A decade after their homes were burnt and family members killed by state-supported Salwa Judum vigilantes, the Adivasis of Kondasawali village in Chhattisgarh stand vindicated with the National Human Rights Commission ruling against the police and government officials. But the village community is unhappy with what they say is a partial delivery of justice far removed from their context.

On December 23, the Commission ordered the Chhattisgarh government to pay a compensation of Rs 5 lakh each to the next of kin of seven villagers who were murdered in Sukma district’s Kondasawali gram panchayat in 2009-’10. The Commission also ordered the state to pay appropriate monetary compensation to 95 families whose homes were burnt down in Kondasawali and three other nearby villages in Sukma district in 2007.

In a complaint to the Sukma district collector in 2013, the affected villagers had alleged that the arson and killings were committed by special police officers of the Jagargonda base camp and leaders of the Salwa Judum, a state-supported armed militia that was active in Chhattisgarh from 2005 to 2011. Infamous for unleashing violence on ordinary Adivasis in the name of nabbing Maoists, the Salwa Judum was eventually declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

In a scathing report in September 2019, the NHRC backed the villagers’ allegations, and held that the crimes had been “committed by the special police officers [Salwa Judum members] of Jagargonda base camp”. The report also blamed state and Sukma district officials for “abetting the crime”.

A relative of one of the seven Adivasis from Kondasawali killed by the Salwa Judum in 2009-10. Photo: PUCL

It took six years to arrive at this conclusion. During this time, the Chhattisgarh government and police – both under the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress – failed to carry out a proper investigation into the arson and killings, and were repeatedly unresponsive to the NHRC’s orders and summons. In fact, in 2017, the NHRC declared that the Sukma district officials were “conducting a cover up operation” to conceal the crimes committed by Salwa Judum.

Now that compensation has been ordered more than a decade after they lost their family members and homes, Adivasis in Kondasawali have little interest in the money. With no punitive action taken against the perpetrators of the crime, several villagers have refused to accept the compensation.

“Accepting money is like inviting the police for more atrocity,” some of the villagers told local journalists. “Paying compensation does not guarantee they will not repeat what they did.”

The consequences of demanding justice

In the aftermath of the arson of 2007 and the murders of 2009-’10, Adivasis from Kondasawali and the other villages spent a few years in exile, away from their homes. In 2013, as they decided to return to their villages, a group of Adivasis wrote to the Sukma district collector demanding an independent probe into the crimes and a fair compensation to help them rebuild their lives. The Adivasis made this complaint despite the risks that it would carry for their lives. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties, a non-profit human rights organisation, then took their complaint forward to the National Human Rights Commission.

It took three months and two reminders for the Chhattisgarh police to inform the NHRC that a first information report had been filed in the case, accusing “unknown armed persons” of rioting, murder and the use of explosive substances, and that an investigation was underway.

For the villagers, however, the immediate outcome of the complaint was further human rights abuse.

Barsa Nande, whose husband was among the seven people killed by Salwa Judum in 2009, was murdered a month after the complaint was filed. Sundam Sannu, another complainant and also the village sarpanch, was threatened and harassed by an ex-Salwa Judum leader and had to escape into the forests to save his life.

Barse Somru, the son of Barse Nanda and Nande. Photo: PUCL

When questioned by the NHRC in January 2014, Sukma superintendent of police admitted the police had conducted search operations in the villages, but did not harass any of the complainants. When the NHRC asked the police to provide protection to Sundam Sannu, they dismissed it by claiming that Sannu had not sent them a written complaint, and that he would have to shift to a relief camp in Jagargonda if he needs protection.

All through this, the Sukma superintendent of police claimed that their investigation into the killings and arson by “unknown persons” was still underway.

Different government, same response

The NHRC’s reminders and warnings to the Sukma district administration and police were not just about the investigation into the crime but also about payment of compensation.

In August 2016, the district collector cited the following reasons for not paying compensation to the kin of the seven deceased Adivasis: no one had filed a complaint after the incident in 2007, no postmortem was conducted to ascertain the cause of death and finally, the names of five of the seven dead people did not appear in the voters’ list.

Appalled by this response and the district administration’s seeming inability to gather basic information despite a wide network of staff from various departments, the NHRC wrote to Chhattisgarh’s chief secretary in September 2017. In the letter, the Commission accused the district officials of “deliberately turning a blind eye to these killings and arson” and of abetting the crimes through “wilful omissions” that were “indicative of the fact that these ghastly crimes had been committed by the SPOs of Jagargonda base camp as alleged by the complainants”.

For the next year and a half, the state did not respond to the NHRC’s observations. During this period, there was a change in the state government: in a thumping victory in the October 2018 Assembly election, the Congress defeated the BJP’s 15-year-rule in the state.

Mangru lost two family members in the killings of 2009-10. Photo: PUCL

Significantly, the Congress won all the seats in the Bastar division where Sukma is located, winning large numbers of Adivasi votes by promising to bring peace to the region. The previous BJP governments in the state had created the Salwa Judum and overseen extensive human rights violations on Adivasis. One of the Congress’ election promises was to release Adivasis who had been imprisoned on false charges.

But as the Kondasawali case demonstrates, the Congress government’s response to human rights abuses of Adivasis was no different from that of the BJP.

In April 2019, NHRC issued a formal summons to the state’s chief secretary to respond to the Kondasawali case, but the summons, as well as a reminder, were ignored. In September 2019, the NHRC finally issued a show-cause notice to the state, demanding to know why the Rs 5 lakh compensation had still not been paid to the kin of the deceased, and why a suitable compensation had not been awarded to those whose homes were burnt.

When the Chhattisgarh government remained silent, the NHRC issued its December 23 order of payment of compensation to the villagers within six weeks.

What Adivasis really want

Lawyer Shalini Gera, who has worked closely with Adivasis in Bastar, welcomed the NHRC order as a vital outcome after several years. “The compensation, least of all, was long due,” said Gera, secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.

Gera is disappointed, however, that the order restricted itself to disbursement of compensation alone, with no recommendation for action against the perpetrators. She also regrets that the NHRC overlooked compensation for Barse Nanda, who was murdered in the course of seeking justice in the case.

Did the compensation amount actually reach the villagers? According to district collector Chandan Kumar, officials had made two attempts to reach the villagers, without much success. “The first time government staff went, the villagers refused to accept the money, probably owing to threat from Left Wing Extremists,” Kumar said. The second time, he claimed that a government official was beaten and sent back.

Kumar claimed that officials would now open bank accounts in the names of the seven deceased and pay their kin through cheques. As for compensation for the burnt houses, he said the assessment of the loss had been difficult, but the compensation would be paid in one or two months.

In Kondasawali and other affected villages, Adivasis acknowledged that some government personnel had visited them, but claimed they did not engage with them. Santosh Yadav, a local Bastar journalist, who visited the village, told Scroll.in that the villagers had declined from accepting any compensation. “The villagers asked if the persons who killed their family members would ever be punished,” said Yadav. Some also suggested that the government hand over the compensation money to the killers, so that they “live happily and leave us alone”. For the Adivasis of the region, justice means being left in peace in their villages.

What the villagers wanted, besides action against the perpetrators, were basic facilities due to them from the state: healthcare facilities, children’s education, anganwadi centres, a ration shop, and drinking water, which is not available at all. Unless these basic facilities are provided and trust is restored, the Adivasis wounds are likely to turn into permanent scars.

Kondasawali residents at a meeting. Photo: PUCL