Lessons from the Burkapal acquittal

The case raises questions about the investigation skills of the local police and the impact of police action

July 28, 2022 12:15 am | Updated 09:58 am IST

File photo of injured CRPF jawans being taken to Raipur for treatment.

File photo of injured CRPF jawans being taken to Raipur for treatment. | Photo Credit: PTI

On April 24, 2017, Maoists killed 25 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans near the Burkapal security camp in Sukma district. On July 15 this year, a National Investigation Agency (NIA) court acquitted all the 121 tribal people who were held responsible for the deaths of the jawans.

The police party consisted of 70 CRPF jawans and two from the district police force. They were guarding the construction site of a culvert about one km from the security camp from 12 noon when they were ambushed by a large group of 200-250 alleged Maoists. The exchange of fire started at 12.55 p.m. and continued till about 2.30 pm.

Editorial | A stinging indictment: on acquittal of Chhattisgarh tribals in 2017 ambush case

The investigating officer seized two non-electric detonators and codex wire (generally used in mining) from one accused, and a locally made HE Bomb from another accused. Other recoveries and seizures included items such as bows and arrows, empty cartridges of SLR, INSAS and UBGL, cartridges’ pouch, and camouflage lower. The body of one slain Maoist was also recovered from the spot.

Silence of judgment

The judgment says that five witnesses did not corroborate the memorandum of disclosure, seizure memo, and arrest memo. Similarly, 15 other witnesses did not identify any of the accused persons. They showed ignorance about the incident and refused having given any statements to the police. It is surprising that only the dead Maoist was identified and not any of the other accused persons, who mostly belonged either to the Burkapal village or adjoining villages. Only eight were from the neighbouring Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh, and one from Telangana (and Andhra Pradesh from which most of the Maoist leaders hailed). Though they were declared hostile, nothing relevant could be extracted from them. No reason was given as to why the prosecution witness (the police), who made recoveries of detonators and codex wire, were not believed or disbelieved. This was an important recovery because these explosive materials are not used by the police. It is surprising that whereas the death of all the 25 security men was admitted (in evidence) as homicidal in nature as per the post-mortem reports, no attempt was seemingly made to link the recoveries of explosive materials with the type of injuries caused to the security men. There is no mention in the judgment of any (spent) bullet or other material recovered during the post-mortem. Similarly, there is no reference to any forensic science examination report of the seized or recovered material.

Deficient investigation

The accused persons were also charged with two sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967 (along with Indian Penal Code sections), which means that those arrested were assumed to be members of the proscribed CPI(Maoist) outfit and support their activities. However, looking at the judgment, none of the 121 accused is shown to be a member of any of the Maoist’s specific formations such as military battalion or company or platoon or local guerrilla squad or militia or the political organisation or a member of the Jantana Sarkar. The Maoists also have various sanghs (unions) such as the Dandkarnaya Adivasi Kisan Mazdoor Sangh and the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangh and Chetna Natya Manch. In the absence of any such specific additional evidence to corroborate charges, it was difficult for the court to convict them under the UAPA. The Maoists have their so-called constitution, wherein the procedure to give membership is detailed. Since the punishment under these sections is up to 10 years of imprisonment, the investigating officer should have produced some documental or other evidence to buttress their case. It is important to note that the movement of the Maoist’s Battalion Number One (headed by Dandakarnaya Special Zonal Committee member and absconder Hidmal) is generally found in this area. Besides this, many other formations are also active in this region.

Second, the judgment does not mention any Forensic Science Laboratory report being produced by the police in favour of the important recovery of codex wire and detonator, whose possession itself is punishable under the Explosive Substances Act of 1908. It is also worth noting that detonators do not have any unique identification number. Therefore, it becomes difficult to reach the main culprit who supplied these explosive materials to the Maoists for illegitimate use.

The district police established the Burkapal camp in May 2013, but it was later taken over by the CRPF the same year. It is one of the 12 security camps which falls on the 56-km Dornapal-Jagargunda road. This area is highly infested with IEDs, trap holes (full of iron spikes) and is vulnerable for laying ambushes. On April 6, 2010, 76 CRPF personnel were killed near Mukram, about 3 km from Burkapal. The Maoists have a stronghold in this area, which is a part of their South Bastar Division. In many pockets of this area, the Maoists claim to have been waging mobile warfare because the security camps are not sufficient to dominate the surrounding area. However, with many security camps coming up in this area too, it is hoped that the Maoist’s ‘base area’ will gradually vanish. Till then, security forces have to be watchful of their tactics. It is well known that the Maoists launch the Tactical Counter-Offensive Campaign from February-March to May-June every year, during which they organise themselves into various commands and attack the security forces. Therefore, every precaution needs to be taken to avoid falling into the Maoists’ trap.

A challenge

It will be no exaggeration to state that conducting proper investigation in such areas is itself a great challenge, where witnesses don’t come forward to support the police fearing adverse consequences from the Maoists. The police, therefore, should make use of more forensic and technology tools such as audio-video means to record statements and seizures during investigation wherever possible. The surrendered cadres of the area may be useful in corroborating the accused persons’ place in the Maoist organisation. A checklist must be prepared to ensure that there is sufficient evidence to support each allegation. Senior officers should ensure that no lacunas are left in investigation and the standard operating procedure is followed by the field officers. The acquittal of all the accused persons in such a major attack raises questions not only about the investigation skills of the local police, but also about the real impact of such police action on the ground.

R.K. Vij is a former Special DGP of Chhattisgarh and views are personal

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