Residents of a tribal village in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district have demanded an independent inquiry into last week’s police encounter in which authorities claimed to have killed 40 Naxalites, The Wire reported on Tuesday.

Seven families suspect their missing children were killed in the encounter, while an eighth family has identified a teenage girl’s photo released by police. The teenager’s family claimed that police did not inform them about her when they went to file a missing person complaint.

The teenage girl and seven others, most of them minors, had left their homes in Gattepalli village for a wedding on April 21 in Kasansur village, which is 15 km away, residents of Gattepalli village told The Wire. Residents of Kasansur said they never reached the wedding venue. The encounter took place on April 22.

The families are now waiting for DNA tests to confirm whether the eight missing children were killed in the police encounter.

The bride in the wedding was from Gattepalli, the native village of Naxalite leader Sainath, who was killed in the encounter, The Hindu reported on Sunday. Several Naxalites were coming to the wedding, and the police had information on their movements for two weeks, the newspaper had reported.

K Vijay Kumar, the senior security adviser in the Home Ministry, had described the encounter as perhaps one of the biggest operations in terms of the number of Naxalites killed.

‘Cruel beyond comprehension’

The families claimed they did not know of the encounter and travelled 140 km to a police station to file complaints only on April 24. However, the police did not show them the photographs of those killed in the encounter – even though the list was already in public domain by then.

“Why did they not tell us when we visited them on Tuesday [April 24],” one person asked in an interview with The Wire. “The police could have just shown us the list and we could have at least identified and cremated our child by now. This is cruel beyond comprehension.”

The elder brother of a Class 11 student who went missing said: “Instead of showing the list to us, they took us to the mortuary and asked us to recognise our children among the bodies. The faces had decomposed completely and we failed to recognise anyone.”

Advocate Lalsu Soma Nagoti, a member of the Gadchiroli zila parishad, said: “There is a possibility that these people had left the village to join the wedding party but were either summoned by the Naxalites camping outside the village or were forcibly taken by the police to the spot and attacked.”

“Whether a part of the movement or not, this cold-blooded murder of such young children cannot be justified,” Nagoti added. “They have snatched an entire generation from us. Only a non-partial, independent inquiry can ensure families of the deceased get justice.”

Police version: ‘New recruits’

Gadchiroli Superintendent of Police Abhinav Deshmukh claimed that Naxalite leader Sainath, who was also killed in the encounter, was in touch with the children. “He [Sainath] had been visiting the village and meeting them,” Deshmukh told The Wire. “It is likely that Sainath had travelled with them to the spot of the encounter.”

Deshmukh had earlier told The Indian Express that the eight missing people from Gattepalli village were new recruits. “There is a possibility that they were being trained for recruitment,” he had said. “The eight may have eventually joined as militia members.”

But the families have denied the suggestion, claiming that the children had never gone missing before. They said the children would not have risked going in a group if they wanted to join the Naxalites.

Villagers claimed the police took away the Aadhaar cards of the missing persons, claiming these were necessary for further investigation. They now fear police may tamper with evidence.