Three years after the Sarkeguda encounter that killed 17 people, a judicial commission is still conducting its inquiry.
Still far from justice, the victims of a 2012 Chhattisgarh encounter are living under the gun

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Kotteguda village in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district is a no-go zone. Villagers are frequently stopped by the security forces going out or stepping in and bombarded with questions: where did you go, whom did you meet, what did you do? Bags and purses are always thoroughly searched.

Since 2012, after 17 villagers were killed in the infamous Sarkeguda-Rajpenta-Kotteguda encounter between security forces and tribals in the region, the only major difference here has been the erection of security forces’ camps. There is one camp now every 3 kilometres-5 kilometres. Kotteguda has a primary school, as also other villages in the area, but no schoolteachers in attendance. The nearest functioning health centre is two kilometres away in Basaguda. To get their food rations, everyone needs to travel to village Rajpenta.

In June last year, Rita Kaka of village Kotteguda had written to the National Human Rights Commission complaining of the continued harassment of the villagers at the hands of security personnel. They are no longer free even in their own village, Kaka said. But the Central Reserve Police Force defended the restrictions, claiming they were necessitated because of the Naxalite threat in the region – besides, it said, the regular checks were conducted by the local police since CRPF personnel are unfamiliar with the local language.

Rita Kaka endured the same indignities from the security forces last weekend when she left Kotteguda for Jagdalpur to meet her 19-year-old brother, Kaka Senti. Kaka Senti is one of the two youngsters arrested after the 2012 encounter and charged under various sections of the Arms Act, Explosive Substances Act, and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. While he’s lodged in Jagdalpur prison, a judicial commission is probing the Sarkeguda encounter. The panel held a hearing in Jagdalpur on September 12.

Different sides of the story

According to villagers’ testimonies presented before the commission, under retired High Court judge VK Agarwal, the encounter on the night of June 28, 2012, was a slaughter. Around 60 to 70 unarmed people, including young boys and girls, had gathered in an open field between the villages of Sarkeguda, Kotteguda and Rajpenta to discuss the preparations for Beej Pandum, a tribal festival marking the onset of the sowing season. Mid-way through the meeting, they came under fire from all sides.

At odds with this is the CRPF’s version of events. The paramilitary force claims its troops, along with the district police, exchanged fire with armed Maoist guerillas on the way to the neighbouring village of Silger where they aimed to bust a Maoist hideout.

Which of these versions is true?

In the past, the villagers examined by the commission have consistently recounted the same sequence of events leading up to the firing, while the official accounts have differed at times. On September 12, this was repeated, as more holes appeared in the government’s story.

A new eye-witness

The counsel for the CRPF and the district police, Sanjay Shukla, summoned before the commission a “surrendered Naxalite”, Irpa Ganesh, whose two brothers Irpa Ramesh and Irpa Dinesh were killed in the 2012 encounter. Irpa Ganesh said he had been a Naxalite for 10 years, helping the guerrillas with supplies. In 2012, he took two months’ leave from the group to support his pregnant wife in their village Rajpenta. But when “Naxalites called a meeting” on the night of June 28, he decided to attend. He claimed to have witnessed the encounter.

Irpa Ganesh said he surrendered to the police in January 2015 after being affected by the death of his two brothers. He said he was “impressed with the government policies” and was desirous of being part of the “mukhya dhara” (mainstream). Ever since his surrender, he added, he has been working as a “gopniya sainik” (secret police). However, when cross-questioned by the villagers’ lawyer, Yug Chaudhry, he could neither list the “impressive” government policies nor explain the meaning of mukhya dhara.

In August this year, Irpa Ganesh had filed an affidavit before the commission, claiming that Irpa Dinesh was also a Naxalite and was steering the meeting three years ago. This was at variance with the affidavits and depositions of his sister Shashikala and sister-in-law Janki (wife of Irpa Dinesh), both of whom maintain that Irpa Dinesh was a civilian.

Indeed, in early 2014, the government had granted Rs 2 lakh each to the families of Irpa Ramesh and Irpa Dinesh as per its policy to compensate civilians killed in police-Naxal encounters. Also, on July 5, 2012, when the CRPF had issued a press statement on the encounter, it made no mention of Irpa Dinesh among the names of the seven “Naxalites killed”.

Slow journey to justice

More gaps appeared in the official version on Saturday when the investigating officer, Ibrahim Khan, was called to take the stand.

Khan was among the 25 district police personnel who had accompanied the 196 CRPF troops on June 28. Hearing the first shot, Khan said he fired two rounds from his gun, although he was unable to see the faces of those firing or being fired at. Which direction did the first shot come from? From the right, mentioned Khan for the first time. Why didn’t he bring up this detail earlier? It slipped his mind, he said.

The police claimed they seized several items from the encounter site, including a wireless set, detonators and a fuse, a pipe bomb weighing 2.5 kilos, a black bag and a blue bag, a 12 bore cartridge, a polythene bag with gun powder, a bag with medicines and an injection, 1-metre-long electric wire, a wooden bow and eight metal arrows, and 23 empty shells of AK-47. Did the investigating office seal all the items in cloth, as procedurally required? Khan embarrassedly hung his head in response.

When were the items sent to the Forensic Science Laboratory for testing and verification? Within 15 days, answered Khan. But a letter from the laboratory produced by the lawyer to the commission records that the items were received on February 28, 2013 – eight months later. Further, the letter says that seizures bore the seal of police headquarters in Raipur. If the seizure were made in Sarkeguda and officially processed in Basaguda thana, why did they have a seal of the police HQ in Raipur?

As the hearing on Saturday wound up, the next date was set for November. Advocate Shukla gathered his papers as he went out. Where does this go from here and how far? This will go on for another year or so, he smiled.

Once the inquiry is complete, the report will be handed to the government and subsequently tabled in Parliament. More importantly, Chaudhry explains, since judicial commissions can only work within the framework of their terms of reference and recommend actions, it’s up to the government if it wishes to take action. By that time, the aggrieved families will perhaps learn to live with their grief in silence. Public memory of the 2012 encounter will fade, supplanted by other deaths in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region.

Couldn’t there have been a faster way to justice? Yes, said Chaudhry cynically, first information reports were filed after the encounter – but against the two youngsters currently in prison and the 17 who died that night.