Gompad is a village in Sukma district of Chhattisgarh. Situated deep in the forests of Dandakaranya, the village is about 20 km from the closest accessible motor road. Although a trail does reach the village, it’s impossible to drive and reach here on a four-wheeler. Several fallen trees block this road which is full of pits and potholes. If these trees are removed from the road, chances are that you’d find twice the number of fallen trees the next day. This is because this road leads to a Naxalite stronghold.
Gompad—which doesn’t have a hospital or school for kilometres—is where India’s democracy has stood still. Adivasis settled here have almost never voted till date. None of them have a voter card. Some people have Aadhaar cards as proof of an “identity”, while the rest only have their names on ration cards. How difficult it is to live this life—and how easy it is to die—can be understood through the case of Gompad resident Madkam Sukka.
Sukka is injured, with a bullet wound on his leg, but he can’t go to a hospital for treatment. Not only because the nearest hospital is at least 20 kilometres away and he is barely able to walk, but primarily because he fears that if they go to the hospital, they will be pronounced Naxalites—and consequently arrested.
What happened on August 5-6
Sukka was hit by a bullet on his leg on August 6. It was the same day when the news spread that “the security forces in Sukma killed 15 Naxalites in the encounter”. Sukka is the key eyewitness of this alleged encounter. In front of his eyes, security forces fired upon 15 people. His youngest son was also hit by a bullet and consequently died.
After this alleged encounter, Special DG (Naxal Operations) of Chhattisgarh, DM Awasthi, said in a press conference, “Police had received intelligence from the Naxalites that they are operating camps near Nuktalang village. From this lead, we sent our troops there. In an encounter with the Maoists, the security forces killed 15 Naxalites in the camp.”
But after 24 hours of hiking and trekking, this reporter was told an entirely different story when he reached Gompad. Madkam Sukka, injured in the encounter, said: “On the eve of August 5, we were told that a large number of security forces were coming towards our village. When we heard this, all of us ran towards the forest.”
Sukka said soldiers of the military force usually don’t come to these villages. “And when they come, they come in large numbers,” he said. “And the residents of the village run away from them, because they sometimes beat us up in the name of being a Naxalite, or they sometimes pick us up. Many times people are also killed in the village; therefore nobody wants to appear before them. It’s the young boys and girls who are their biggest targets, and all the young people want to escape from them. The same thing happened on that very day too.”
The others residents of Gompad village told us the same story as Sukka. The 15 people killed that day included people from Nulkatang and Velopocha villages, apart from Gompad. Residents from these two villages also talk about fleeing into the forest out of fear of the police.
Six people from Nulkatang village were killed in this alleged encounter. Tati Hunga was one of them. His brother Tati Joga explains, “I was not present in the village that day. If I had been, then maybe even I would not be alive today. My brother ran away out of fear of the police, just like other people in the village. That night they stayed a few kilometres away from the village—in a laadi. The police call this the Naxalite camp.”
What is a laadi?
In this area of Dandakaranya, the fields belonging to the tribals are located far away from the village. The villages have dense and thick forests, where villagers cultivate land in far-flung areas, wherever they get farmland worth cultivating. Due to the distance of the farms from the village, the tribals set up cottage-like structures near their fields. This is called laadi in local language. This laadi is used for farming, cooking, harvesting and sometimes, even for spending the night.
It was in such a laadi on August 5 that many people hid in to escape the police. Of these runaways, 15 became the victims of the security force’s bullets in the morning of August 6. This laadi was called a Naxal camp.
Describing this encounter as fake, Nalkatong resident Madkam Hidme said, “Police are saying that the laadi near the farm is where the Naxalite camp had been functioning. Anyone can go there and see that it did not have a camp; instead, there’s a hill located right behind that cot. If the Maoists had to camp, they would have been behind the hill in a safe place. The Naxalites have the exact information and location of this forest. Why would they be stupid enough to set up camps in an open farm in the laadi?”
He said common villagers were asleep in the laadi, killed by the police either because they thought they were Naxalites, or perhaps they were “even killed to receive a reward”.
