The police have arrested 120 Adivasis and accused them of being involved in a Maoist attack in Sukma district in 2017.
At Puswada on the way to Burkapal village in Sukma district, Madkam Birsa yelled, “Wait! There’s police.”
We were in the middle of a forest, driving along a road that runs from Dornapal in Sukma through Chintagufa, Burkapal and Chintalnar to Jagarmunda. This is ground zero of the Maoist insurgency in Chhattisgarh.
Birsa, 9, was pointing towards a Central Reserve Police Force contingent manning a roadblock near their camp at Puswada. The CRPF men waved down our car and made enquiries – who we were, where we were headed – before letting us pass. We had gone barely 50 meters when Birsa started again. “There,” he said, nodding in the direction of a helipad. “Helicopters land there.”
Another helipad came into view as we reached the CRPF camp in Chintagufa, around 6 km from Puswada, and Birsa couldn’t contain his excitement, “You can see helicopters here as well.”
After a short drive northwest from the Chintagufa camp, we turned onto a dirt track to reach Burkapal. It took about 20 minutes of a bumpy ride to get to the village. Birsa jumped out of the car as we stopped outside his home, hugged his brother Madkam Hinga, 15, and grandmother Aayte Joga, 72, and gave them a small bag of chocolates he had bought on the way.
After Birsa’s father was killed, the social activist Soni Sori helped enrol him in a residential school in Geedam, about 160 km away. When Birsa heard I was going to his village, he asked if he could come along to see his brother and grandmother.
“What do you want to do when you grow up?” I asked Birsa after we had settled into a conversation with his family.
“Police officer,” he replied.
“You get a gun when you become a policeman. When I get a gun, I’ll kill those who killed my father.”
Birsa doesn’t know his father was killed by the men in uniform, and brutally.
On April 24, 2017, suspected Maoists attacked a contingent from the CRPF’s 74th battalion that was guarding workers laying the road that we would take to reach Burkapal three years later (it was never completed), killing 25 of them and wounding seven. The security forces retaliated against the villagers.
In the weeks after the attack, the CRPF and the police arrested over a hundred men and two minor boys from Burkapal and nearby villages, all inhabited by Adivasis. Among those arrested was Madkam Bhaman, Birsa’s father. He would be killed soon after. Birsa’s mother had died of undiagnosed ailments in 2013, leaving Aayte to raise him and his brother.
As for the other men arrested for their alleged involvement in the attack, less than half a dozen were brought before a judge – once – in nearly three years. They are all still in jail.
The attack and the arrests
April 24, 2017 was Beej Pandum, a major Adivasi festival when they worship the earth. According to Burkapal’s villagers, they requested the CRPF and the police at the nearby police camp to halt construction work for a day because their belief didn’t permit digging up the earth on Beej Pandum.
They also informed them that some unknown people had been sighted near the village. The police ignored both the request and the information.
At around 12.55 pm, according to the police’s records, over 200 armed men and women attacked the CRPF contingent guarding the construction site.
The next day, the security forces raided Burkapal and grabbed Bhaman. “We were all celebrating Beej Pandum in a field outside the village. In the afternoon, after lunch, Bhaman went home to rest. We reached home in the evening. We couldn’t find Bhaman, so the villagers went looking. For two days we searched, to no avail,” Aayte recalled. “On the third day, the police brought us his body.”
The corpse was wrapped in plastic. “My son was tall, strong, but his body was a heap of flesh. As if all his bones had been broken and the flesh piled up and wrapped in plastic,” Aayte said. “I still cannot fathom how he would have been killed for his body to look like that. They killed my son and jailed the other.”
Bhaman’s brother Hûnga Madkam, 35, is one of the villagers who are in jail, accused by the police of helping orchestrate the Burkapal attack.
“I had four sons. Two fell sick and died, one was killed by the police and the remaining one is in jail. It’s three years since I saw Hûnga. I don’t have money to travel to Jagdalpur,” she said. Her son is lodged in the Jagdalpur Central Jail, about 180 km from the village. “I don’t have many days left now and I don’t know if I will be able to see my Hûnga one last time.”
