2011 starts on a bloody note as the bodies pile up in Chhattisgarh's Dantewada district
The women standing next to him look resplendent in their saris, but Kamlu Ganga, 20, looks straight ahead at the camera. There he is in the front row in his pastel shirt and his new blue-and-white checked lungi, with friends and relatives in a ‘group photo' taken at a village fair.
“I'm wearing the same lungi today,” remarks his mother Kamlu Gangi, fingering the now faded garment wrapped around her waist. It's been a few years since that day at the fair, and a little over a month since the day she opened a plastic bodybag in the Sukma police station and was confronted with the corpse of her son. “They had taken out his eyes,” she says, “both eyes.”
“I think they conducted a post-mortem,” says a relative. “It looked like he had been cut open and stitched back together.” Officials have confirmed that post-mortems are conducted in all such cases in line with police regulations and National Human Rights Commission guidelines.
According to his family, Kamlu Ganga was a young farmer of Bade Setti village in Chhattisgarh's Dantewada district and was picked up from his fields by the police in the early hours of January 13. “He left the house just before sunrise,” says Ms. Gangi, speaking through a translator. When he didn't return by afternoon, Ms. Gangi informed the village headman and began searching for her son, till finding him in the bodybag, two days later.
The police said Kamlu Ganga was a Maoist and killed in an exchange of fire with the security forces. Villagers say he was picked up at Bade Setti, taken to the neighbouring village of Koya Bekur and shot in cold blood. There are no eyewitnesses, but residents of Koya Bekur say they heard a burst of automatic fire on the outskirts of the village in the evening of January 14.
On January 14 this year, the police claimed that a tribal police corps of adivasi special police officers (SPO) killed an armed guerrilla of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) in the vicinity of Bade Setti.
On January 16, Dantewada's Senior Superintendent of Police S.R.P. Kalluri held a press conference in Sukma, in which he announced an award of Rs. 1 lakh for those involved in the January 14 operation. Police sources say the team commanders were given Rs.10,000 each; the remaining money was divided among their 300-odd troopers.
In a January 16 report in the Hindi daily Hari Bhoomi, Mr. Kalluri announced that the SPOs would receive Rs.1 lakh for every Maoist killed, and that he would not eat salt in any form until 12 Maoists were killed in Dantewada. When contacted, Mr. Kalluri described the Hari Bhoomi report as “totally rubbish,” adding that he had normal meals.
SPO commander Ismail Khan was among the men feted on January 16. A week later, on January 23, he was watching a rooster fight at Sukma's Murga Bazaar when an unidentified assailant crept up behind him and shot him in the back at point blank range. It is believed that the hitman used a ‘katta:' a locally made 12 bore single shot weapon that is devastating at close range and favoured by low-ranking Maoists.
“The bullet tore through his left lung,” said a policeman. “He died on the spot.” The police say Mr. Khan had joined the police about three years ago and, given his promise, had been promoted to the regular police force. He was about 28 years old, and survived by his young wife.
As Mr. Khan breathed his last and the crowd dispersed in panic, his men frantically searched for the assailant. “The SPOs went mad,” said an eyewitness. “They started rounding up everyone in the market and beat us all up. Everyone ran in different directions, those who were caught were beaten.”
A resident of Neelavaram, Veko Kosa, had come to Sukma for treatment for a neck tumour. “We came to Sukma together. I gave him Rs. 3,000 for an injection and went to visit his family,” says Veko Rame, his wife.
When the grief-stricken SPOs began their rampage, Kosa slipped out of Murga Bazaar and ran across the road towards Podiyam Malti's house. Eyewitnesses say he was trying to hide in small shed in Ms. Malti's yard when he was shot in the stomach.
“He was still breathing when they took him away. I think he died on the way to the hospital,” says Ms. Malti. Ms. Malti was stepping out of her house at the time when she was shot through the leg by a stray bullet. “I collapsed on my door step,” she says. “I have no idea what happened.”
“The police say that Veko Kosa was a member of a Maoist sangam and was shot as he was trying to escape,” says Dantewada Collector R. Prasanna. Mr. Prasanna has ordered a magisterial inquiry into the deaths of Veko Kosa and Kamlu Ganga (the youth from Bade Setti) and has promised to compensate their families if the men are found innocent.
Konta MLA Kowasi Lakma of the Congress says both Kosa and Ganga were known to him and had no Maoist ties. “I have written to the Chief Minister, the Governor and the Collector,” says Lakma. “No one is listening. The police are passing off innocents as Maoists.”
Mr. Prasanna says the inquiry shall be completed in two months. If Kosa and Ganga are found innocent, their families are entitled to Rs. 4 lakh in compensation and a government job. If found guilty, they will probably join a growing list of Maoists killed in action.