. A woman named Dudhi Budhri is being treated for a dislocated hip in a Sukma hospital, about 20 km from Nulkatong. Madvi Lakma and Sodi Anda were released after eight days and they both described the killings to Scroll.in. Among the 11 who managed to escape the firing, Scroll.in interviewed two girls from Nulkatong and a man from Gompad. The other witnesses have fled to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, fearing more action from the police, villagers said. The dead people came from five villages, of which Scroll.in managed to visit Nulkatong, Gompad, Belpojja.
Ironically, the 30 people were sleeping in the kheta to escape the heavy-handedness of the security forces, their relatives said. Villagers said when they hear that security forces are around, the men usually hide in the forest or flee to other villages to escape arbitrary detentions and beatings. They leave behind the women, children and the infirm. The forces, mostly local recruits who speak Gondi, often force their way into homes to raid rice stocks and steal poultry, alleged one woman.
It was in early August that Gompad first heard about a large contingent of the District Reserve Guard camping in the nearby hills. A few days later, when the forces entered the village seeking food, most of the men from its 35-odd households abandoned their farms and fled. This disrupted farming at a critical time, just when the rains had started.
They returned home after two days on August 4, only to flee again the next day when they heard the forces were coming back. Some men from Gompad went to Nulkatong, about 4 km away. After dinner with their relatives, they and other people from Etagatta, Velpocha, Banda, Kindrelpad villages decided to spend the night in the kheta, out of reach of the police.
It would turn out to be a tragic decision.
‘Chanced upon Maoists’
Abhishek Meena, superintendent of police in Sukma, said nearly 160 personnel of the District Reserve Guard and the Special Task Force from Bhejji and Konta camps in the district conducted a search operation in Nulkatong area on the night of July 31 after learning that Maoist leaders were holding recruitment meetings for jan militias. The District Reserve Guard is a special force created by the police in the seven districts of Bastar region to add an edge to its anti-Maoist operations.
The forces missed the meetings, however. They returned to the area on August 4. Early in the morning on August 6, the kheta near Nulkatong “came in their path”, Meena said, and the forces “chanced upon” the presence of the alleged Maoists.
According to a confession obtained from Madkam Dewa, only he and Sodi Anda had initially planned to spend the night in the fields, Meena claimed. But they were later joined by 25-30 other jan militia members, including a woman, Dudhi Budhri. Madvi Lakma arrived early next morning.
As the forces closed in on the kheta, Meena claimed, there was firing from both sides. The police claim to have recovered one pistol, a 12 bore rifle, 12 bharmar or muzzled loading guns, a pipe bomb, a radio, five grenades and explosive devices from the site. The forces killed 15 people, but reported no injury on their side.
Of the four people who were detained, Sodi Anda and Madvi Lakma were released once their statements were recorded and it was determined they were not Maoists, the police officer said.
Despite the “heavy neutralisation” of the Maoists, Meena said he did not consider it a “great operation” because the forces did not find any “big leaders”. They had initially mistaken Madkam Dewa for a bigger catch, believing him to be a Maoist leader from Gompad who has operational control between Bhejji and Konta. But the Dewa they have held, a resident of Nulkatong said, is actually a minor ex-cadre of the Maoists.
Still, Meena said, the operation would help the security forces. After all, he said, jan militias are “the eyes and ears” of the Maoists. They help erect roadblocks and disrupt the movement of security forces. The killings would hinder the Maoists’ recruitment process as Chhattisgarh heads to the Assembly election later this year, Meena added.
‘Villagers, not Maoists’
Muchaki Hadme, 17, and Veko Pojje, 19, who were among the villagers at the kheta, described the incident to Scroll.in. When they woke up in the morning, they saw security personnel stealthily cordoning off the area and began running home. The forces opened fire. Muchaki Hadme fell into a ditch. She lifted her skirt to the knee to show the gash. “As we were running, the security forces shoved us towards the kheta where the other people were getting ready, but we somehow managed to escape,” she said. Her brother Muchaki Dewa was killed.
Sodi Anda and Madvi Lakma also recounted what happened. “I saw Sodi Parbhu falling down as bullets hit him and started crying,” Sodi Anda said. He and Madvi Lakma jumped behind a sand mound and lay still. After the firing had stopped, they raised their hands in surrender. “We are villagers, not Maoists,” the yelled out. “We have no weapons.”
The forces told them to come forward and tied their hands behind their backs. At gunpoint, the forces asked Sodi Anda to identify the dead. “I knew those from my village and gave them the names,” he said.
Sodi Anda and Madvi Lakma, along with Madkam Dewa and Dudhi Budhri, were taken to Konta. Sodi Anda insisted that no one in the kheta was associated with the Maoists. “Only Dewa was with the party some two years ago, but not anymore,” he added.
