Odissa: Report on recent alleged Encounters

A five-member team of human rights activists and concerned citizens enquired into three recent cases of alleged crossfire between the police and Maoists in the districts of Koraput and Malkangiri in South Odissa. The three alleged encounters resulted in all in the death of 15 persons, all stated to be Maoists by the police. There were no casualties or injuries on the side of the police. The fact-finding team visited the villages and surrounding areas of Litiput village in Gunnepada panchayat of Lamtaput block, Koraput district; Chiliba village in Balel panchayat, also of Lamtaput block in Koraput district and Silakota in Bapanpalli panchayat of Podia block in Malkangiri district over two days on November 9 and 10, 2013 and spoke to a cross-section of people. The following is a brief report of the findings. A more detailed report will follow in due course.

Fake-Police-Encounters

Contrary to the official police and establishment version, all three purported exchanges of fire did not take place. It is the fact-finding teams’ view that in all three cases, the police, which consisted of the Border Security Force (BSF), Special Operations Group (SOG) and District Voluntary Force (DVF) personnel, opened unilateral fire on the now deceased resulting in the deaths. We will elucidate below each of the three incidents.

Killing of An Adivasi farmer at Litiput

On the night of October 29, Gangadhar Kirsani (about 30), an adivasi farmer of the Gadaba tribe left home at Litiput after dinner along with his relative and close friend Samara Challan to watch over their ragi fields till morning. Their fields are located close to each other. This was their daily routine since about three weeks as it was harvest time and the crop was prone to devastation by monkeys, deer and wild boar. The two managed to get hold of a crab in the rivulet enroute their fields which they hoped to cook and eat while they stayed up the night to keep the wild animals at bay. They were also listening to music on their mobile and with the help of a torch were heading to their ragi fields which were less than half a km from the village. It was a little past 8 pm. Their fields were only a furlong away when out of the blue and without any warning there was firing from towards the right. The burst hit Gangadhar who was walking in front. According to Samara who was just a few feet behind him, the firing was from a fairly short distance. He was lucky to escape the burst because there were some bushes between him and the BSF men who unleashed the firing.

A terrified Samara dropped to the ground and then managed to somehow run back to the village and inform others. By the time the villagers rushed to the spot in less than 15 minutes, Gangadhar was alive and lying at about 15 feet where he was initially hit. He was in all likelihood dragged or lifted there by the BSF personnel who then left.
The villagers picked up Gangadhar and brought him several metres away to the semi-pucca road from where they were making efforts to arrange a vehicle to take him to a hospital. He was still conscious and moaning saying “I will not survive, they have killed me”. His relatives noticed about four bullet injuries on him one of which had pierced his stomach and exited. “His intestines had come out and there was a lot of blood”, they told the fact-finding team. Gangadhar kept asking his aunt Dohona Kirsani repeatedly for water. He died soon after even before a vehicle could be brought to take him to a hospital. He passed away about 45 minutes after being shot.

The villagers then informed the local police, in this case the Machkund PS but there was no response from the police. The next morning (October 30), over a hundred villagers from Littiput as well as several other villages in the area went to the Machkund PS. They submitted a written complaint to the Inspector Incharge (IIC) Mr Routray stating that Gangadhar, an innocent farmer with no links at all to the Maoists was killed by the BSF. They waited till about 2 pm but the police only kept stalling saying “we will come over soon”. Angry villagers then shook up the grills at the police station and even broke a table. The police finally went at about 5 pm and shifted Gangadhar’s body to the district headquarters. A post-mortem was conducted at the Koraput hospital and the body was handed over to Gangadhar’s relatives. He was cremated the next day on October 31. Gangadhar, who raised millets and rice in about 4 acres of land, is survived by his wife Malathi and 2 young sons.

The villagers told the fact-finding team that the IIC handed over Rs 15,000 at Machkund to Gangadhar’s cousin Jaggu Kirsani and Rs 35,000 in cash at Koraput the next day before the body was handed over. Several policemen also told them: “a wrong has been committed”. The Lamtaput BDO also handed over a cheque of Rs 20,000 to Gangadhar’s family.

While these are the plain facts of the case, the police put out the outlandish version that Gangadhar was killed during a counter-insurgency operation by the BSF. The DIG South-West Range S Dev Dutta Singh stated that: “Around 30 BSF men spotted 50 to 60 Maoists near Litiput around 9 pm. No sooner the Maoists saw the BSF men, they started firing and our men retaliated. The exchange of fire continued for 20 minutes. The rebels fired around 30 rounds. Gangadhar was killed in the gun-battle.” The DIG went on to add that whether the deceased was with the Maoists or caught in the cross-fire was under investigation and “if Gangadhar is found to be innocent then he will be compensated as per the prevailing government norms.”

