The news in mainstream media was more or less the same this morning: “Four naxalites gunned down in Chhattisgarh.” The news was mainly based on a statement released by Chhattisgarh Police, which said that in a joint operation of District Reserve Guard (DRG), Special Task Force (STF) and district force, a dreaded naxalite commander Arjun Ram and three of his aides were gunned down after a fierce gun-battle between the naxalites and security forces. This happened on Tuesday, in Bastar.
Inspector General of Police, Shiv Ram Prasad Kalluri, told news agency Press Trust of India that Maoist Jan-Militia commander, Arjun, had been gunned down by a joint team of security forces in the forests of Chandameta, which comes under Darbha police station limits. Darbha is 58 kilometeres away from Chandameta.
Arjun was accused of blowing up an ambulance, which killed five Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and two civilians on April 2, 2014. This was during the general election polls in Darbha area of Bastar.
IG Kalluri told media that while the security forces were cordoning off forests on a hill, a group of naxalites opened fire on them. A gun battle followed. It lasted for about an hour and Arjun was killed in it. He was later identified by the villagers. Various firearms were recovered from the spot, claimed IG Kalluri.
But locals have raised questions about the police’s claim that Arjun was the commander of Jan-Militia and a member of Machkot LOS (Local Organisation Squad). Journalist Kamal Shukla told Newslaundry that there’s a history that wasn’t mentioned in the police statement. “He [Arjun] was arrested on false charges last year,” said Shukla. “Despite being a minor, Arjun was kept in a jail. He got bail in December and was appearing in hearings of the ongoing case. How can you encounter such a person?”
In an attempt to verify what exactly happened. Newslaundry reached out to more locals. “He was picked from his house in Chandameta late in the evening on August 15,” said Ravi Singh [name changed], who lives in a nearby village. “He was later shot down in the Chandameta jungle, and police declared that he was killed during in mutbhed (clash).” Singh was on his way to meet Arjun’s family members.
Interestingly, according to his lawyer Isha Khandewal, his name wasn’t mentioned in the charge-sheet of the case that first led to his arrest. Arjun was arrested 16 May, 2015, and produced in Jagaldalpur court on May 18, under UAPA (Unlawful Activities [Prevention] Act), CrPC 302, 307, explosive act and common intention. “He was arrested as Arjun, Age 30,” said Khandelwal from Jagdalpur Legal Aid (JLA). However, there are Arjun’s school-leaving certificate that proves otherwise.
At the time of his arrest, Arjun was just 17– a minor. “We challenged his age in court and proved in court that he was school-going kid. Subsequently, we asked the court why he was kept in a jail instead of a juvenile home,” said Khandelwal.
According to the court order dated May 26, 2015 (accessed by Newslaundry) the judge agreed Arjun was 17 and sent him to a juvenile home (it would be three months before he was actually shifted out of jail to this home). He was released on bail in December last year. “How can you call him a ‘hardcore naxalite’ when he was appearing in every court hearing since he was released on bail?” Khandewal asked.
Shukla told Newslaundry, “On August 15, while, Soni Sori by her tricolour march instilled in tribals faith in Indian democracy and the Constitution, IG SRP Kalluri and Superintendent of Police Rajendra Narayan Das… killing the democracy and law and order system, were conspiring to sacrifice a tribal boy by abducting him from his house.”
Such allegations are posing serious question marks on the encounter. Not only this, while the first report from PTI, mentions only one person killed in clash, numbers swelled to four this morning. This adds more question marks on the veracity of the encounter of theory presented by Kalluri and his team. It’s worth keeping in mind that in the past month, reports have come in with greater frequency, of naxals brutally killing civilians they suspected of being ‘informers’.
After news of Arjun’s death, Khandewal spent tense hours because she was not able to reach Arjun’s parents. Some people from Arjun’s village told Newslaundry that Chhattisgarh Police had picked up both Arjun’s mother and father for an inquiry. Newslaundry cannot verify these accusations, but Khandelwal did find out recently that the parents are in Darbha police station. They’ve been brought there to identify his body.
So what really happened to Arjun? Was he even a naxal, ‘hardcore’ or otherwise? Will Kalluri and Chhattisgarh Police answer the questions their own statement has raised? If Arjun is an innocent who has been mistakenly identified as a naxal and killed, who will answer to his grieving parents?