Young lives cut short
Not only did the families of the dead interviewed by Scroll.in insist their relatives were not members of jan militias, they said they did not have any weapons with them. They also claimed the dead included four teenage boys.
Muchaki Sukdi said her son, Muchaki Muka, had been sleeping in the kheta along with his cousins Muchaki Dewa and Muchaki Hidma. Kadti Suka and his son Kadti Ayta, 14, had left Gompad for Nulkatong in the morning to escape the forces and they too slept in the kheta. As the firing started in the morning, and every one scattered, Kadti Suka ran for his life, hoping his son would also escape. With a bullet injury to his knee and bleeding profusely, Kadti Suka ran through the forest till he reached Durma, about 2 km away. He hid there for two days. It was only when he reached home that he learned his son was dead.
According to the ration cards produced by their families, Muchaki Dewa was seven, Muchaki Muka eight and Muchaki Hidma 12 when the cards were allocated in 2013. Kalpana Reddy, owner of the public distribution shop in Konta where the villagers collect their monthly rations from, confirmed the cards were given to the families on August 11, 2013. This would mean at the time of their killing, the cousins were 12, 13 and 17, respectively – all minors.
Meena, however, insisted there were no teenagers among the dead “except for borderline cases of two persons who could have been 17 or 18”. He would not consider the possibility that his men had mistakenly killed innocent people. “Our boys are extremely disciplined and strictly follow the guidelines,” said Meena. The forces are skilled as they go on several operations every month, he added, and they stayed in touch with him throughout.
Though the families of the dead that Scroll.in met denied their husbands and sons were associated with jan militias, a few villagers told some activists and reporters that it was possible a few were unarmed militia members. But when the Maoists released a list of the dead on August 9, they did not claim any of them as being a jan militia member. A former Maoist who asked not to be identified said the Communist Party of India (Maoist) does not in principle ignore or disown the contribution of any cadre, even the most minor. For example, the Martyrs of Indian Revolution, a photo album of the party’s fallen cadres from 2004 to 2014 lists jan militia members along with senior leaders.
No end to suffering
When Sodi Sukdi from Nulkatong heard gunshots at around 6 am on August 6, she ran towards the kheta. “The sight of hundreds of uniformed men in our fields was enough to tell us something very wrong had happened,” said a girl who also ran to the spot along with women from the village. But when they got near the kheta, she said, the forces beat up the women. Not only did the forces refuse to hand over the bodies, they would not even let the women see who had been killed. The bodies were loaded in a tractor and the women were asked to collect them from the Konta police station, about 30 km away. One body was of Sodi Parbhu, Sodi Sukdi’s son.
None of the younger men dared go to the kheta or to Konta for fear of being detained by the police. So, around 50 women and elders set out for Konta, getting there around 6 pm. But when they asked for the bodies, they were told to go to Sukma, 78 km away. That is where the postmortems were being conducted. About 15 people headed to Sukma. They were allowed to see the bodies only on the afternoon of August 8. “I could not recognise my son,” said Muchaki Sukdi. “His frail body looked so scarred and distorted.”
When Muchaki Sukdi was shown the police’s picture of her son wearing a camouflage t-shirt, she said he had left home in a checked cotton shirt. Other villagers who looked at the picture noted that the t-shirt bore no blood marks.
After the bodies were released to their families, the police transported them in a vehicle to Banda, where the motorable road ends about 12 km from the villages. From there, the villagers had to carry the bodies home on charpoys. People from Nulkatong had the longest way to go, about 20 km. While Nulkatong cremated the bodies, Gompad buried them, in the hope of a judicial inquiry into the killings. They were taking hope from the case of Madkam Hidme, who had been dragged out of her home in Gompad and allegedly raped and killed by personnel of the District Reserve Guard in June 2016. Her body was exhumed a few weeks later after the Bilaspur High Court ordered a second postmortem. The case is pending.
‘Innocent people killed’
Soon after the killings on August 6, social activists Soni Sori and Bela Bhatia visited the villages and alleged that the forces had killed innocent people. Two days later, the Civil Liberties Committee of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana petitioned the Supreme Court, disputing the police’s version of the killings and pleading for murder charges to be filed against the security personnel. It also sought a judicial inquiry by a sitting judge, a second round of postmortems, a stay on promotions and awards to the personnel involved, and a criminal investigation into the killings by the Central Bureau of Investigation or a special investigation team. The court is expected to hear the plea on August 29.
Does it bother the police that the alleged encounter has been challenged in court? Court cases unnecessarily require the police to do more paperwork, Meena replied, but their “facts are solid” and they will be able to prove their point.
For Muchaki Sukdi, this is not the first tragedy. In 2007, her husband, Muchaki Muka, was allegedly killed by Salwa Judum, a militia backed by the government to counter the Maoists in the region. “Even then I filed a case, but nothing happened,” she said. “But I will continue to fight.”
Some names have been changed to safeguard identity.