Indications are that many civilians were killed in the counterinsurgency operation

In the early hours of Friday, about six hundred troopers from the Central Reserve Police Force and the Combat Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) commando unit conducted an operation in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district in which 18 tribal villagers were killed and six CRPF troopers injured.

Two suspected Maoists were killed in Sukma in an unrelated incident the same day.

As per the official record, police say that those killed in Bijapur were guerrillas of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). But the following account, based on interviews with social activists, local journalists, and senior police officers in Chhattisgarh, suggests that many of the victims were civilians lost in the fog of war that shrouds south Chhattisgarh.

Late on Thursday night, a Deputy Inspector General of the CRPF coordinated an operation in which three teams of the CoBRA and the CRPF set out from Jagargunda and Chintalnar (in Sukma district) and Basaguda (in Bijapur) to a rendezvous at Sarkeguda in Bijapur’s Kotaguda panchayat. “About 200 troopers set out from each camp,” said a senior policeman. “The Jagargunda team crossed through to Basaguda without any incident, but the other two companies came under fire.”

At about 1 a.m., the source said, the Basaguda team came under a burst of gunfire on the outskirts of Sarkeguda village in which six CRPF troopers were injured, two critically. “The troopers were shot at by 303 rifles and muzzle-loaded shotguns,” said the source, suggesting that the attack came from Jan Militia, Maoist village defence committees comprising local youth who are not formally members of the party and do not carry automatic weapons.

The troopers fired back and killed a number of villagers who, the source said, might not have been affiliated with the Maoists. As the encounter at Sarkeguda progressed, the CRPF team from Chintalnar arrived near the village and came under fire as well.

“The second team also retaliated and probably killed some Maoist sentries,” said the source. Eighteen villagers were killed in all, but the source said that fire was exchanged in complete darkness, making it impossible to tell who killed whom.

Children among the dead?

The police source’s account is partially corroborated by inter-faith activist Swami Agnivesh and reports from local journalists.

“A few days ago, the Maoists sent word calling for a meeting in Sarkeguda village,” said Swami Agnivesh, who has previously interceded on behalf of the State government to secure the release of policemen kidnapped by the Maoists. “The meeting was to discuss a land dispute in the village.” In the early hours of the morning, Mr. Agnivesh said, security forces surrounded the village and opened fire. The Maoists fired back and escaped, leaving behind a crowd of civilians who were struck by CRPF bullets.

“A 9-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy were also killed,” said Swami Agnivesh, but this information could not be verified. Photographs passed on by local journalists show a number of corpses, including that of a woman, clad in civilian garb, and what appears to be a teenaged boy of indeterminate age.

A young man arrested in the operation has corroborated Swami Agnivesh's account to a degree.

“A group of journalists met a 14-year-old boy called Irpa Chottu from Sarkeguda in Maharani hospital in Jagdalpur this evening,” said a local journalist present at the hospital. According to the journalist, Chottu claimed he was grazing his cows when a group of Maoists came and forcibly took him to a meeting. Suddenly, the police appeared and opened fire on the meeting. The Maoists escaped, but several villagers were caught in the crossfire. Chottu said he was captured, questioned, shot in the leg and finally sent to the hospital by the security forces.

“The problem is the complete absence of a legal framework to protect policemen in case of a genuine case of collateral deaths in an operation,” said a senior policeman. “This forces the police to claim that even those killed in crossfire are Maoist guerrillas. Without a legal framework, a man firing in self defence can be prosecuted for murder.”

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