On April 26, the CRPF returned to Burkapal and arrested Sodi Linga, Sodi Muda and Sajjan Nayak. Fearing they would suffer the same fate, all men and boys ran away to nearby villages. So, it was left to the women to perform Bhaman’s last rites.
The men were right to be fearful. Most of them were arrested as soon as they returned and incarcerated without so much as a court hearing for nearly three years.
Newslaundry spoke with at least 40 women in Burkapal whose family members are in jail for the Burkapal attack. All of them said the arrested men hadn’t had a proper court hearing until recently.
Sodi Jogi, 28, recalled pleading with the CRPF men as they dragged away her husband, Sodi Linga, 30. “Two days after the attack, they picked up my husband. They were mercilessly beating him while dragging him away,” she said. “That’s when the rest of the men in the village ran away. They were scared they would be branded Naxals and killed or accused of being involved in the attack and jailed.”
Finding the men gone when they returned to the village the next day, the security forces asked the women for help. “The police asked us to call back our men. They said the monsoon season was upon us and we wouldn’t be able to do farming if the men stayed away for long. They assured us that the men wouldn’t be touched,” Jogi said. “We went to nearby villages and told our husbands, fathers and sons what the police had promised us. But the police betrayed our trust.”
The men returned to Burkapal on May 2, when the police had asked to meet with them and reassure them of safety. But as soon as the men entered the village, the police pounced, beating up and dragging away over 50 of them. Over the following weeks, the police took away nearly as many men from the neighbouring village of Tadmetla, as also Gondpalli, Tongguda, Kaarigundam, Metaguda, Tumalpada, and Perimili areas farther away.
In the police’s records, many of these men are shown to have been arrested on a different day than they actually were. Jogi said her husband was taken away on April 26, yet he is claimed to have been arrested on May 5.
There are other discrepancies. Police records obtained by Newslaundry admit that Linga has no criminal record but still describe him as a “habitual criminal”. His arrest record claims Linga always carried a weapon, but none was found when he was arrested.
Sodi Sukda, Madwi Joga, Gonche Mada, Madwi Aaytu, and several other accused in the Burkapal attack have similarly been labelled “habitual criminals” though they don’t have criminal records.
A village without men
Today, Burkapal is a village of women and children. There are just a handful of mostly old men in a village with a population of 450. The rest have been in jail for over three years. They are all innocent, insisted Vanjam Budri, 27, whose husband Vanjam Nanda, 30, was among the men arrested on the pretext of the meeting.
“It was Beej Pundum. My husband and I had gone to take part in festivities. We weren’t even aware of the attack. Yet, my husband and other villagers were arrested,” she protested. “He has been in jail for three years.”
The last time she visited her husband in the Jagdalpur jail in January , Budri said, he begged her to “find a way” to get him out. “I don’t know how to get him out,” she added. “I don’t have any money. I survive by working in other people’s houses.”
It costs about Rs 600 for a person to travel to Jagdalpur, she said. Most of the women in the village cannot afford that, especially since they must provide for their families all on their own.
Madwi Vijaya, 30, has a similarly tragic story. His father-in-law, Madwi Dula, was accused of helping orchestrate a Maoist attack in Tadmetla in April 2010 that killed at least 73 CRPF men. Dula was then the sarpanch of Tadmetla gram panchayat comprising the villages of Burkapal and Tadmetla. He spent two years in jail before the courts found him innocent of all charges and freed him.
In 2015, his daughter Madwi Anita, who is in her late 20s, was elected a member of the Tadmetla gram panchayat and his daughter-in-law, Vijaya, the sarpanch.
On March 6, 2016, Dula was abducted by the Maoists who accused him of being a police informer. His body was found in Burkapal’s fields two days later. Four years earlier, however, when the Maoists had kidnapped Alex Paul Menon, then the Sukma collector, one of their conditions for his freedom was that Dula be let out of jail because he was innocent.
Just over a year later, following the Burkapal attack, the police took away Vijaya’s husband Madwi Laxman, who is in his early 30s.
“The day CRPF men were attacked in Burkapal, everyone was celebrating Beej Pundum,” she recalled. “The festivities were held in an open field two km away from the village, so there’s no question of any of us being involved in the attack. Some villagers heard about the attack and they told the rest of us. After three people from our village were taken away, the rest of the men fled. They were afraid of being arrested or killed by the police. My husband went to a relative’s home in Padwaras village where he was arrested two days later.”