The fact-finding team as no hesitation in stating that Gangadhar, an adivasi farmer, was shot dead by BSF personnel on the night of October 29 near his village of Littiput when he was going to keep watch over his fields along with Samara Challan. There was no exchange of fire with the Maoists as the police claim. This is a clear case of a blatant murder committed by the BSF.
Having opened fire without any provocation and killing an unarmed civilian, the police tried to put out the usual falsehood of an exchange of fire with the Maoists to explain away a case of murder. They cannot simply wash their hands off in this manner. The police cannot manufacture the story of an encounter and then close the case. The law and the Constitution dictate that in every case of an alleged encounter resulting in death the police personnel who have participated in the said encounter must be charged with the offence of having committed murder and prosecuted. In this case, the BSF personnel who participated in the said “counter-insurgency operation” and opened fire must be charged with appropriate sections of the law and proceeded against. It is not up to the DIG or any other police or paramilitary officer to decide upon the innocence or otherwise of Gangadhar. That is simply not their brief. It is only after registering of a case and proper investigation of the crime that a court will decide upon the matter.
Chiliba

On August 24 this year, the Malkangiri and Koraput police claimed that a dreaded Maoist leader Madhav alias G Ramulu who carried a Rs 4 lakh reward was killed in an encounter with security forces the day before (August 23). The police claimed that following a tip-off, a joint team of the Special Operations Group (SOG) and police from Malkangiri and Koraput districts were undertaking combing operations in the forest near Chiliba in Lamtaput block of Koraput district when they came upon a Maoist camp. The police then announced to the ultras that they were surrounded and they had better surrender but the Maoists fired at them upon which the police retaliated in self-defence. A fierce gun-battle ensued at the end of which Ramulu, a member of the Maoist Andhra-Odisha Border Special Zonal Committee was killed. The police also stated that four other ultras managed to escape and they were on the lookout for them. Putting out this version, the Malkangiri SP Akhileswar Singh stated that Ramulu was a top Naxalite who was involved in many incidents of murder, extortion and landmine blasts.

The police version about the death is pure concoction. Ramulu, who was indeed a Maoist underground functionary, had come alone to Chiliba village, in Balel panchayat, on August 22. He spent the night in a farmer’s shed which is used to store grain. The police appear to have had precise information about his whereabouts. Towards noon on August 23, two policeman went into the shed and shot him dead. Soon after, the body was taken to Koraput via Lamtaput in a van that was earlier parked by the police at some distance from the village. The story of a fierce encounter resulting in the death of a top Maoist was then dished out for public consumption.
It is not our case that Ramulu was uninvolved in violence and killing of civilians and police personnel. He may well have been, but that in no way gives the police the right to kill him. The point is that the police did have the option of easily taking him into custody but they did not exercise that. They chose instead to kill him in a cold-blooded manner. Having done so, they took recourse to the fiction of “exchange of fire resulting in the death of a dreaded Maoist”.
During our fact-finding, we also heard the view from several people including journalists reporting from the area, both in Koraput and Malkangiri districts, that Ramulu was seeking to surrender to the government. We were told that he was actually in the process of working out the logistics of giving himself up when he was liquidated by the police.
Mass Killings of Maoists at Silakota

This was by far the biggest “encounter” in which 13 persons were gunned down by the SOG and District Voluntary Force (DVF) in a pre-dawn raid on September 14, 2013. Silakota is a village located deep in the reserve forest range by that name. It falls in Bapanpalli panchayat of Podia block in Malkangiri village. The area is about 10 km from the Sabari river with Sukma district of Chattisgarh on the other side.
Maoist armed squad members, said to belong to the Kalimela dalam and numbering about 20, came and set up camp about three furlongs away from Silakota village on the afternoon of September 13. The place they chose was in a small clearing in fairly thick forest which is ranged on two sides by hills. It is quite clear that the police had information about their presence and a raid was decided upon.

A joint party of the SOG and DVF went on foot to the area in the dead of night. At about 4 am on September 14, they surrounded the camp from three sides and without any warning whatsoever unleashed fire. Thirteen persons who were in all likelihood asleep, died while the others managed to escape beyond the hills.
The bodies of only five of the 13 killed were identified over the next couple of days and they were cremated in the presence of their families and a magistrate. The other eight were unidentified and unclaimed and they were also subsequently buried by the Malkangiri administration. While the five identified were said to be members of the Kalimela armed squad and native to Malkangiri district, it is also possible that among the remaining eight, there could be some civilians and even combatants from other districts of Odissa or even from other States like Andhra Pradesh or Chattisgarh. We are not aware of the local administration making serious attempts to get their identity known by at least publishing photographs in the media, among other things.

