On the day Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh addressed a public gathering to mark the creation of Sukma district, carved out of Maoist-affected Dantewada, a custodial death in the Sukma police station underlines the difficulty in winning over a disaffected tribal populace in the backdrop of a violent counterinsurgency campaign.

Podiyam Mara of Kondre village died in the police station on the night of January 13, just hours after he was presented before a magistrate and remanded in judicial custody. “Mara hanged himself in the police lock-up using a bedsheet. Four constables have been suspended,” said a police spokesperson, “He was to be transferred to Dantewada jail, but he was held in the police station overnight as it was too late to travel on the night of the 13th.”

“[Mara] was picked up on January 12 during a CRPF operation and handed over the police the following morning,” said Inspector-General Pankaj Mishra of the Central Reserve Police Force, “If we encounter a suspect during an operation, the CRPF hands him over to the local police.”

However, policemen and party leaders from across the political spectrum say the CRPF picked up Mr. Mara several days earlier, and brutally tortured before turning him over to the local police. The police and the CRPF have denied these allegations.

“The CRPF caught Mara on January 9, just outside Sukma town. He had come to town to cash a cheque for money earned by collecting tendu leaves,” said Kowasi Lakma, vice-president of the Chhattisgarh Congress Committee and Member of Parliament from Konta, of which Sukma is a part. “I personally called everyone from the thana in-charge upwards to get him released. He was tortured to death... the CRPF electrocuted his genitals and poured petrol up his anus.”

“The police story of suicide is completely false. Mara was brutally assaulted in the CRPF camp in Sukma. There has to be a probe and the guilty must be brought to book,” said Manish Kunjam of the Communist Party of India and former MLA from Konta, over telephone.

As per a January 16 report in the Indian Express, post mortem confirmed that Mr. Mara had “swelling over the penis and lateral part of the anus.” The Indian Express also quoted a policeman who said Mr. Mara's genitals had been doused with petrol and set on fire.

Sources in the Intelligence agencies confirmed that the CRPF had played a role in Mr. Mara's death. “He was picked up as it was suspected that he was a Naxalite. He was subjected to harsh interrogation and may have died of internal haemorrhage,” said the source, seeking anonymity. The source stopped short of commenting on Mr. Mara's innocence. “The fact that there were no follow-up operations suggests that he did not provide any information of value,” said the source.

In September last year, The Hindu reported a similar instance in which Madkam Jogarao, a tribal, died of brain haemorrhage soon after he was arrested and interrogated by the CRPF and district police.

“The new district of Sukma was created to bring the administration and the justice system closer to Adivasis of Bastar. This will be possible only when the ordinary citizen feels free and secure,” said Nandkumar Sai, a senior tribal leader and BJP Rajya Sabha MP. “The medical report confirms that Mara was tortured. Suspending constables is not enough, a free and fair investigation must affix responsibility and punish the guilty.”