by- Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS)
Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) condemn the recent spate of genocidal violence unleashed by the Indian State on the adivasis of Central India in the form of ‘encounter’ killings in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra and Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh. The alleged ‘encounter’, a term used in the subcontinent to describe the extra-judicial killing of citizens by the armed forces and police, in Gadchiroli district took place in the Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh border in the Rela-Kasnasur forest in the intervening night of 22nd-23rd April 2018. With more bodies being fished out of the Indravati River, the death toll of this alleged encounter has reached 39, nineteen of whom were women, all of whom killed by the Commando-60 (C-60) Squad of the Maharashtra Police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). This was quickly followed by another encounter in the neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh on the 27th of April 2018 where eight more were killed in an operation led by the notorious Greyhound force of the Telangana Anti-Naxal Unit along with Chhattisgarh Police and the CRPF. This alleged encounter took place near the Ipenta village in Bijapur district with six women among those declared dead. These extra-judicial killings have resulted in the death of 47 persons, several of whom are unidentified, and with fears of more persons, including minors, missing from the districts of Gadchiroli and Bijapur. Reports coming out of area reveal heartbreaking accounts of how villagers including children gathered for a marriage function were rounded up and killed without provocation by the security forces.
The Home Ministry has already declared the alleged encounter killings a ‘success’ and has begun planning for a ‘final push’ through campaigns such as ‘Operation Prahaar’ and action plans like ‘SAMADHAN’ in a bid to eliminate ‘Left-wing extremism by 2022’. These ‘encounters’ are defended as a ‘fitting response’ to the losses faced by the security forces. Furthermore, a video released to the media shows the security forces shamelessly celebrating the ‘encounter’ killings by merry-making and dancing to popular songs. While the Greyhounds of Telangana move across and into the borders of neighbouring states to ‘encounter’ alleged Maoists with impunity, the Home Ministry is quick to take credit for its brutal tactics against the people of Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Odisha and Andhra. It is clear, therefore, that the Indian state is not only in gross violation of basic human rights but is determined to wage war against its own people. It is crucial to note that the Indian state has reluctantly agreed to sign some of the UN Conventions against Torture while merely ‘noting’ others, refused to be subject to the International Criminal Court as it recognises war crimes in internal conflicts and, most importantly, refused to be subject to the Additional Protocols I and II of the Geneva Convention that brings non-international armed conflict under International Humanitarian Law despite world-wide condemnation of its policies on dealing with internal conflict and deteriorating human rights records.
In light of this, we note with deep concern that the version of the killings as forwarded by the Indian state raises more doubts about the manner in which the combing operations were conducted. The use of advanced weaponry such as the Under Barrel Grenade Launchers (UGBLs) and the overall lack of casualties or even injuries on the part of the armed forces indicate a one-sided attack by the State and not an ‘encounter’. In addition, local media and fact-finding reports from Gadchiroli suggest that those killed were local villagers and not Maoists as claimed by the State. Eight villagers including five women from the Gattepalli village in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra have already been reported missing after the massacre which took place on the banks of the Indravati River. The missing villagers are all teenagers in the age group of 14-16 years. They had gone to attend a wedding in the nearby Kasnasur village and are believed to have been shot dead by the security forces apparently because they were Maoists. No effort appears to have been made to establish their identity before they were shot in cold blood. Their families could not even identify the dead bodies recovered from the Indravati River as they were bloated beyond recognition. Media reports suggest some bodies were mauled by crocodiles in the river.
