The operation began in the early hours of March 11 when about 350 heavily armed troopers marched into the forests of Dantewada. They returned to their barracks five days later, with three villages aflame, about 300 homes and granaries incinerated, three villagers and three soldiers dead, and three women sexually assaulted, the victims and several eyewitnesses told The Hindu.
Last week, the Chhattisgarh police said three Koya commandos were killed in a Maoist ambush during a routine search, yet journalists attempting to reach the site were turned away by gun-toting special police officers. On visiting the area through a forest route, this correspondent was confronted by the aftermath of what appeared to be an attack by security forces on three tribal settlements in a 15-km radius of the police camp at Chintalnar, which has left hundreds homeless and brutalised.
The following account is based on interviews with villagers who spoke on the record and senior police sources who sought anonymity to speak freely. The names of victims of sexual assault have been changed to protect their identities.
In the first week of March, the police and the Central Reserve Police Force planned an operation to be conducted by the CRPF's elite CoBRA battalion and the police's Koya commandos, a tribal corps of surrendered Maoists and local youth.
A surrendered Maoist had claimed that the guerrillas were running an arms factory at Morpalli, a tour-hour march from the police camp at Chintalnar, a police official told The Hindu . Intelligence inputs indicated that about 100 Maoists, including Jai Kishen, a high-ranking Andhra cadre leader, were present nearby.
“On March 11, about 200 Koyas and 150 CoBRA left Chintalnar about 4 a.m. to destroy the arms factory,” said a police source.
“The force arrived at 8 in the morning and surrounded the village,” said Nupo Mutta, a former sarpanch of Morpalli. “They fired a few shots in the air and we ran into the forests.”
Madavi Sulla, 30, did not act fast enough. “My husband was sitting in a tree picking tamarind,” said his wife Madavi Hunge. “The force saw him and opened fire. I pleaded with them to stop, but they tore my clothes and threatened me.” Hunge escaped. The police moved further into the village, leaving Sulla's corpse hanging in the tree.
“I was picking ‘tendu patta' on the fields when the force came and said I was spying for the Maoists,” said Aimla Gangi, 45. “They threw me to the ground, pulled off my clothes and molested me in front of my two daughters. They also stole Rs.10,000 from a bag I kept tied around my waist.”
Villagers say the force left by noon, having torched 37 houses. They also picked up Madavi Ganga, 45, his son Bima and his daughter Hurre, 20. “They took us to the Chintalnar police station and put me in a separate cell and stripped me,” said Hurre.
Hurre said she was kept all night in the station and sexually assaulted. Ganga and Bima said the police repeatedly asked them whether Maoists visited their village and beat them through the night. The Madavi family was released when the women of Morpalli demanded their release at the Chintalnar station.
Police sources say they found neither arms factories nor Maoists at Morpalli that day, though they did find a 15-foot memorial commemorating the death of eight Maoists in the April 2010 encounter, in which 76 CRPF troopers were killed near Tarmetla village.
The operation resumed at Timapuram on March 13. “There was a disagreement because the CoBRAs prefer night operations, and the Koyas wanted to operate in the day,” said a source familiar with the operation, “so the Koyas set out on their own.”
En route, the Koyas stopped at Phulanpad where they picked up Barse Bima and Manu Yadav and took them along to Timapuram.
As word spread of the Koyas imminent arrival, Timapuram's resident fled to the forests. “The Koyas came to Timapuram about 2 in the afternoon. They set up a camp, killed our chickens and goats and ate them.” said Timapuram resident Madkam Budra.
Budra said the commandos spent the night at Timapuram, a fact confirmed by the police, and installed sentries to ward off a possible Maoist attack.
The Maoists attacked next morning, on Monday March 14. “We knew the Koyas had spent the night at Timapuram and laid our ambush early morning,” said a Maoist fighter who had participated in the attack and met this correspondent on the outskirts of Timapuram late Sunday night. “About 70 Maoists participated in the attack, including Area Commander Ramanna.”
The ambush lasted for two hours. Three Koyas were killed and nine injured. After the Koyas called for reinforcements, a helicopter flew in to evacuate the injured; the Maoists finally retreated by noon. The police and local newspapers say 37 Maoists were killed in the ambush, but a handwritten note sent to this correspondent by the Maoists claims that only Section Commander Muchaki Ganga was killed.
The Koyas spent the night at the village and left next morning, March 15, for Chintalnar. Before they left, villagers say, the Koyas burnt about 50 buildings, including homes and granaries. They also executed one of their captives, Barse Bima, with an axe. “My husband's hands were tied behind his back, he had been hit with an axe on the base of his neck and twice on his chest,” said Barse Lakhme, who cremated the body.
The other captive, Mannu Yadav, was taken to Chintalnar where, villagers allege, the police shot him and claimed he was a Maoist fighter killed in the ambush. “The body claimed by the police was not a Maoist,” said a senior officer. He said he was tipped off by a Koya. “They killed him because they needed to show something.”
On March 16, villagers say the same company of Koyas surrounded Tarmetla village and burnt about 200 structures, including homes, granaries and woodsheds. Tarmetla's former sarpanch, Gondse Deva, said the Koyas swept through the village, setting fire to the straw roofs, stuffing burning hay into the granaries, burning food, clothes, valuables, money and keepsakes. “The force has also taken away two men, Madavi Handa and Madavi Aita,” said Deva. “We don't know where they are, we think they are dead.”
When she heard the commotion, Madavi Hidme threw all her jewellery and money into a bag before rushing for the forests. “I was stopped by four SPOs and beaten with sticks until I lost consciousness,” she said. “When I awoke, I was naked. My bag was gone.” Hidme has been assaulted so violently that a cut has opened up on the left side of her face; she can't see from her left eye.
Dantewada Collector R.Prasanna is setting up a committee to look into the incidents. “The committee shall be headed by the tehsildar of Konta, along with a representative from the press, civil society and a people's representative,” he told The Hindu. “We will provide Rs. 50,000 in compensation for each house burnt, and will reimburse villagers for their grains, utensils and other possessions. The committee shall submit its report in one month.”
Director-General of Police Vishwa Ranjan did not return phone calls to his office.