Gampur (Bijapur, Chhattisgarh): As the temperature began to soar mid-morning, six men briskly dug up some flattened mud in Gampur village, nestled deep inside the Dokapara forest at the hilly cusp of Dantewada and Bijapur districts in Chhattisgarh. The men first dug out about a foot of loose red earth and then delicately pulled out a thin, evenly spread tarpaulin sheet. The excavation continued. Two feet deeper, they extracted several flat wooden planks placed over a deep crater.
As the men continued to toil, several people from Gampur slowly converged at the spot. Their grief permeated the air, already pregnant with the sweet, pungent smell of mahua flowers.
The crater resembled a burial pit, but it wasn’t. The Gond tribe – one of the largest indigenous groups in India – don’t bury their dead; they cremate them. In March last year, the large cavity was created to serve as a “protective space” and preserve the body of a 22-year-old man, Badru Madvi, killed in a “joint operation” by the Central and state reserve forces.
Embalmed in salt, oil and various medicinal herbs, the villagers had unanimously decided to preserve Badru’s body. Much of his remains have now decomposed, leaving behind just a weary skeleton wrapped in soiled clothes. The villagers, however, have resolved to preserve the body until they find a legal remedy for their woes.
Badru’s death coincided with the national lockdown imposed last year soon after the cases of COVID-19 rose in the country. The villagers have since made several attempts to move the Bilaspur high court. But every time, the process was delayed because of the pandemic.
Every year in the month of March, the many Adivasi communities of Bastar region get busy collecting mahua flowers. On March 19, 2020, Badru too had left home around 6:30 am to collect the seasonal bloom. A little after 7 am, villagers heard a loud thud. Badru was shot dead, just a few metres away from his house in Madvipara, one of the seven paras or hamlets in Gampur.
The state claimed it was a “joint operation” carried out by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and District Reserve Guard (DRG). Badru was declared a “Jan Militia Commander”, found in possession of a bharmar (country pistol), a ‘tiffin bomb’ and a cache of sophisticated arms. His family and other villagers, however, fervently refute this allegation.
Extrajudicial killings are a common phenomenon in the Bastar range. Even more common is the trend of picking people up from their villages and later calling them “fugitive” rebels or “Naxals” involved in the armed insurgency. These killings, in many cases, are executed blatantly in front of villagers or other passers-by. But as these cases rarely face legal scrutiny, the word of eyewitnesses, just like the protestations of the families of those who are killed, remain inconsequential.
When Badru was shot, he was not alone. His teenage cousin, Sanu, had joined him to fetch flowers that morning. When the security forces opened fine, Sanu says, he just about managed to save himself. “It was a miraculous escape,” he recalls. It was because of Sanu that Badru’s family had come to know of the incident. Within minutes, their aunt, Kosi Madvi, rushed to the site. “Even before we could reach the spot, I saw that they had bundled Badru up and were dragging his body away. I chased them from Madvipara to Vengpal (a village seven kilometres away) demanding that the body be left behind. They hit me with a pistol butt,” Kosi says.
Badru’s body was taken to Dantewada district hospital, where a post-mortem was carried out. The autopsy report, the villagers claim, was not made available even after much persuasion. The villagers had to stage a protest outside the district collector’s office for days to gain custody of the body, which has since been preserved.
This is not the first instance of an extrajudicial killing in the village, they say; and they fear this won’t be the last either.
On January 28, 2017, 22-year-old Bhima Kadti and his 15-year-old sister-in-law Sukhmati Hemla were killed in a similar fashion. Only six days before their brutal death, Bhima’s wife Jogi gave birth to their second daughter, Bumo. Bhima was with his wife all through the pregnancy and the childbirth, Jogi claims. To celebrate the chhatti or the sixth day of the child’s birth, Bhima, along with Sukhmati, had visited the local mandai in Kirandaul, 30 km away, to buy materials essential for the rituals.
