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Chhattisgarh tribals use art to document encounter killings

Villagers in the heavily militarised areas of south Chhattisgarh have embraced the traditional Gond art to document fake encounters that are not uncommon in that part of India. The last moments of Gond tribals, as they are killed by the security forces, are narrated on stone plaques called Mritak Sthamv. Kamal Shukla, a writer-journalist from south Chhattisgarh who has documented such plaques, says he never came across such unique storytelling earlier.

The tribals often put up a stone or two to mark the passing away of a member in the village. The plaques (not headstones) are not placed in the burial grounds like in organised religion but mostly in an open space near the village and coloured with pigments extracted from trees. But of late, the villagers are documenting encounter killings on plaques.

Sulenga plaque

The plaque in Sulenga village in Bijapur district in Bastar Division is named after its resident Hedma Ram, who was killed on February 4. His name is painted at the top of the plaque. The upper panel shows a man, presumably Mr. Ram, resting while cattle graze around. He then gets surrounded by armed men in the second panel. “They are policemen with guns in the plaque, I confirmed it from the villagers,” says Mr. Shukla. The third panel, at the bottom of the plaque, shows Mr. Ram’s body being “dragged by the police”, with many animals witnessing the encounter.

“Hedma Ram’s brother is a Naxalite. Mr. Ram was told to get him surrendered, but he could not. So he was arrested on fake charges and was released in January end,” says Mr Shukla, who investigated the killing. However, he was picked up within a week of his release and killed near Sulenga in a “fake encounter.” Following the incident, the police claimed that Hedma Ram was “a wanted Naxalite” who carried a reward of Rs. 1 lakh on his head.

Journalists stopped

Mr. Shukla alleges that soon after Mr Ram’s death he tried to reach the family in Sulenga but “was stopped” by police. He could only enter Sulenga later with journalists of national television channels. Bastar’s journalists have told The Hindu that they are routinely stopped from reaching the encounter sites when Naxalites or civilians are killed.

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