Odisha police are facing a volley of criticism after five tribals, including two women and a child, were gunned down in Gumudumaha village of Kandhamal district in what appears to be a botched anti-Maoist operation.
Kandhamal observed a dawn-to-dusk shutdown on Monday in protest against the Friday killings by a police team that was lying in wait to ambush suspected Maoists. The police reportedly had information of a top Maoist commander hiding in the vicinity.
However, it was five tribals returning to their village in a three-wheeler who became the inadvertent victims. The police hiding behind trees opened fire as the villagers were trying to push the auto-rickshaw up a slushy hilltop in blinding rain.
KB Singh, the Odisha police chief, termed the casualties “collateral damage”, claiming the villagers had got caught in an exchange of fire between the police and Maoists.
But neither the locals, nor the evidence on ground backed the police theory.
The three-wheeler bore bullet marks only on one side, suggesting that the firing was from just one direction.
Union minister for tribal affairs Jual Oram has ordered a probe into the killings by the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes. Pradip Majhi, a former Congress MP, dubbed the state police force as “blood-thirsty”, saying the police team opened fire despite knowing that the people they were firing at were innocent villagers.
Back in Gumudumaha, the villagers were distraught. “The police killed my father without any reason. What harm did he bring to them?” asked Dulara Dugal, son of former village sarpanch Kukal Dugal, who was among the five killed.
Nearby, a group of villagers sat wailing, grief-stricken by the death of two-year-old Ghadej Digal. The child was in his mother’s arms when a bullet hit him.
The villagers in the three-wheeler were returning from a nearby market in Baliguda when they came under fire.
“Our auto got stuck in the mud and the driver asked us to give it a push. A few of us got down to haul it out of the mud while others were busy washing mud from their feet near a culvert. The moment we sat in the auto, we heard what sounded like cracker-fire. Moments later we knew we were being fired at,” said Luta Digal, Ghadej’s father.
Luta is being treated at a hospital for multiple bullet wounds.
Friday’s deadly firing has reinforced the popular belief of the police being trigger-happy. Last year, the force had shot dead five tribals in Kandhamal and neighbouring Kalahandi district, suspecting them to be Maoists.
Stung by the public outcry, the Odisha government announced a judicial probe and a compensation of Rs 5 lakh each to the relatives of those killed. But that’s little consolation for the locals. “Our lives have no value as we are sandwiched in the fight between Maoists and police. When will we get a reprieve,” asked an agitated villager.