The Day of Long Knives

Gachanpalli: Stories of the “Operation” reverberate along the path from the Andhra Pradesh border to Gachanpalli, a village deep in forests of Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district. Villagers along the 35 kilometre stretch of broken track, bombed-out schools, and graves, still speak of the day when security forces swept through their fields and killed 12 men.

Testimonies collected from the villages of Gachanpalli, Gattapad and Palachalam in the Konta block in Dantewada claim that at least 12 of the 30 people killed during a security operation in September 2009 were innocent villagers with no links to the Maoists.  If true, the allegations point to a concerted attempt at dissimulation on the part of Chhattisgarh’s security forces.

The Encounter
On 19 September 2009 security forces claimed a major victory in which 30 Maoists and six police personnel were killed in Dantewada district. The a two day joint operation involved the CoBRA central paramilitary force and the Chhattisgarh police. While the CoBRA battalion set out from their camp near Bhejji – a day’s march northwest of Gachanpalli, the Chhattisgarh police set out from Kishtaram – about 15 kilometres south east of the village. Gachanpalli, Gattapad and Palacham all lay along the same axis, bookended by the two police camps.

As reported in The Hindu that day, “seven of the bodies of the slain naxalites were traced and six of them brought from Kistaram to Konta for identification and post mortem.” The report quoted Konta sub divisional police officer Ravi Kumar Khure saying that six Maoists were killed when they ambushed the Koya Commando unit of the Chhattsigarh armed police force. According to the police, four of the victims were wearing olive green uniforms.

However, the sequence of events gleaned from interviews with villagers is sharply at odds with the version circulated by the police.
“I saw a large group of uniformed men and armed salva judum members attack early on the morning of the Operation,” said an eye-witness from Gachanpalli speaking on the condition of anonymity, “Everyone ran into the forests and when we returned we saw the bodies.”
Dudhi Muye, a 70 year old cripple, was found dead in the doorway of her house.  Both her breasts had been hacked off with a machete. Madavi Joga, 65, had been stabbed to death.  Madakam Sulla and Madavi Hadma, both between 30 and 35 years of age, were found dead outside Madakam Sulla’s house.
“I was in Palachalam when I heard the news,” said Kowasi Muya, a Gachanpalli villager, “When I came home I saw my grandfather, Kowasi Ganga, lying dead outside our house.” Muya said Kowasi Ganga had been stabbed multiple times.  Ganga was seventy years old.
A massive Maoist monument towers over the bombed out school in Palacham. “The Maoists said the forces would take shelter in our school,” said a villager speaking on the condition of anonymity, “so they broke the school and built this minar.”
According to the witness the Chhattisgarh police force reached Palachalam on the same day as the Gachanpalli attacks.  “The Gachanpalli force came from Bhejji, in our case a composite force of policemen from Kistaram Thana and Salva Judum tribals from Maraigudam Camp came to our village,” said a witness, “They asked us to prepare food and ordered the men-folk to break down the Maoist minaret.” While the villagers chipped away at the base of the structure, the force moved further towards Gattapad village.
At Gattapad, security forces picked up three young men, Padam Deva, Dudhi Pojja and Sodi Massa.  “Deva, my son, was herding cattle on the outskirts of the village when the force picked him up,” said Padam Chumri, her eyes filling with tears as she recounted the incident, “They dragged the boys away to Palachalam at gun point.”
The Maoist minar was still standing when the force returned to returned to Palachalam. “By now it was afternoon,” said an eyewitness, “The forces apprehended three more men – Sodi Sanyasi,35, Dudhi Hadma, 35, and Tunki Sinna, 25. They told us they were taking them to Kistharam Thana from where they would be taken to Konta.”  En route, the force stopped at a shallow gully near Velkanguda where, villagers allege, the six men were stripped and shot in cold blood.
The six bodies were loaded onto a tractor and taken to the Andhra Border from where they were loaded into a van and driven to Konta. “We found their shirts and lungis in the gully,” said a Palachalam villager.  Villagers from Dharmapenta, a village en route, told the Hindu that they saw the tractor but couldn’t say if they saw the bodies.
The Hindu was unable to independently verify these claims. However, circumstantial evidence suggests that the September 2009 killings merit further investigation.  Director General of Police Chhattisgarh, Viswarajan told The Hindu that the case has been handed over to the Criminal Investigation Department of Chhattsigarh and an investigation is underway.
The Coverup
A petition, filed in the Supreme Court, holds the security forces responsible for the six villagers killed in Gachanpalli. The petition also accuses the force of killing a total of 11 villagers in a separate incident in Gompad village on October 1 2009, but does not mention the killings in Gattapad and Palachalam.

As reported in The Hindu, twelve petitioners from this case had gone missing only to be produced in court by the police at a later date. The Gompad petitioners were missing from January 6 this year and were produced in court on February 15 along with Madavi Hidma from Gachanpalli.
The remaining Gachanpalli petitioners Kowasi Kosa, Madvi Sukda, Madvi Raja and Madakam Mukke from Gachanpalli were presented at Tis Hazari Court in Delhi only March 11. Two other petitioners from Gachanpalli are still missing.
“We sent a message to Gachanpalli just before Holi (March 2),” said Superintendent of Police Dantewada, Amresh Mishra in a telephonic interview with The Hindu, “The villagers came soon after Holi and we presented them without any delay.”
However, villagers in Gachanpalli dispute this version.  “A police party came in the first week of February and took eleven of us including Madavi Hidma (the petitioner), to Dornapal police camp” said a villager who was part of this group, “All of us, except for Madavi Hidma, were interrogated for two weeks and then sent back.”
While Madavi Hidma was sent to the Supreme Court after 2 weeks of police detention, the remaining men were told to send the remaining petitioners back to the police. This could explain why Madavi Hidma was produced in court much before other petitioners from his village.
“My father, Kowasi Kosa, and the other petitioners went to meet the police much before Holi,” said his son Kowasi Muye, contradicting SP Amresh Mishra’s claim, “It has been more than a month since we last saw him.” If true, Muye’s statement implies that the Chhattisgarh police kept the villagers in illegal custody for at least two weeks before informing the Supreme Court.

The police have also continued to conduct a parallel investigation into the matter, despite the fact that the petition urges the Supreme Court to hand over investigations to a Special Investigative Team.  As reported previously in The Hindu, the local officials in Dantewada exhumed ten bodies in Gompad in January 23.  On visiting Gachanpalli on March 16, The Hindu found that the Gachanpalli bodies had been exhumed as well. On February 22 this year, the Supreme Court expressed its displeasure at the Chhattisgarh government’s decision to exhume bodies in Gompad without prior permission.  However, the police did not see it fit to inform the court that the Gachanpalli graves had been disturbed.
“On the day they arrested 11 men, the police also dug up the bodies,” said Kowasi Muye. The bodies have been returned to their graves, but the men are yet to return to their village.

This is an early draft that was eventually broken into two separate stories and printed in The Hindu on the 19th and 20th of  March 2010. Here at Kafila, we offer you our favourite one for the price of two – Step right up.

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