A fact finding initiative into the police firing in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district last week has said there are irregularities in the accounts of the authorities on what led to the strong action against the protestors.

On May 17, three people – Kawasi Wagha, Korsa Bhima and Uike Murali – were killed when the police opened fire on protestors opposing the establishment of a security camp in Silger village in Sukma district. The police claimed they fired in response to gunshots by the Maoists, but the protestors denied the presence of any armed guerillas in their midst.

Last week, over 60 Adivasi protestors, including the head of Silger village, wrote a letter to the governor of Chhattisgarh saying they feared more violence from the police.

Independent observers, lawyer Bela Bhatia and economist Jean Dreze, released a statement on Thursday on what they found during their visit to the Silger village. Last week, the two had alleged that they were being prevented from visiting Silger.

“The Silger camp [police camp] was set up in the dead of night (around 3 am) on 12 May, without informing the villagers let alone seeking their consent through a gram sabha or otherwise,” the statement read. “About 40-50 of them [villagers] went to the camp the next day [May 13] to discuss and register their protest but they were dispersed with lathis, causing injuries to 24. On 14 May, about a thousand adivasis of five nearby gram panchayats started a mass protest which went from strength to strength in the following days. Mass protests continue to this day.”

Two Mine Protection Vehicles parked outside the police camp in Silger village. Photo credit: Bela Bhatia

Mass protests against Central Reserve Police Force camps are common across Bastar district, the independent observers said, adding that the police firing on May 17 brought the protests into focus. Silger is an Adivasi village near the border between Bijapur and Sukma districts. Despite the ongoing protests, the government has been planning to build more camps of security forces in the region, citing threats.

The protestors oppose the police camps as they fear harassment, including sexual assault, fake encounters, false cases and beatings. Thursday marked the third day of a blockade or a “chakka jam” outside the CRPF camp. This was done with the aim of cutting off the camp’s supply lines.

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The independent observers said that locals informed them about an unarmed civilian, identified as Midiam Masa, being killed due to police firing on May 22. Masa, according to locals, was collecting mangoes in Tolevarti village along with two others and was allegedly shot dead when CRPF personnel arrived.

Bhatia and Dreze said the protests against the police camps were largely peaceful even as the numbers swelled every day. “During this period the protestors remained nonviolent but determined,” the statement read. “On 17 May the rally had peak numbers (according to one witness, around 10 thousand villagers were there). What happened that day is reasonably clear from consistent testimonies of multiple eye-witnesses.”

The police would use lathis, tear gas or fire in the air to disperse the protestors every day. On May 17, however, some of the protestors pelted stones at the forces, following which the police opened fire. The observers said this led to the killing of three villagers, including one reported to be a minor.

“Most of the injured were taken to their villages for local care, the more serious ones to the district hospital,” the statement said. “One survivor from Pusbaka village, who is now in the ICU in Bijapur, was shot in the back.”

The observers noted that the police’s May 20 statement claimed that by May 17, the peaceful protestors were replaced with a “new group of 3,000 agitators, many armed, who attacked the camp with the intention of burning it down, leaving the forces with no choice but to open fire”.

“This bizarre story does not fit with any of the testimonies we have heard,” Bhatia and Dreze’s statement said. “By that time [May 17], the camp had a huge presence of heavily armed personnel and there was no point in trying to attack it.”

On May 24, Bhatia and Dreze said they helped the Silger villagers lodge a formal police complaint at Jagargunda. The complaints calls for charges under Indian Penal Code sections 302 (murder) and 307 (attempt to murder).

“Despite the trauma of this police firing, local adivasis are undeterred and the protests continue every day,” the statement said. “In fact, the number of participants grew after 17 May. On 23 May, we witnessed their daily protest near the camp. It was a remarkable display of unity and resolve, wholly peaceful. The police, it seems, have been more restrained after 17 May and there was no lathi charge or other attempt to disperse the crowd when we were there.”

An injured villager from Pusbaka, who was allegedly shot in the back on May 17, in the intensive care unit of a Bijapur hospital. Photo credit: Bela Bhatia