A new book delves into the heart of Bastar, Chhattisgarh, where adivasis are still waiting for ‘aam azadi’

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Abhishek Meena, Superintendent of Police (SP), said 160 people carried out a search operation on the night of July 31, after learning that Maoist leaders were holding recruitment meetings for the Jan militia.

The Jan Militia is the support base of the villages, according to the Maoist Janatan Sarkar model of governance. Functioning as village defense committees, they provide logistical assistance but are generally poorly armed. The security forces said they missed this recruiting meeting, but returned to the forest on August 4 and on the morning of August 6, they “ran into the Maoists by chance”.

Villagers and eyewitnesses to the shooting told the investigative team a different story altogether. They said that those villagers sheltering in the ladhi were quietly conversing with each other. Some had gone to wash when security forces arrived and surrounded them.

Even though the villagers raised their hands to show that they were unarmed, they were assaulted. First the blows, then the gunshots.

Among the first to be killed was Soyam Chandra. His head was then bludgeoned with a shovel. He had shouted out loud that he was the neighborhood watchman of the panchayat or the village council, but it made no difference. His family members later produced his Aadhaar card to refute the security forces’ claim that those killed were Maoists. Printed under the insignia “Mera Aadhaar Mera Pehchan” (in Devanagari script), his address is listed as Gompad, Mehta.

Ration cards were also produced by the women to show that many killed were minors. Chandra was
among the first in the village to be documented under Aadhaar. In Kashmir, the burden of proof of identity falls on local residents, who must carry their crucial identity cards with them at all times or risk being imprisoned or even shot. In Chhattisgarh, the identification policy is even more arbitrary.

Asked by reporters why unarmed villagers who had Aadhaar cards could be shot as Maoists, the security force spokesman claimed that even Maoists were known to have acquired Aadhaar cards.

The cynical retort is an example of how the Indian state chooses to recognize identity and determine who or who is not a citizen with rights under the Constitution. It’s a chilling display of his power.

One of the survivors, Karti Sukka, said when the shooting started he started running, followed by his 12-year-old son, Karti Aayta. Sukka jumped into a flowing stream when a bullet hit his leg as he feared the blood would leave a visible trail. Choosing to hide in the forest, he learned his
the death of the young son only when he returned home. There was no age consideration even when shooting a running boy.

Sukka’s son once attended a Porta Cabin school in Konta, one of the bamboo and prefabricated creations set up on the initiative of the state to make education accessible in areas where schools had been destroyed by the Maoists. Aayta was forced to drop out due to the distance. Her satchel, a poignant testament to her school years and her educational aspirations, was draped over her grave.

Another miner, Muchaki Hidma, 17, helped look after his blind father, Muchaki Lakhma. When the team met the father, he was being led through the village by a younger son and wept inconsolably as he remembered the shooting. According to the villagers, Muchaki did not die immediately; he suffered excruciatingly and asked for water before succumbing.

Hearing the gunshots, the women came running to the scene and the security forces began beating them violently. Among them was a pregnant woman. Four villagers were taken away, including a woman named Budhri.

Two men have been released but Deva and Budhri remain incarcerated. Deva, who was initially mistaken for another Maoist leader of the same name, is now accused of being a member of the party.

The villagers were also ordered to leave their homes for a few days after this incident, under the pretext that new search operations would begin and that intense crossfire with the Maoists could pose a risk to them. When the Civil Liberties Committee’s investigative team arrived in Gompad, they found many
villagers returning home from Durma.

Padmaja Shaw, who was part of this team, told me that she was deeply impressed by the sheer physical separation from the world as we know it and the spaces these Adivasis occupy. “There was no access road. We used a tractor for some of the distance on the slippery paths. There was no electricity. No kerosene lamps. No drinking water supply. People placed pots on the thatched roofs to collect rainwater. They had to travel miles to get a box of matches.

Nothing of such precariousness is reflected in the media discourse. She found it horrifying that savage allegations were made that these marginalized villagers were Maoists bent on blowing up nuclear power plants or the like.

The saddest thing, she said, was that they didn’t demand any fees from the state. They survived in their own way. It is the state that interferes so violently in their lives, she added.

Akash Poyam told me, “It’s a place where anyone can get shot at any time and no one will know. No one outside cares. It is numbing to think of the powers of the state even when there is no functioning. Most of these people haven’t voted for seventy-one years.

