Here is a thought experiment. Imagine the police opened fire on a gathering and killed 17 people, six of them children. The police then accused those dead of being insurgents and claimed they had launched the attack. Seven years later, a judicial commission established that the police had lied outright – the victims were unarmed civilians who had not fired a single shot. They had been killed for no fault of theirs. The police investigation had been nothing but a cover-up.
If this was a real-life incident, how would you react? With indignation, anger, outrage?
How would a democratic society react? With demands for accountability and justice?
On Sunday, there was barely a stir when news broke that a judicial commission had found 17 villagers had been killed in an unprovoked attack by security forces in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district in June 2012.
The bare facts of the case: the villagers had gathered for a public meeting near Sarkeguda village on the night of June 28, 2012, when teams of the Central Reserve Police Force and Chhattisgarh police, passing through the area ostensibly on an anti-Maoist operation, opened fire on them.
The commission held the police firing may have been an outcome of “panic” – the forces possibly mistook the sounds of the village gathering for an ambush laid by Maoist guerillas. But it also concluded that the security forces had killed a villager in his home the next morning, well after the fog of war had dispersed.
State violence of this magnitude has gone largely unremarked in the Indian public sphere because its victims are Adivasis. Among the oldest people of the land, these forest-dwelling communities survived the many upheavals of history, until the modern Indian state, following in the footsteps of British colonialists, accelerated the plunder of natural resources in their homelands, converting them into internal colonies.
For all the high-minded rhetoric of independent India’s leaders, who promised them a measure of autonomy, in reality, Adivasis were denied a share of political power. Weak constitutional provisions to safeguard their distinct culture and history were further hollowed out in the implementation.
Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that the Maoist insurgency has found its largest support base in Adivasi areas.
The state’s botched-up response has meant the conflict has turned even more complex over the decades, with the spiral of violence tragically extracting the highest toll among India’s most vulnerable communities. It has also meant public funds which could have been deployed for improving the lives of Indians are spent on recruiting and sending young men from poor families to die on unfamiliar terrain. That these men, fearful of Adivasis who speak a different language, are unable to distinguish between combatants and civilians, ensures the cycle of violence continues.
It has been a year since a new government took charge in Chhattisgarh, but nothing seems to have changed in the Maoist conflict theatre. The police excesses have not abated, as Malini Subramaniam has consistently reported in Scroll.in. Worse, the new government appears to have suppressed the judicial commission report until it was leaked to the press.
The commission of inquiry in the Sarkeguda encounter is a rare instance of the bluff of security forces being called out. It would not have been possible without the courage of villagers who made repeated trips to testify, often in the face of hostility from the police. It would not have been possible without the painstaking work of their lawyers, one of whom, Sudha Bharadwaj, is in jail on charges of being an “urban Naxal”.
But the commission’s report is not enough. For justice to be done, the state government must initiate criminal proceedings against the officers who led the charge against 17 civilians, six of whom were children.