After ‘encounter,' police try to buy villagers' silence with Rs. 3,100 and packets of biscuits, chivda

The monsoon skies have cleared over this village in Dantewada district, but a cloud of doubt still lingers over the site of last week's encounter between the police and suspected cadres of the CPI (Maoist).

On August 4, according to the official version, the Koya commandos spent 18 hours combing through the rain-soaked forests near Kutrem, during which they broke through a Maoist ambush, engaged in a fierce gun battle lasting several hours and ultimately recovered the body of a uniformed Maoist fighter, a 12 bore shotgun and two improvised explosive devices.

The Koya commandos are a specialised police team largely comprising surrendered Maoists or Adivasis whose families have been targets of Maoist violence.

“We were ambushed deep in the jungle and fought the Maoists for about four hours,” said a policeman who was part of the operation, “We fired hundreds of rounds of ammunition … and killed six Maoists, but could recover only one body.” The corpse was identified as Kunjami Joga, a 23-year-old resident of Kutrem.

At Kutrem, however, the villagers have a very different account of the circumstances that led to Joga's death.

About 11.30 a.m. on August 4, the villagers say, a party of the Koya commandos cordoned off Kutrem and took positions outside several houses in its Kotwalpara neighbourhood. Kunjam Hidme, 40, sat quietly in her house when she suddenly heard a policeman scream, “Hold your fire, don't shoot!” followed by a burst of automatic fire.

“Kunjami Joga was stepping out of his sister, Karti Budri's house, when he was shot,” said Hidme. He was unarmed, and was wearing a blue shirt. “I could hear him shouting ‘Ma, Ma' as he lay on the path.” Hidme says the commandos hurriedly dumped the body on a wooden cot they took from one of the houses and left the village soon after.

On August 5, the Chhattisgarh police conducted post-mortem, initiated a magisterial inquiry and handed over the body to Joga's parents. “When I got back his body, Joga was naked except for his underclothes,” said Joga's father, Kunjami Lakhma, “He had a bullet here [pointing to the small of the back near the kidneys] and knife marks on his chest.” As per custom, the body was cremated the same day.

On August 7, the villagers say, the Koya commandos visited Kutrem again, this time with a carton of biscuits and sachets of Haldiram's mixture. “The force called a public meeting outside the primary school,” said Kunjami Aiyte, Joga's aunt, “They said, ‘If the press comes, tell them that Joga was killed in the forest, not in the village'.” Aiyte says the police then gave Rs. 1,100 to the gathered villagers for “food and alcohol.” The biscuits and mixture were distributed among the children.

“The Koyas gave me Rs. 2,000 and told me to keep quiet about Joga's death,” said Kunjami Lakhma when asked whether he had been given any compensation.

Senior police officers expressed surprise when The Hindu questioned them about the money paid to Kunjami Lakhma. Sources refused to come on record, citing the sensitive nature of the allegations and the ongoing magisterial inquiry.

“No one has authorised this [payment],” said a senior policeman speaking on background.

“It is hard to keep control of the Koyas once they are sent out on operation,” continued the source, “The wireless set is our only link to the patrolling companies.” On the day of the encounter, this link was severed by heavy rain and inclement weather. Police officers said the Koyas were not supposed to go to Kutrem at all.

“We were just supposed to go up till Hiroli,” admitted a policeman involved in the operation, “But at Hiroli we received information that a Maoist company was moving between Gumiapal and Kutrem village.” The patrolling party tried to radio headquarters for permission to pursue the Maoists; when the wireless set stopped working, the patrolling party chose to press on moving to Kutrem without waiting for permission.