Bastar encounter: No evidence that those killed were Maoists, says panel report
In the days after the encounter in May 2013, the then Raman Singh government ordered a judicial commission headed by retired high court judge, justice VK Agarwal.
There was no evidence to suggest that seven people shot dead in an encounter in Edesmetta in Bastar division’s Bijapur district in 2013 were “Maoists”, and it’s likely that security forces opened fire in panic during the incident, according to a report by a one-member judicial commission tabled in the Chhattisgarh assembly on Monday.
The report added that the one jawan killed in the encounter was likely killed in cross fire by the security forces.
In the days after the encounter in May 2013, the then Raman Singh government ordered a judicial commission headed by retired high court judge, justice VK Agarwal. The report was submitted to the state government in September 2021.
Bela Bhatia, a human rights activist and an advocate based in Bastar, said that now that the truth was established, those guilty must be indicted.
On May 19, 2013, residents of the remote village of Edesmetta alleged that they were celebrating the annual festival of Beej Pandum, a ritual celebrating the sowing of crop before the rains, when a team of state police and the Central Reserve Police Force’s CoBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action) opened fire at them. Eight people were killed in all, including one CRPF jawan. The state government argued at the time that the group was armed, and included Maoists, and the deaths were the result of a gunfight.
The report, tabled by chief minister Bhupesh Baghel on Monday, said: “When the security forces witnessed an assembly of people near the fire, they possibly assumed that they were Maoists. Therefore, they took cover and fired in self defence. As has been previously discussed, there was no imminent danger to the life of the security personnel because it has not been satisfactorily established that the people gathered attacked the marching party of the security force. Thus, shooting by the security personnel was not in self defence, as previously observed and accepted; it appears that the said firing was carried out erroneously, in haste, and out of panic. Additionally, as it has been noted previously, the said firing might have been avoided if the personnel were well-equipped with effective gadgets and if intelligence inputs had been provided to them.”
The report further said that there was no evidence on record to show that the people in the gathering were armed with firearms.
“The question of the members of the gathering using firearms does not arise at all. There is a possibility that the fatal injury caused to the CoBRA constable was due to cross-firing by his own squad members and not by the firing by the gathering of people,” the report said.
Bhatia said, “Now that the truth, that those killed in Edesmetta were innocent villagers, has been established, the government needs to take the next necessary step - to indict the guilty policemen and paramilitary forces. Similar action is long pending also in the case of Sarkeguda encounter. Truth must lead to justice. Those who are guilty - including those who commanded the operation must be punished.”
In its recommendations, the report said that better training for security forces, which will familiarise them with social conditions and religious festivals of the area, and its geography, was required. Justice Agarwal said that strengthening intelligence gathering mechanisms and equipping security forces with bullet proof jackets and night vision devices will provide a sense of confidence and security so that firing out of panic does not recur.
The state government also tabled an action-taken report on the commission’s recommendations. It said that the government is making continuous efforts to strengthen the local intelligence-gathering mechanism, and that a counter-intelligence cell would be set up to avoid such incidents in the future.
The Maoist conflict has existed in Chhattisgarh for at least the past four decades, with the conflict concentrated in the seven districts of Bastar to the south of the state. Though there has been a drop in both the Maoists area of influence, now largely concentrated around the districts of Bijapur, Sukma, Dantewada and Narayanpur, the area still suffers from considerable violence.
Official data from the Chhattisgarh police shows that there were 221 incidents of Maoist-related violence in 2021, down from 479 in 2017. Between 2017 and 2021, 337 alleged Maoists, 218 security personnel and 256 civilians lost their lives in Bastar.
In the Edesmetta case, the Supreme Court ordered a probe led by the Central Bureau of Investigation in May 2019, after hearing a writ petition filed by Chhattisgarh-based activist Degree Prasad Chauhan.
Chauhan said that after CBI registered a case with the Jabalpur unit, they recorded his statement in 2020, and investigations are ongoing.
Another judicial commission report chaired by justice VK Agarwal, on an encounter in Sarkeguda village of Bijapur, in which 17 people were killed in 2012, reached a similar conclusion in its report submitted to the government in December 2019. The Sarkeguda encounter report suggested that the security forces unilaterally fired on villagers and concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that any of the deceased were Maoists. The report was tabled in the state Assembly on December 3, 2019 by CM Baghel.
RK Vij, former special director general of police, who spent many years in charge of the anti-Naxal operations said that these reports have a long-term impact. “They establish what went wrong, and based on what is established from them, operations in the Maoist arena can be improved. Often during these exchanges, there is an error of judgement, but there have been occasions where there may be intent. These judicial reports are important in understanding the reasons behind the sequence of events,” Vij said.