|Villagers say that at least 12 of the 30 killed had no links to the Maoists|
Gachanpalli: Aftershocks of the “Operation” still reverberate along the 35-km stretch of broken track, bombed-out schools and graves that leads from the Andhra Pradesh border to Gachanpalli, a village deep in the forests of Chhattisgarh's Dantewada district.
On 19 September, 2009, security forces claimed a major victory in which 30 Maoists and six police personnel were killed in the very same area. But villagers from Gachanpalli and the neighbouring hamlets of Gattapad and Palachalam told The Hindu that at least 12 of the 30 killed were innocents with no links to the Maoists.
Gachanpalli, Gattapad and Palachalam lie along the same axis on the border between A.P. and Chhattisgarh, bookended by two police camps at Kishtraram and Bhejji. In the two-day operation, the ‘Commando Battalion for Resolute Action' (CoBRA) set out from Bhejji, a day's march northwest of Gachanpalli, while the Chhattisgarh police came from Kishtaram, 15 km south east of the village.
“None of those killed in the operation was a naxal,” said an eyewitness from Gattapad, “The villagers were killed in cold blood.” The witness said that while six villagers — three of them over the age of 65 — were killed in Gachanpalli and their bodies left where they fell, security forces picked up three men each from Gattapad and Palachalam and subsequently killed them, passing them off as naxals.
“The Gachanpalli force came from Bhejji, we were attacked by policemen from Kistaram Thana and [salwa] judum members from Maraigudam Camp,” said a witness from Palachalam. “They asked us to prepare food.” The men-folk were also ordered to destroy a massive minar the Maoists had built on the remains of the village school. Earlier, the Maoists had blasted the school claiming the security forces would use it for shelter.
While villagers chipped away at the base of the structure, the force moved further towards Gattapad. There, security forces picked up Padam Deva, 25, Dudhi Pojja, 25, and Sodi Massa, 20. “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 him to Palachalam at gun point.”
The minar was still standing when the force 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 going to Kistharam Thana from where they would head 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 bodies were loaded onto a tractor and taken to the Andhra Border from where they were transferred to a van and driven to Konta. “We found their shirts and lungis in the gully,” said a Palachalam villager. In Dharmapenta, a village en route, villagers said 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 the September 2009 killings merit further investigation.
The six Gachanpalli victims were buried in the village graveyard. A petition filed in the Supreme Court holds the security forces responsible for their deaths and has asked for a Special Investigative Team to examine the matter.
But questions are now being raised about the six victims from Gattapad and Palachalam.
Director-General of Police Chhattisgarh Viswarajan told The Hindu that the case had been handed over to the Criminal Investigation Department of Chhattsigarh and an investigation was under way.
The police claimed at the time that “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 September 19, 2009 edition of The Hindu quoted Konta subdivisional police officer Ravi Kumar Khure as saying that six Maoists were killed when they ambushed the Koya Commando unit of the Chhattsigarh armed police force. The police said four of the alleged ‘Maoists' were wearing olive green uniforms.
Villagers and even some security officials dispute that claim. “Maoists do not wear green camouflage patterns,” said a senior security officer well versed in counter-insurgency operations, “They usually operate in civilian clothes or in an all black uniforms.” The clothes recovered by the villagers also suggest the bodies were stripped and put in uniform as an afterthought.
Speaking on background, sources have confirmed that “there have been instances when uniforms have been put on bodies after an encounter,” but insisted that such incidents were rare and difficult to prove.