Given the large number of deaths, the Silakota “encounter” was widely publicized in the media. What is extremely objectionable is the manner in which senior police officials literally gloated over the killings. The Malkangiri SP Akhileswar Singh, who reportedly led the team that killed the 13 was quoted in the media as stating that: “There was no option of asking them to surrender. Even if I had asked them, do you think they would have? They would have shot back at me and we would have suffered casualties. It’s jungle warfare.” “It was an operation based on precise information. We reached the area by foot and took them out. The heavy downpour helped drown the sound of our movements. Since it was raining, even their sentries had taken shelter in the three tents that they had put up.”

These statements reveal an utter lack of respect for the law. An encounter by definition means an exchange of fire. The SP’s bluster, in effect, amounts to an admission that there was no such exchange of fire at Silakota. The firing was unilateral and only from the side of the police. It was therefore, clearly, a “fake encounter”. In the law, this amounts to murder.
The Orissa DGP while stating that it was a major success in the police drive against the Maoists stated: “This is a stern warning to the Maoists of other States. They will face a similar fate if they enter Odissa.” He then proceeded to even announce cash rewards to the SOG personnel who had taken part in the killings. These are highly irresponsible statements and actions.
Conclusion

In all the three incidents that we looked into, there was no exchange of fire leading to the deaths of a total of 15 people as claimed by the police. There was only unilateral and one-sided firing from the side of the police and special forces like the SOG resulting in the deaths. The assertion of the police that they were fired upon and they had to therefore retaliate in self-defence is nothing but a plain falsehood. Affecting a closure of the matter after making this assertion, and merely registering a case under section 307 of the IPC (attempt to murder) against the now deceased, makes for a complete mockery of the law. Even the mandatory magisterial enquiry into these killings by the administration is no substitute for criminal prosecution of those who took part in these killings.

What is immensely worrying is the level of militarisation in the Southern region of Odissa. Over the past four years, there has been a big ratcheting up of security operations in these parts. The number of BSF camps in Malkangiri and Koraput districts has gone up and more and more of these personnel are being pumped into the area. This is leading to immense injury to adivasis resident in the forest and to an unacceptable violation of the right to life and liberty. It is not our case that the Maoists do not indulge in violence. The police are indeed endowed with the task of meeting that violence as and when it occurs but they must do so in a manner that is totally respectful of the law. They cannot go around violating the law and indulging in extra-judicial killings and then closing the case after duly invoking the convenient concoction of “retaliation in self-defence”.

The police are only as lawful or lawless as the government wants them to be. It is our considered view that the government, both at the Centre and in Odissa has fashioned a policy of seeking to physically wipe out the Maoists. This is born out of a basic understanding that there is nothing to that movement except violence and criminality. In other words, despite official statements from time to time that the Maoist movement is not merely a law and order issue but one having strong socio-economic components, the attempt at the ground-level has always been to annihilate it with the help of special forces. This ruthless policy must end, not least because it results in extreme brutalisation of civilian non-combatants. The government must implement comprehensive policies that seriously and sincerely address issues of social and economic deprivation in the 5th Scheduled areas.

Demands:

1. A case of homicide under 302 IPC must be booked against all police and special force personnel who participated in the killings at Litiput, Chiliba and the Silakota forest. The investigation into these killings must be handed over to the CBI or a criminal investigation team under the aegis of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
2. We urge the Odissa State Human Rights Commission to take cognizance of the killing of Gangadhar Kirsani of Litiput village and issue appropriate orders. His family must be paid a compensation of not less that Rs 10 lakh. The administration must also ensure that his wife Malathi is given a government job without further delay.
3. The government must not ride roughshod over protective legislation meant for adivasis. The hard won rights of the adivasis must be fully respected and honoured and PESA, FRA and other statutes must be implemented in letter and spirit. Systematic policy interventions must be made to ameliorate the material conditions of the adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers in the 5th Scheduled areas.
4. The Maoist movement must be viewed as and addressed as a political movement and not as a mere outbreak of criminality. It must be acknowledged that this movement, though it does employ violence to further its goals, is one that has deep roots in material deprivation, social oppression and lack of freedom.
5. Government must stop its ongoing policy to decimate the Maoists militarily. Serious efforts must be made by both the Government and the Maoists to initiate steps that would lead up to an unconditional dialogue.

Members of the fact-finding team:

Nihar Das of Ganatantrik Adhikar Suraksha Sangatan (GASS), Orissa.
VS Krishna and N Amar of the Human Rights Forum (Andhra Pradesh).
Deba Ranjan, writer, social activist and film-maker.
Debi Prasanna, social activist.