The allegedly fake Maoists encounter in Kandhamal has brought the communal violence hit district into focus, once again. Reportedly, the Special Operation Group (SOG) and Odisha Police gunned down six villagers that included three women and 15 month toddler while six other survived the gun injuries on July 8, 2016. The villagers were returning to their villages after collecting their wages for work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Schemes (MGNREGS) from Balliguda town in overloaded auto-rickshaw covering 20 kilometres.
With no fair weather road to the village, the auto-rickshaw got stuck in the mud as there was heavy downpour then. The six deaths of three women and a child showed that women were already seated in the auto-rickshaw while the men were pushing the auto out of the rain soaked mud when the security forces started the indiscriminate firing that killed.
Odisha Police officials have, in turn, claimed that they had specific intelligence inputs of Maoists presence in the district. The police further claimed that since it was pitch dark and there was a heavy downpour, they did not have time to verify whether they are Maoists or not, almost conceding that those who were killed, were not Maoists. The security forces appeared to have functioned with certainty, dead sure of Maoists passing by and hence, the ambush. Under ‘normal’ circumstances, security forces would have celebrated such a trophy catch/killing with first, a parade of those caught; but this encounter took place close to the village where the victims’ hail from; this alerted nearby villagers to rush to the spot in response to the sounds of gun-shots. The six injured have survived to tell their stories. While anti-Maoist operations usually take place at night, and this time the regular game plan to portray innocent villagers into ‘dreaded Maoist’ could not succeed as the post mortem report too, has stated that the bullets were fired from a three to four meters distance, all from the same direction.
These deaths of Adivasi and Dalit villagers have put the Naveen Patnaik government in Odisha on a back foot even as a reasonable compensation package was announced: 5 lakh rupees each for the families of the dead was announced, a home at government expense and a government job for one family member of those who’s life was snatched away.
Was this fake encounter simply an accident? Ten villagers were killed in the Kandhamal district alone over the last four years and in each case, the police and administration appear to have succeeded in portraying them as Maoists sympathisers. Last year, on July 15, 2015 too, a Christian couple, who went on to a hill top to make a phone call to access network links and speak to their son working in Kerala as a daily wage earner were gunned down in a similarly cold blooded fashion by special operation groups(SOG). Initially, the SOG buried the bodies hurriedly; later apprehending they would be caught, the bodies were exhumed and taken for post mortem a distance away, bypassing four police stations and hospitals. The reports revealed that this was not simply a case of shooting down the couple: the woman had been gang raped and had severe and several injuries on her private parts.
This is the first time that both political parties and local media, that initially echoed the narrative of victims dying in crossfire, later actually factored in the the version of the villagers. In earlier cases –possibly because all the victims were Christians — there was not such a hue and cry as there has been in the latest case. Tragically, this means, that almost any action or absence thereof, by the state within Kandhamal district, invariably, needs to be seen from the prism of religious identity. In the latest killing, the national president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made an appeal for the chief of the chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes/Tribes leading and investigation. It also became an opportunity for the BJP to target the Special Operation Group of the Odisha Poolice.
Even the claim, made repeatedly, and again with this fake encounter, by the police that they have had specific intelligence inputs about Maoist movements, is not quite believable. Each time there has been sporadic violence since the 1970s, the administration comes up with this same lame excuse. Although a steady stream of attacks on the Christians had started since 1960s, the state government rejected any consistent pattern behind this and always claimed that these incidents were the result of intelligence failures. Public discourse seemed to accept this theory put out by the state. Similarly, this latest killing, too, has been seen a failure by the intelligence agencies.
This appears to be part of a strategy to create a sense of terror and keep the Dalit and Adivasi communities, as well as minorities under perpetual fear and terror. This is a way to keep them subjugated and under a sense of dominance.. Even during the communal violence that rocked the district in 2007(December)and 2008 (August), the state government had claimed that it was due to a failure of intelligence.
It is with regret that I say this: I do believe that both the intelligence agencies as well as the state administration have succumbed to the discourse unleashed by majoritarian casteist and communal forces; politicians backed by the petty traders lobby have been successful in feeding rumours as a part of well calculated design: rumours of ‘Maoist presence’ almost everywhere are deliberately spread to ensure an atmosphere that is conducive to for locale extortionists and businesses to continue, unchallenged. Here, tea stall owners and petty Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) workers work as stringers and journalists of newspapers as well as informers for the intelligence agencies. What the intelligence officials dish out are the theories/stories peddled by these pressure groups; this is not unpartisan information gathered by professionals with an open mind committed to Constitutional values. This manner of functioning suits all: locally the petty traders and vested interests with their nexus and at the top the state government that can claim credit for anti-Maoist acts. Apart from all these developments, a recent state government survey to ascertain whether or not mining is undertaken in the Kandhamal district, is indicator of what the state is actually interested in. In the struggle for control over jal, jangal, zameen, the resistance of locals could thereafter be crushed.
A recent conversation, with a senior police official, now retired, revealed the power of these intelligence agencies. Men and women of the church who are perceived to be active o local social issues are monitored and kept a tab on; if found inconvenient they could be transferred simply by some such intelligence inputs being made.
In 2008, the Kandhamal violence had claimed around 100 lives, destroyed 6500 households and 350 churches and other charitable institutions. It appeared to be clearly part of a wider design that included petty traders, communal and caste forces in nexus with the state administration to eliminate Adivasi, Dalits and Minorities, who constitute 80% of the population in the district and 45% of the population in the state of Odisha.
There is every chance that the report of the Mahapatra Inquiry Commission, constituted in the aftermath of Kandhamal violence dubbed the 2007-2008 Kandhamals violence as ‘ethnic violence’ even before the testimonies of the survivors were recorded or their affidavits collected. This appears to be part of the obfuscation by the state administration, more interested in dividing communities even if this escalates conflict. Even the state government appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) is unlikely to ensure truth telling or justice: the high ranking officers are likely to rubber stamp what the local police say. Every new mechanism that is introduced –Commissions of Inquiry, SITs etc end up becoming cover ups that protect structural offenders and re-inforce the violence that takes place against Adivasis, Dalits and minorities.
It is high time that the state administration recognises chronic intelligence failures for what they are and gets to the bottom of –through unbiased investigation — the larger game plan behind this pervasive nexus so that Kandhamal type of encounters are not repeated, in perpetuity. We remain in hope.
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