Flaws in the story told by security forces
Madkam Hidme’s husband, Madkam Deva, was arrested by the police on the day of this alleged encounter. The police claim Deva had been a target for the security forces for a long time and had a reward of ₹5 lakh on his head.
But Hidme questions the police’s claim: “If Deva was a reward nominee, then how is his name recorded in the ration card? Is the government distributing ration cards to Naxalites? Deva lived in the village and used to farm. If the police were looking for him, why did they not come here and inquire about him, till date?”
Other villagers also said Deva had been living in the village for a long time now. Hidme said, “I admit my husband used to work for the Naxals earlier. He was a member of their militias for almost a year. But he has been back since a long time, after which he used to stay in the village. The police are trying to implicate or trap him falsely.”
Newslaundry reached out to SP Abhishek Meena to confirm if there was a ₹5 lakh reward on Deva for being a Naxalite, and whether any notification or advertisement had been issued in this regard. Meena said, “No reward was announced on Deva. We mistook him for another person named Deva, on whom there is a reward of ₹5 lakh. There was no reward on the one we arrested, but he too is a Naxalite.”
After the encounter on August 6, security forces arrested a woman from the spot. This woman’s name is Budhri, a resident of Nulkatang village. Police claim Budhri is a member of the underground Naxalite militia. But Budhri’s mother, showed us a copy of the application of her Aadhaar card, and said, “Budhri had applied for the card only some time ago. If she had been a Naxalite, then could she have been able to go the city and apply for an Aadhaar card?”
Budhri’s application for an Aadhaar card was recorded on June 18, 2018. The application carries the signatures of the gram panchayat’s sarpanch and the panchayat secretary—something villagers say would not have happened if she had been a Naxal. Sukma’s SP Abhishek Meena considers this an everyday thing. He said, “Making an Aadhaar card or voter card for Naxalites is not new. Many Naxalites already have their Aadhaar cards.”
If Naxalites and terrorists are procuring their Aadhaar cards as easily as Meena claims, questions are bound to arise over the Aadhaar scheme. The Central government has consistently claimed that Aadhaar will help in cracking down on Naxalism and terrorism. But if terrorists and Naxalites are also joining the scheme, and are beneficiaries of it, how can Aadhaar possibly restrain them?
“These bullets killed our children”
Nonetheless, let’s return to the incident of the alleged encounter in Sukma. Many of the 15 people killed on this day were minors. However, SP Abhishek Meena said, “Postmortem reports conclude and prove that 13 out of 15 people were clearly adults. About the other two people, doctors say that their age could be around 17, 18 or 19. “
On the contrary, people of the village said some of the dead were only 13-14 years old. One example is Aayta, son of Gompad resident Madkam Sukka. Aayta was the youngest of Sukka’s three children. Sukka’s oldest child—according to his Aadhaar card—is now 18 years old. In such a case, Aayta’s age would be 16 years or less. Photographs of those killed also suggest that some of the victims were not more than 14-15 years old.
Aayta with elder sister.
More often than not, Naxalite militias are included in the age group of 15-17 years, and are kept in the category of “Jan militias”. Jan militias form the recruits of the most primary category of Naxalite troops. Their main work is to gather information for Naxalites, to transmit their messages from one place to another, and to sympathise with Naxalites in villages, as well as perform other small tasks for Maoists at the village level. People in the mass militia also have menial arms—such as pistols, cuffs or loaded guns, locally known as bharmaar.
But those who died on August 6 were children between 13-14 years. All the villagers deny the possibility of them being Naxalites at such a young age. They said, “Children aged 13-14 are very young. Naxalites do not take them along with them—the children killed in this incident were innocent.”
One such child was Muchakki Mooka. Her mother Muchakki Sukdi said hoarsely, “When we heard the sound of gunshots on the morning of August 6, we ran towards that side. But by then, they killed my child. He was only 13 years old. Some years ago my husband was also killed in the village, just like this. Now my child is no longer [alive]. He was not a Naxalite.”
