A week after a late-night raid by the police and the CRPF led to the death of several tribal villagers in Bijapur district, the Chhattisgarh government announced a judicial inquiry to ascertain the chronology of the events, the reasons behind the firing and the identities of those killed.

The inquiry will be headed by a judge of the Chhattisgarh High Court in Bilaspur.

In a statement, Chief Minister Raman Singh said the government was not succumbing to political pressure to hold the police accountable for their actions, but would dispel confusion surrounding the counterinsurgency operation.

This is the second such probe ordered in as many years. In March 2011, the government ordered a judicial inquiry after The Hindu reported that the security forces had torched about 300 houses, killed three men and sexually assaulted three women in Sukma district. Fifteen months have passed, but Justice T.P. Sharma’s report is yet to be made public.

On June 28 this year, 19 persons were killed in the raids in Bijapur and Sukma districts, prompting widespread outrage. In Bijapur, 17 persons, including children, were killed when the security forces opened fire at a meeting in Kottaguda panchayat, while two others were killed in an unrelated incident.

There are also allegations that the forces sexually assaulted four teenaged girls. Some bodies photographed by this correspondent had lacerations caused by a sharp object, and at least one body had the throat slit.

CRPF Director-General K. Vijay Kumar insists that the village meeting was organised by the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and his force retaliated when unidentified persons opened fire on the troops. Six CRPF troopers were injured in the incident. Villagers insist that no Maoists were present and that the security forces opened fire on a peaceful gathering without provocation.

At Kottaguda, villagers are yet to come to terms with the loss of some of the youngest residents. Madkam Ratna, 23, and Kaka Kamala, 25, are neighbours at Kottaguda and were roommates in high school in Avapalli, and are today united in their grief.

Kaka Kamala’s nephew Rahul and Madkam Ratna’s brother Ram Vilas, who were killed in the incident, were amongst the brightest students at the Basaguda government school. Both were 15, and longed to study in a school far away from Bijapur’s violence.

“I couldn’t believe Rahul had died in the firing,” said his aunt. “Even after everyone told me he perished in the firing, I kept hoping he was alive, right up to his funeral.”

“Rahul was living with me and taking summer tuitions to prepare for engineering competitive exams,” said his teacher Ritesh Kumar Sawragiri, “He went home for a few days, and then this happened.”

“Ram Vilas kept saying I don’t want to study here,” said his sister Madkam Ratna, a peon in a girl’s school at Basaguda. “But we couldn’t get his marksheet on time, so I convinced him to stay on for another year. He wanted to become a lawyer.”

The CRPF and the State and Central governments say that only six of the 17 killed at Kottaguda have previous criminal records, but insist that the force responded only after the Maoists opened fire first.

Ashok Zargar, who supervised treatment of the injured CRPF troopers in Raipur’s Narayana Hrudyalaya MMI Hospital, said two of them had been hit by pellets that could have been fired from a locally made shotgun used by low-ranking Maoist cadres. Two others were injured when they fell over during the operation, and the remaining two troopers had flesh wounds from untraced bullets.

But the villagers say the police were probably injured by their own bullets. “They surrounded the village and kept firing. They fired ujala bombs [flares] to see better,” said Kaka, who alleges the police are lying to protect themselves, “The meeting was to discuss an upcoming festival. No Maoists were present.”

“We keep wondering if it is time to leave the village just as we did during the Salwa Judum,” said Madkam. The entire village was emptied in 2005 when residents were attacked by policemen and state-sponsored vigilantes. Madkam and several of her neighbours fled to nearby villages and returned only in 2009 when violence abated.

“But this time we want to stay and fight the cases in court and ensure that the guilty are punished. I will fight for my brother,” she said.