This alleged encounter comes under further scrutiny as the villagers near Nainar, the second site of encounter as claimed by the police, state that they did not hear enough gun shots that could have resulted in the death of six Naxals. The villagers suspect that the bodies of those killed in Kasnasur were brought to Nainar at night. The police version of the so-called encounter in Kasnasur and Nainar, therefore, appears dubious. The lack of injuries, let alone casualties for the armed forces despite facing ’40-50 armed Maoists’ in the encounters, and lack of evidence of ‘gun-battle’ in the forests where the encounter took place is another cause for suspicion. It has now been confirmed that those killed in the alleged encounter as Maoists include eight minors who had left their village to attend a wedding. The families of these minors were unable to locate them and filed a missing persons report at the police station. The following day, their village was visited by C-60 forces but did not inform the villagers than 39 bodies, several of which were unidentified, were with the police at the station. The day after that the police released the pictures of those killed in the alleged encounter to the media. On seeing these pictures, the family members rushed to identify the bodies. The police had declared them ‘unidentified’. Since the bodies were bloated beyond recognition, the families are now waiting for DNA results to confirm that the dead are indeed their children. After the age and identity of these eight reached the media, the police version changed from armed Maoists to young recruits of the Maoists. Most cruelly, despite filing a missing persons report, the family members were not informed of those killed and found out through the press release issued by the police to the media. This suggests a clear attempt to suppress and manipulate the facts on state violence clearly planned and orchestrated to instill fear in the people of the region. The families of those killed have demanded an independent probe into the killings.
After the growing surge of voices questioning the police version of the events of the night of 22nd and 23rd April, the team of doctors at the district hospital in Gadchiroli who conducted the post-mortem of the bodies of those killed in the encounter has come under scrutiny for failing to keep the samples of the viscera taken from the bodies safe for chemical analysis after accusations that those killed were poisoned, captured, and tortured comes to light. Now, after pressure from the families of the minors killed, the Gadchiroli SP has given assurances that the viscera will be preserved and sent for chemical analysis. It needs to be seen if this analysis is done following the guidelines set by the Supreme Court. In light of the recent news reports indicating the death of seven children among those killed in the encounter, WSS is determined to get to the facts and will undertake a fact-finding in the region, bring out a report at the earliest while continuing to urge bodies like the NHRC to intervene and investigate those responsible for the deaths of innocents.
The Indian State has a shameful history of carrying out fake encounters and arrests targeting vulnerable villagers in conflict-prone regions and branding them as having Maoist affiliations. The brutal rape, torture, and murder of 23 year old Madkam Hidme by the security forces in Gompad village in Chhattisgarh on 13th June 2016 is an important case in point. The police not only blatantly branded Madkam Hidme as a Maoist but also dressed her up in a uniform and planted a gun beside her dead body to cover up her death as an ‘encounter’ killing. In the recent encounters, the police seem to have used this very same policy of killing villagers and dressing them up in Maoist uniforms post-mortem. The policy of killing unarmed adivasis, releasing pictures of their bodies surrounded by weapons, branding them as Maoists in elaborate press conferences organised by the police has been seen after every such so called encounter. Its primary intention appears to be to bolster the morale of a police force that is made to kill its own people with the promise of quick promotions and awards. Once again, in the case of this encounter, this narrative has been repeated and all efforts by independent persons, organisations or media to report on the situation in the villages affected has been thwarted and their claims dismissed by the police force.
It is crucial here to note that in both encounters, the majority killed were women. This becomes important to note at a time when every news source from the states of Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, Telangana and Andhra reports incidents of sexual violence on adivasi women by the security forces as a part of its strategy. This becomes clear when we note that just in the state of Chhattisgarh since the beginning of this year there have been hundreds of cases of sexual assaults by security forces on women. The alleged encounter killing ten, six of whom were women, on the 2nd of March this year near Kanker in Chhattisgarh is part of this narrative of impunity. The impunity enjoyed by the security forces extends to include any and all means to brutalise the bodies of the deceased in an effort to mark the ‘success’ of the security forces over those who stand between them and resources of the land. The police press release speaks of freeing the adivasis from fear and paving the way for ‘development’ with the success of these encounters. In an attack in Sanghajata and Goelkera forests of Jharkhand, the state police and armed forces took the help of the army, its helicopter, mortar shells, long range missiles, and advanced weaponry. This encounter took place for over 40 hours and the police has confirmed that it started on the 15th of April and has continued intermittently ever since in the West Singhbhum district of Jharkhand. The use of advanced deadly force has increased in frequency, the policy of the state is to crush Naxals through any means necessary and the toll on adivasi lives is collateral damage. It is evident that the state sponsored killing of adivasis goes hand in hand with the loot of natural resources in these regions. The strong opposition by the people of Gadchiroli to the Surajgadh Mining Project, contract for which was awarded to Lloyd Steel, clearly shows how the adivasis perceive the government’s claims of development. 80% of Gadchiroli is forested and the adivasis have opposed the mining project, the setting up of industries, land acquisition and indiscriminate felling of trees. Besides the damage to land and water resources, projects such as these negatively affect the livelihoods of the people, their health and increase the immiserisation of the most marginalised of the country. Instead of listening to the will of the people, the government has deployed the CRPF, the police force and instructed the administrative officials in the region to ignore the protests of the people. It is clear that Central India has been witness to a long-standing war waged by the state at the behest of the corporations that aim to acquire the mineral rich lands for extraction and export of resources. The policy adopted by the state to realise this aim has been to sponsor, execute and celebrate the killing of adivasis in the form of ‘encounters’.