The women of the village also alleged that when they reached the spot that morning, they were attacked by security forces’ personnel. Tribal activist Lingaram Kodopi confirmed this allegation. A few days after the incident, Lingaram went on a tour of the site along with Soni Sori and some other tribal workers. He said, “If the women of the village had not reached there, the death toll would have been even greater. People arrested from the site would also have been shot dead, but luckily a large number of women reached the spot on time. Among them was also a pregnant woman who was assaulted by the security forces.”
Lingaram and his colleagues have released several photographs of some of these women with injury marks on their body.
Did the police arrest just two people?
Two different stories on the events of August 6 have come to light. According to one, security forces killed innocents in the laadi. The second story by security forces is that they’ve achieved significant success by killing 15 Naxalites in the encounter. The role of two young men in this matter is crucial to determine what exactly occurred. These two young men are Nalkatong residents Madavi Lakma and Sodi Aanda.
Lakma and Aanda are eyewitnesses to the August 6 incident. When the police started firing, both of them were present in the same laadi. After the shootout ended, the police took both of them to the police station, but their arrest was not recorded or shown—unlike the arrests of Deva and Budhri. So while official police records show that two people were arrested, in reality, the police took four people with them.
When Newslaundry asked SP Abhishek Meena about this, he said, “We had arrested two people, but we apprehended four. We had brought the other two people [Lakma and Aanda] together for questioning, but they were released the very next day.” In fact, Lakma and Aanda were both held by the police for eight days, without the required paperwork. They were only released on August 14.
Abhishek Meena confirmed these two youths were present at the spot during the incident, but they did not have arms on them. Therefore the security forces did not shoot them. This raises another red flag—in a shootout of this magnitude, which killed 15 people, how did the police conclude who bore arms, and who did not?
Meena also told Newslaundry that while Lakma and Aanda had been present, the police found no evidence of them being Maoists, and so they were released after interrogation. That implies there had, in fact, been common villagers present in the laadi during the encounter. Meena, however, said, “All those who were killed were Naxalites. Apart from these two people [Lakma and Aanda], all the people present there were Naxalites.” This essentially suggests that the security forces did not kill Naxalites on August 6—they simply declared the dead as Naxalites.
Eyewitnesses said the police killed 15 people by launching one-sided gunfire on those who were sleeping. The police could have also arrested those present there—but they didn’t.
Newslaundry spoke with Lakma and Aanda. According to their story, they were trying to escape from the site when the firing started, just like other villagers, but security forces caught them. They could have been killed, but it was only then that a large number of women from the village reached.
Lakma and Aanda also said that some people of the Jan Militia were present along with them that night. Sodi Aanda said, “When the people of the village stayed in the laadi that night, three to four militia people also came there to stay.”
Meena told Newslaundry, “We are not claiming we have killed a high-ranking platoon of Naxalites. We accept this was just a militia platoon. These are the lowest level soldiers in the Naxalite battalion.”
Tribal worker and activist Soni Sori said, “The allegation of being a militia is such that it can be imposed on a tribal at any given time. Security forces can easily say that he or she was a member of the militia…Two years ago we had undertaken a tiranga rally. During this rally, which was held on August 15, we hoisted the tricolour in Gompad village. It was our effort to include people from these remote areas into the mainstream. But today, six people of the same Gompad village have been killed as Naxalites by the police. Now how would I go and face them? How would I ask them to trust in our democratic system?”
Burial site where six villagers who were killed were laid to rest
It is true that this area where the 15 were killed is a stronghold of the Maoists. There are Naxalites camps in the area, and there are often attacks mounted on security forces by Maoists. In the past, members of security forces have lost their lives in this area. Sometimes, vehicles belonging to security forces are blown away by the Maoists, and at other times, they are targeted and fired upon. From the police stationed in this area to the semi-military forces, all of them do their duty by placing their lives at risk.
But despite this, the allegations that innocent villagers were killed and later labelled Naxalites cannot be ignored.