In the police’s records, however, Laxman was arrested not from Padwaras on April 28, but from the Sukma bus stand over two months later on July 4, 2017.
His brother Madwi Sanna, 27, was arrested on May 2. “I was in the 5th or 6th month of my pregnancy when he was arrested,” said his wife Madwi Jimme. “Now I have a daughter. Whenever I go to meet my husband in jail, I take her with me. He has been in jail for three years. Who knows how long it will be before we see him at home.”
Vijaya alleged that the CRPF continue to target the villagers to this day. “They barge into our homes at night, carrying big torches. Sometimes they beat us too. They tell us not to go out to gather Mahua, not to farm. Whatever farming we do has to be done secretly,” she said. “I don’t understand what we have done to deserve this. Without any reason, innocent villagers have been incarcerated.”
Undam Deve, 75, hasn’t seen her son, Undam Aandha, 36, for three years. “I don’t have enough money to go and meet my son in jail,” she said. “I don’t even know if I will get to see his face again.”
Incarcerated without their day in court
Most of the Burkapal attack accused are in the Jagdalpur jail, and some in the Dantewada prison. Their case is being heard by special judge DN Bhagat’s National Investigative Agency court in Jagdalpur.
Court records accessed by Newslaundry show the police didn’t bring most of the accused before the judge for three years. In fact, police officials themselves didn’t bother attending a hearing. In early 2018, Bhagat reprimanded the police for their “careless behaviour”, and issued a memo seeking an explanation for the continued absence. The police simply ignored it.
“The first chargesheet in this case was filed on October 30, 2017, six months after the villagers were arrested,” noted Arvind Chowdhary, one of the lawyers for the arrested men. “Initially, 113 people were arrested, including two minors. On August 6, 2018, five people were arrested and on October 15, 2019, four more. But except for three or four people, for the sake of propriety, none of the accused were produced in court in the last three years. The police always gave the excuse of not having enough guards to produce all the accused. Then, the court issued a warrant in February 2020 asking the police to produce the accused in groups if they couldn’t be brought all at once, so the trial could proceed.”
Chowdhary added: “It took almost three years and the court’s orders to start the process of filing chargesheets. After the court’s order, police began producing the accused in groups, which has resulted in charges being filed against 106 of the 120 accused.”
Curious consistency in police records
Almost every FIR related to a Naxal case in Chhattisgarh contains some version of this sentence from the police’s telling of the Burkapal attack: “Under increasing pressure from the police, Maoists used the thick jungle foliage to run away while calling out the names Hidma, Situ, Arjun, Manila, Pada, Apu, Vetti Hurra, Lakkhu.”
Asked about this curious consistency, Chowdhary said, “The police used to write unknown persons earlier, but they have changed their tactics. Now, wherever an incident happens, they write the names of the active Maoists of that area. If they were involved or not doesn’t matter, the police just claim that they were and were calling each other during the incident.”
He added, “Another aspect of this is that when the Maoists operate in an area for months, they adopt the names of the local villagers. The police use this to their advantage. When something happens, they look for villagers with the names used by the Maoists and arrest them. Such easy arrests help the police achieve their targets.”
Not rarely, the list of names in the FIR is modified to suit the police’s narrative. Take Kawasi Hidme’s case.
She was accused of being involved in the Maoist attack at Errabor village in July 2007 that killed 23 policemen. In the FIR, the police listed nearly 50 names they claimed to have heard the Maoists shout during the attack. After five months, the police added three names to the list of the accused claiming that they had just remembered them. One was Kawasi Hidme, then 17, who was arrested not long after.
After spending seven years in jail, Kawasi was found innocent by a Dantewada court, and released. And hers isn’t a singular story.
This is the first part of a four-part series on Chhattisgarh’s Adivasi prisoners.
This story is part of the NL Sena project, which 35 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Manas Karambelkar, Abhimanyu Chitoshia, Adnan Khalid, Siddhart Sharma, Sudarshana Mukhopadhyay, Abhishek Singh, Sreya Bhattacharya, and other NL Sena members. Contribute to our next NL Sena project, Long Wait for Home, and help to keep news free and independent.