A judicial commission has indicted security forces for killing 17 civilians, including seven minors, in Sarkeguda village in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district in June 2012. The commission found no evidence for the security forces’ claim that the villagers were Maoists who had fired upon them in a night-time encounter. Instead, it concluded that the villagers had not fired any shots, the security personnel may have fired on the village gathering “in panic”, but even after the firing, they went on to assault the villagers, killing one person in his house the next morning.

The commission, led by former Madhya Pradesh High Court judge Justice VK Agarwal, submitted its findings to the Chhattisgarh government earlier in November. Scroll.in has a copy of the report.

The incident dates back to the night of June 28, 2012. The village complainants told the commission that leaders and priests of three neighbouring villages of Sarkeguda, Kotteguda and Rajpenta had called for a meeting that night to discuss arrangements for the upcoming Beej Pandum festival. Around 60 to 70 people, including young boys and girls, had gathered in a common open ground, where, half-way through the meeting, they were attacked without provocation by the security forces.

The security forces told the commission that teams of the Central Reserve Police Force and Chhattisgarh Police were on their way to the nearby village of Silger as part of an operation to bust a Maoist hideout when they encountered suspicious sounds followed by firing in the jungle around 10.30 pm. They returned fire in “self defense” and six of their personnel were injured in the firing.

The commission concluded that the security personnel had initiated the firing and that the injuries of the six security personnel could have occurred “due to “cross-firing”. “…the nature of the injuries sustained by the injured security personnel could not have been caused by firing from a distance, such as injury on the right toe or near the ankle,” the report said. “Secondly, the bullet injuries… could only be caused due to cross firing, as it appears more plausible, as it was dark all around in the place of incident and possibility cannot be ruled out that the bullets fired by fellow members of security forces might have hit other members of the security personnel of the team.”

The fact that officials leading the teams – Deputy Inspector General of Police S Elango and Deputy Commander Manish Bamola – had not fired a single bullet during the episode indicated “that there was no firing by the members of the meeting”. The commission said encountering unexpected and suspicious sounds during the operation may have triggered a “panic reaction in some members of the security force”. It also noted the lack of sufficient equipment of the personnel that may have aggravated the panic.

The commission said that the documents prepared during police investigation showed “clear manipulation”. In the light of this revelation, it dismissed the alleged seizure of pellets, among other things, from the site.

The investigation report said that the personnel had assaulted the villagers and noted many other injuries besides gunshot wounds on the deceased and those who were injured. “Therefore, evidently the incident was not confined to and did not end with firing,” it noted.

One of the villagers, Irpa Ramesh, who was present at the meeting was beaten up and then killed on the morning of June 29, 2012. The commission observed that Ramesh’s death much after the series of events of the previous night cast “serious doubts” about the security forces’ version of the incident.

The report, however, rejected the villagers’ claims that they had assembled on the night of June 28, 2012, to make arrangements for the Beej Pandum Festival. “Though, it is true that it has not been established on record by convincing evidence that the persons assembled in the meeting or those killed or injured belonging to three villages – Sarkeguda, Kottaguda and Raj Penta were Naxalites, however, at least some of them admittedly had criminal antecedents as would transpire from evidence on record,” it said.

On July 11, 2012, then Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh had ordered a judicial inquiry into the case. The government has received the report, an unidentified senior official of the state government told The Indian Express. “The next step is to put it before the Cabinet, and, if accepted, before the Vidhan Sabha.”

The villagers were represented by a team of lawyers, including Yug Chaudhry, Shalini Gera and Sudha Bharadwaj, who was arrested last year in the Bhima Koregaon case and is currently in jail.

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