In June 2012, the Indian security forces gunned down 17 Adivasi villagers in Chhattisgarh’s Sarkeguda and declared them “Naxalites”. Following a public outcry, the state government set up a judicial commission to investigate . The commission submitted its report in December last year, that all 17 people, including six minors, were innocent Adivasis and not Maoists as the police had claimed, and that they had been murdered in cold blood.
Kamala Kaka, 34, whose nephew was among those slain that night, heaved a sigh of relief when the report came out, as did the families of the other victims who had battled for over seven years to get justice. Their relief was shortlived. A year on, let alone act against the perpetrators of the massacre, the police haven’t even filed an FIR against them.
“I used to work as a mitanin then,” Kamala said, using the local term for Accredited Social Health Worker, or ASHA. “That night, I had returned home after assisting a delivery in Bijapur. I was listening to music on my phone when gunshots rang out, first a single shot and then a volley. It went on for almost an hour. I thought the police were firing in the air to threaten the villagers. I didn’t know they were shooting down people. Then they sent up an illumination bomb to light up the whole village. Soon vehicles came, including tractors. Early in the morning, I heard a single shot and then saw police carrying a body tied to a pole, like an animal. We watched it all from a distance. Some of our men went to where the police were coming from with the body. They found blood all over. After the police left we followed them to the Basaguda police station. It was only there that we found out they had killed 17 of our people.”
In the shooting that night, two men and a woman were injured as well. They were taken for treatment to Raipur. The woman returned home after about a month, but the two men were kept in jail for six years.
At the police station, Kamala recalled, the villagers were stonewalled. “We sat there until evening. We called local journalists who came down, the tehsildar and other officials came as well. And many people from Basaguda. Everyone who came there knew the villagers and told the police they were not Naxalites. They didn’t pay any attention. I didn’t have a clue what I had to do, but I decided that I would get justice for our people. They can’t be brought back to life, but their innocence had to be proved at any cost.”
Kamala Kaka, centre, has been battling for justice for over seven years.
Kamala got together with fellow villagers and they started protesting outside the district commissioner’s office in Jagdalpur, demanding a judicial inquiry. She also met Raman Singh, then chief minister, to seek justice for the slain villagers.
In July 2012, the chief minister appointed VK Agrawal, a retired Madhya Pradesh high court judge, to conduct a judicial inquiry into the massacre, prompting the security forces, according to Kamala, to repress Sarkeguda’s villagers.
“For almost two years the police didn’t allow us to do farming. Young boys grazing cattle were made to sit on the ground and forced to speak in Hindi, and those who couldn’t were beaten up. Children were stopped from going to school. Villagers were not allowed to go anywhere without the permission of police. If anyone was allowed to go out of the village, they were required to return by the time specified by the police,” she explained.
“Once, policemen stopped a lactating mother on her way home. When she said she had to breastfeed her child and begged them to let her go, they told her to prove she was a lactating mother. The poor woman had to take out milk from her breasts in front of them in order to get away from them. And whenever there was a bomb blast or Maoist action anywhere, the police would beat up people from our village, telling us we were Naxalites. When we couldn’t take the constant torture anymore, we went to police station and told them to show us a place where there no Maoists so we could all migrate there. We were ready to leave our ancestral village just to get away from the ceaseless harassment.”
“My own family was concerned about my safety because I was fighting for justice for our slain people. Sometimes my well wishers would ask me to go into hiding because they feared my life was in danger. The Congress used to say the BJP did not care about the Adivasis, but they are no different. They sat on the inquiry report for a month before being pressured into releasing it, and, of course, they have not taken any action against the culprits. After the report was released, we went to the Basaguda police station to register an FIR but they flatly refused saying they wouldn’t take any action unless ordered by the government.”
The police also purposely stalled the judicial inquiry, Kamala claimed. “They wouldn’t produce witnesses and keep on delaying their appearances. That is why it took seven years to complete the inquiry,” she explained. “Now, it’s a year since the report was released but the Congress government hasn’t taken action against the security personnel responsible for murdering our people. Relatives of the victims keep asking me if the killers would be punished, they ask if the lives of their loved ones were worth nothing, they ask why nobody cares about them. I don’t know what to tell them.”
Kamala now plans to build a memorial to the 17 slain villagers “so that everybody knows about the grave injustice that happened in Sarkeguda”.
Family members of some of the Adivasis killed in the Sarkeguda massacre.
Ratna Markam, 27, who lost her 15-year-old brother Ramvilas Markam in the massacre, said, “Government is not taking any action against the killers. They killed 17 innocent people in cold blood. For seven years we battled to get justice. Now even after the innocence of our people has been proved, the government is not ready to punish the culprits.”
Manish Kunjam, the president of Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Mahasabha, who assisted the villagers in their quest for justice, complained, “The Congress government is similar to the previous government of the BJP. There is no difference. They came to power by making many promises to the Adivasis, but they are not fulfilling them. They are not ready to take action against those who killed innocent villagers. This government is good for nothing.”
The activist Soni Sori pointed out that Sarkeguda was one of the largest massacres carried out by the security forces in Chhattisgarh. “At the time, it was widely publicised across the country that Naxalites had been killed, but the reality was different. After seven years it was proved that the slain people were ordinary villagers, not Naxals. Why then is the government not taking action against the murderers? If action isn’t taken now, such murders of innocent Adivasis by the security forces will continue in Bastar.”
After the inquiry report was published, chief minister Bhupesh Baghel had said the security personnel responsible for the massacre would not be spared.
Newslaundry tried to contact Baghel and question him about his government’s inaction against the killers of Sarkeguda, without success. This report will be updated if a response is received.