Even as the Bastar police celebrate their “success” in having killed over a hundred alleged Naxalites this year, a Public Interest Litigation challenging the spate of encounters in Bijapur has been filed before the Chhattisgarh High Court in Bilaspur. The petitioners are two young women from Korcholi with extra-ordinary grit and determination –Suneeta Pottam (19 years old).and Munni Pottam (18 years old), who have been supported in this effort by a national women’s organization, the WSS (wssnet.org) as the third petitioner.
(The Petitioners, Suneeta Pottam and Munni Pottam, with a copy of their petition, in their lawyer’s office)
This petition highlights the extra-judicial executions of 6 people, which took place in the villages of Kadenar, Palnar, Korcholi and Andri in Bijapur district over the course of the last year. The police acknowledge only three of these incidents as encounters, and in each one of these, they providean almost identical story to the media –that these “encounters” occurred when combined teams of local police and paramilitary forces had gone out on combing operations after receiving “verified information” about the presence of Maoists in the area. In each one of these cases – Kadernar, Palnar and Korcholi – the police claim that they first came under fire, forcing them to return fire – and it was only on searching the area in the aftermath that they stumbled onto the bodies of dead Maoists who had been killed in the exchange of fire. All of these dead Maoists, as per the police accounts, were found conveniently clad in uniforms and lying next to arms, spent ammunition and Maoist literature.
However, the villagers have something completely different to say. Accompanying this petition are sworn affidavits of ten villagers who are family members of the deceased or eye witnesses of the incident, who challenge the police versions. In Kadenar, the villagers talk about how a married couple, Tati Pande and Manoj Hapka, were forced out of their home in the evening at gunpoint, on the pretext of getting them “surrendered” in the Gangaloor police station. In Palnar, Seetu Hemla was dragged from the fields which he was ploughing, with his hands tied behind him, in full view of his young wife, mother and other villagers. In Korcholi, the womenfolk witnessed Sukku Kunjam of Itavar being shot point-blank, while he was visiting his relatives house in November 2015.
(Lachhmi Hemla, the wife of Seetu Hemla, in Palnar)
In the remote village of Andri, which is a day’s walk from the closest motorable road, the police have not claimed any encounter, nor registered any death. However, the villagers recall that in February of this year, the police party mortally wounded Kudhami Ganga, a young man, by shooting him while he was collecting siyadi leaves for a village wedding. The police team probably never realized that Kuhdami Ganga had succumbed to his injuries some minutes after they shot at him, and never collected his body – hence, this killing probably does not figure in the celebrated “century” of encounters. A few days later, the same patrol team killed or mortally wounded a 9-10 year old boy, Sodi Sannu, who was tending his family’s tomato fields. His death too does not figure in the dubious “century” for the obvious reason that it is difficult to pass off an obviously young child as a Naxalite. What has been done with Sodi Sannu’s body is a question that still haunts his parents.
Role of Surrendered Militants
While seeking the constitution of a high-powered investigation team to look into not just these documented encounters, but all encounters in Bijapur district over the last year, this petition also challenges the legitimacy of the role of surrendered militants in these search and combing missions. In each one of the incidents detailed in the petition, surrendered militants have been instrumental in identifying and seeking out targets, and in carrying out the executions. Referring to the landmark Salwa Judum judgment in the case of Nandini Sundar and Ors v. State of Chattisgarh, where the apex court laid down that a responsible state cannot use the intense feelings of hatred or revenge in the SPOs personally affected by Naxalite violence as a strategy for counter-insurgency measures, the current petition argues that it is equally dehumanizing and irresponsible to urge and incentivize surrendered militants to seek out and kill their putative former colleagues.
The Alien State
The affidavits included in this petition underline the complete alienation of the residents of these villages from the institutions of the State. The villagers are so deeply distrustful of the police and the paramilitaries that their very presence near the villages sends most villagers fleeing into the jungles and neighbouring villagers, irrespective of the time of night or day. The continuing saga of mass arrests, detentions, beatings, sexual violence and extra judicial executions has taught villagers that spending days and nights in jungles, without food or adequate cover, at risk from wild animals and other dangers, forgoing weddings, funerals and festivals, is a price worth paying for avoiding the police or paramilitary troops, who are likely to cause serious harm to their life, limb or liberty.
The affidavits also reveal that in the few instances where the villagers sought help from the police, they were roundly rebuffed and turned back. Sodhi Hurra, father of the missing 9 year old Sodhi Sunna recalls how the Bijapur police did not even allow him inside the police station when he went to report his missing child. Sukli Hemla, the elderly mother of Seetu Hemla, went to the Gangaloor Police immediately after Seetu had been captured and dragged into the jungles, but they did not lift a finger to help her.
(Sukhram Kadati, of Andri village, an eyewitness to the killing of Kuhdami Ganga, outside the Bijapur court.)
Suneeta Pottam and Munni Pottam are young women from Korcholi village, the site of one of the “encounters” described above, who came in contact with the women’s organization WSS when a fact-finding team from WSS visited their village in May of this year. Their courage, along with their knowledge of Hindi has propelled them into a role wherein other villagers depend upon them for help in seeking redressals for their grievances and complaints.
As children, Suneeta and Munni had to give up their studies when their school closed down due to the violence of Salwa Judum in 2005. Their village was also attacked by the Salwa Judum mobs, and their houses were burnt down. With their families reduced to penury, the girls began to work in stone quarries as coolies to support them. After all these years and now as adults, they continue to be sensitive to the suffering and turmoil in their own village and in areas around them, which has given them to courage to seek justice before the High Court.
However, this activism comes at a heavy cost. Even as they were helping villagers record their affidavits in the Bijapur courts for the present case, local police mounted a door-to-door search for them, forcing them to flee to Bilaspur, and approach the High Court for interim relief ensuring their own safety. With the High Court order in hand, these young women have now returned to their village, only to find that in the two weeks that they had been gone, the police parties had returned twice to the village, broken 4 homes and beaten up 3 people.
WSS – Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression – the third petitioner, is a nationwide platform of women’s organizations and individual women, working on issues of sexual violence against women, especially in the context of structures of systemic repression since the past seven years.