WSS believes that the state-sanctioned mass killings are in continuation of the larger attack orchestrated by the Indian state against progressive democratic activists and organisations. A young dalit girl who witnessed the violence during the Bhima Koregaon riots was recently found dead in a well under suspicious circumstances, her family along with other dalit families are being forced to leave the dalit basti, Jyoti Jagtap, Harshali Potdar, Rupali and other Dalit Activists and Human Rights defenders who protested the caste violence on dalits and organised the Elgaar Parishad along with their advocate had their homes raided by the Maharashtra police. Meanwhile, the Hindutva leader, Sambhaji Bhide, who is accused of inciting violence during the riots, roams free. Adivasi advocate Lalsu Nagote who has opposed big mining projects like the Surajgadh Mining Project has faced repeated harassment at the hands of the Maharashtra police and branded a Maoist. The Brahmanical face of the Indian State is visible as it carefully focuses its attacks on the dalits, adivasis, minority communities, and the working class of this country in its single-minded goal of serving global capital. The suppression of people’s movements by the Indian state through repressive tactics is aimed precisely to deter the people from joining the resistance to the fascist onslaughts of the state and to allow the corporate loot and plunder of resources to go on unabated. In a trend that is sweeping the globe, nations are electing authoritarian, populist figures, espousing the supremacy of the majority community or ethnicity. The shrill pitch of nationalism, the appeals to the 56” chested machismo and the single minded devotion to ‘growth’ defined only by increasing profits for corporations are drowning out the softer voices for diversity, inclusion and the will of the people. Today, the use of ‘encounters’ by the state gives legitimacy to security forces to use any means necessary to kill, brutalise and then triumphantly exhibit the damage done to the most marginalised people of this country and serves to exhibit the might of the state at the cost of its democratic institutions. This is most clearly visible in Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh where the number of alleged encounters since his government came to power has strengthened the notion of retributive justice. With 50 killed and over 350 injured in 1,100 ‘encounters’ in a year, the state police is settling scores and handing out death sentences before a person is charged with a crime. Encounter killing has become the chosen tool for the Indian State to achieve its intentions. The normalisation of this practice internationally acknowledged as a war crime over existing legal processes while the judiciary turns a blind eye to this violation of law serves the interests of the ruling class of this country. This active side-stepping of the judicial process and disdain for the rule of law reveals the absolute impunity enjoyed by the security forces as they fulfill the aims of the ruling establishment. Condemning the policy of extra-judicial killings of the Indian state and the increasing repression on the people of the country,
- A free and fair judicial enquiry into the incidents of alleged ‘encounter’ killings in Bijapur and Gadchiroli districts.
- Immediate filing of criminal cases against those responsible for these brutal killings.
- Stopping all strategies that kill persons instead of respecting human rights and rule of law.
- An end to the concerted crackdown on progressive democratic activists and harassment of local populations in conflict-prone zones by the Indian State.
Ajita, Nisha, Rinchin and Shalini