For Soni, the trip held painful memories of the relentless story of fake encounters and his tiranga rally. An offer she had made to explore the connotations of flag and citizenship, emotionally and radically different from those deployed in the politics of nationalism. The saddest moment, she says, came when Lakshmi, Madkam Hidme’s mother, returned the Indian flag she had given her a few years ago when her daughter was shot at.

“Lakshmi told me that this flag cannot do Adivasis justice. “Le lo waapas (Take it back)” she said.’

In 2016, Soni undertook a padayatra from Dantewada, starting on August 9 and culminating in Gompad on August 15 with a flag hoisting. The story behind the raising of the national flag, for the first time, in this ‘naxal prabhavit kshetr gate’ (Maoist affected area), as Gompad is described in the official language, is deeply moving.

The impetus for the padayatra was the brutal murder of twenty-three-year-old Madkam Hidme from Gompad and the way the official narrative was played calling her a Maoist.

According to members of her village, many of whom were witnesses, Madkam Hidme was threshing paddy when she was dragged from her home on the morning of June 13, 2016 by CRPF forces from Gorkha camp.

An official statement issued the following day claimed that following a violent gunfight, a dead Maoist, identified as Madkam Hidme, a member of No. 8 Platoon in Kistaram area, was found in the jungle between Gompad and the Gorkha camp.

The deeply distressed mother, Lakshmi, had walked with the villagers to the CRPF camp to find out where her daughter was. But when the news of the corpse came, she didn’t have the energy or the spirit to go to Sukma. She waited while the others went to claim the body and bring it back in an autorickshaw.

Wrapped in the familiar black tarp used by security forces to transport dead bodies, Lakshmi identified the toes sticking out. When the tarp was unrolled, she saw her daughter’s naked body, mutilated with a long cut on her abdomen, cuts on her nose, ears and chest; the left hand seemed broken at the wrist. It is possible that the autopsy was the cause of some of the mutilations but no explanation has been given for the rest.

It’s as if state agencies believe the Adivasi’s body doesn’t even deserve basic standards of dignity in death. Autopsies are performed in the crudest way possible.

One of the most heartbreaking comments on this indignity comes from an affidavit filed by a grieving woman, whose husband and son had both been killed in the killing of eight civilians during the encounter with Edesmeta. Autopsies had been performed at the police station and the bodies had been returned to relatives in a horribly mutilated state.

Karam Sukki said: “The bodies had been ripped from the chest to the abdomen. I asked, how can I take them back in this condition? I had brought thread to stitch them up but all they did was tie them in gamchas and give them back to us.

In the case of Madkam Hidme, there were also startling differences in the way the visual images played out. While Lakshmi has a mutilated and naked body wrapped in a tarpaulin, the image published in the newspapers shows a body sprawled on the ground, dressed in an ironed Maoist uniform and oversized trousers, neatly rolled up near the ankle.

There were no holes in the clothes even though the body bore the marks of ten bullet wounds. This does not portend a fierce fight before the Naxalites manage to disappear into the forests. The writ petition filed by the Human Rights Law Network says Madkam Hidme is seen wearing bracelets and nail polish. Barely a platoon member’s combat gear.

The murder forced the anguished parents out of their remote hamlet and venture to the Bilaspur High Court to demand an investigation into her murder and possible rape.

They also spoke at a press conference in Raipur. It was Lakshmi’s continuous cry for justice that prompted Soni to begin her tiranga yatra. “I saw it as a test. The state insisted Madkam Hidme was a Maoist and her village was a Maoist area, while her mother wanted justice and said she was an unarmed civilian. If I brought a tiranga into the village, would the villagers respect it? I also wanted it to be a test for a nation and its notions of citizenship and equality.

“Lakshmi asked me what the flag meant. I said that the jhanda was a symbol of azadi realized after the huge struggle against the British and the identity of a new nation. Bharath. We were slaves then we became free. The villagers then asked, if they were citizens of the country, why was there no aam azadi (freedom for the common person?) They told me that they would respect the flag since they belonged to India but wondered why the state had never accepted them.’

Excerpted with permission from Flaming Forest, Wounded Valley: Stories from Bastar and Kashmir, Freny Manecksha, Talking Tiger.

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