The duo was intercepted, killed in an encounter and later publicly branded as “Naxals”. The state claimed they were a part of the jan militia. A large cache of arms, fever medicines and syringes were also shown as a part of the “spot seizures”. While Bhima was killed at point-blank range, the villagers allege that Sukhmati was sexually brutalised and then shot dead. Many around Dokapara village deep inside Iroli forest, where the two were allegedly taken, testify to having heard Sukhmati’s cries for help.
The police brutality did not stop with Bhima and Sukhmati’s murder. As soon as the news of their death reached the family, Bhima’s elder brother Baman Kadti demanded justice. On January 29 and 30, 2017, he was interviewed by many local media houses where he announced that he had resolved to fight back. On January 31, he was arrested on charges of being an insurgent. His six-month stay in prison was a harrowing one; it is alleged that the police brutalised him continuously and even stabbed his thigh with a sharp object. The marks of the injuries are still visible.
Bhima and Sukhmati’s extrajudicial killing left the village in a rage. As in Badru’s case three years later, then too the villagers had unanimously decided to not cremate the bodies until the court intervened. Bhima’s family moved the Bilaspur high court demanding a second autopsy, primarily on Sukhmati’s body to determine whether sexual assault had occurred. The second autopsy was carried out at the Jagdalpur district hospital. The victims’ family has accused both the Dantewada district hospital and Jagdalpur district hospital of siding with the police and not recording signs of sexual assaults on her body.
The petition filed in 2017, advocate Rajni Soren says, is still awaiting “final hearing”. “It has already been four years. While one may call it ‘standard procedure’, the fact is the hearing in such a serious matter is inordinately delayed,” Soren told The Wire.
While Bhima’s family – with the help of Adivasi rights champion Soni Sori and lawyer Soren – approached the court, several villagers had marched to the Kirandaul police station, 30 km away, seeking intervention. They were all allegedly beaten up by the local district police. As soon as the second autopsy was carried out, the police went to the village and forced the villagers to cremate the body.
With every passing incident, the situation in Gampur has only worsened. The village, deep in the woods, is largely inaccessible for the outer world. I had to cover over 25 km by foot, cross over the steep Vengpal hills and wade through several shallow water bodies to reach the village. The village has not been electrified; there is not a single hand pump anywhere. With no school within about 20-km radius, most children do not get a formal school education. The village has no health centre; most births are carried out at home. The region, along with being out-of-the-way, is always under the state and Central forces’ radar. It is very common to either be detained or beaten up by the security forces.
This inaccessibility has made several villages in the region particularly vulnerable. So, when, a joint force from three districts – Dantewada, Bijapur and Sukma – reached Gampur on March 18 this year, the villagers could do nothing to save themselves.
“The nearest police station is 25 kilometres away. How do we even call for help when the security forces enter the village and attack us?” asks Bhisam Kunjam, who was allegedly beaten up by many DRG personnel. The Wire visited the village on March 31; the red and black marks all over Bhisam’s body were still apparent. An 80-year-old woman, Bandi Kunjam, too had marks on her upper thighs and buttocks. “One man in uniform hit me with a pistol butt,” she complains.
The DRG personnel are recruited from among local youth and surrendered Naxals in the Bastar division. Among those who attacked the village, one Shanu Kunjam was allegedly present too. Shanu, also a Gampur resident, had “surrendered” himself before the district police. He was wanted in several violent attacks and also carried a reward of Rs one lakh before his surrender. The villagers unanimously testified that Shanu was one of the most violent ones.
Several young women complained of being dragged and threatened with rape. Kosi Kunjam, an 18-year-old heavily pregnant woman, says she was dragged outside her house by Shanu and two armed men and constantly told she would be raped. “I was terrified,” recalls Kosi, eyes welling up. “I knew I would be raped. I just did not want them to harm my baby.” After dragging her by her hair and her saree, the men left her outside the house. Their motive, according to what the villagers say, was to terrorise the villagers. And the aim was achieved.
While the villages here lack access to the most basic amenities, they are forced to spend their scanty resources chasing the police and courts. Justice, however, remains elusive – its very pursuit now a hazardous business.
All photos by Sukanya Shantha.