Suvojit Bagchi

The family of victims, killed allegedly by the police. The woman on the left (with the kid) is the wife of Raghunath Vanjam, Poddi. The old woman in the middle is Raghunath's mother, Gutta. On extreme right is Sudru Vanjam's wife, Ramwati. Photo: Suvojit Bagchi
The Hindu The family of victims, killed allegedly by the police. The woman on the left (with the kid) is the wife of Raghunath Vanjam, Poddi. The old woman in the middle is Raghunath’s mother, Gutta. On extreme right is Sudru Vanjam’s wife, Ramwati. Photo: Suvojit Bagchi

The Chhattisgarh police have killed two activists of the Salwa Judum, a government-backed militia to take on Naxalites, which the Supreme Court declared illegal and unconstitutional.

A couple of eyewitnesses told The Hindu that the villagers, of the Muria Gond tribe, were “killed in cold blood by the police.”

A magisterial inquiry has been ordered into the incident, which has angered the residents of several villages in Bijapur district, 400 km south of the capital Raipur, who took out a rally recently.

On February 14, seven Madpal residents went into the forest to recover the carcasses of animals, including two peacocks, they had killed the night before. Near Kurmed, a village 2 km from Madpal, they were stopped on a mud dike between two patches of arable land.

The eyewitness said 50-60 police personnel asked the tribals, who wielded bows and arrows, to surrender their arms. “We were told to sit down, knees folded and our hands placed behind our waist,” said Kuta Vanjam, head of Madpal, who accompanied the hunters.

After confirming their identity, the constables fired randomly at the villagers. Dasru Vanjam, who also went with the villagers, was shot in the thigh. He averred that the villagers were “unarmed” when the firing started. The police fired from a “distance of 15 to 20 yards,” he said, raising his crutch and pointing to the boundary wall of his house. While Raghunath Vanjam, 35, died on the spot, Sudru Vanjam, 32, was alive for a while, he said.

The Madpal villagers heard the gunshots around 8 a.m. that day. Raghunath’s mother Gutto chased the police for half-a-km. “They told me to go back or they would shoot me,” Gutto said, crying inconsolably. Raghunath’s wife Poddi Vanjam, 32, said that along with the other villagers, they spent four years in Salwa Judam’s Mirtur camp and returned home in 2009. “Now, we are suspected by the Maoists and killed by the police.”

At the peak of the anti-Maoist movement, several villages of south Chhattisgarh were evacuated, and the tribals were forced to shift to camps in the vicinity of police or paramilitary forces stations, mostly adjacent to motorable roads. One such camp was at Mirtur, housing as it did the residents of Madpal and 16 other villages. At least 10,000 people stayed there, as estimated by this correspondent during a visit in 2007.

That is why the incident has surprised Salwa Judam founder Mahendra Karma. “These men [Raghunath and Sudru] were in the anti-Maoist operation… it is a fake encounter, and [we] demand a proper inquiry. Every villager in remote areas is not a Maoist, the police should understand,” Mr. Karma said on the phone.

Bijapur Superintendent of Police Prashant Agrawal has also concluded that the “dead and the injured tribals are not Naxalites.” “There were some 50 Naxalites in the area, and an exchange of fire [with the police] took place. The villagers came in between the police and the Maoists and got shot,” he said.

However, the First Information Report filed in the Mirtur station states that the police seized usual accoutrements of Naxals, including single shot gunpowder rifles, Communist literature, bows and arrows and bullets casings.

The villagers said the exchange of fire had “never taken place.” They have been asked to testify before the sub-divisional police officer on March 21.