Spilling Innocent blood: A fact-finding report by PUCL Odisha on Nisanguda killing

December 15, 2015

In the recent past, reports of killing of innocent people by ‘security forces’ deployed to combant Maoists have been coming out of many parts of Odisha, specifically from its forested region largely inhabitated by adivasis and dalits. For example, in July this year a dalit couple was killed in Kotagarh, Kandhamal; a youth in Nuapada was beaten to death in August.  Although not all incidents of killings by security forces get investigated by independent agencies, investigations into some cases by the State Human Rights Commission have found that innocent villagers have been killed.  The killings of Junesh Badaraita of Gajapati district in 2011 and Srimajhi Paleka of Rayagada district in 2008 are two such cases.

Another such incident happened on 15th November in Nisanguda forest area of Kalahandi district in which two adivasis and one dalit were killed and two adivasis were injured in the firing reportedly by the SOG (Special Operation Group) personnel.  Of the five victims, three belonged to Upar Panchkul village and two to Nisanguda.  The incident was widely reported in the local media.  The media also reported about the claim of the police that people were killed and injured in the crossfire between the Maoists and the security forces; on the other hand, villagers strongly denied it.  Besides, the manner in which the post mortem was conducted in keeping the relatives of the deceased in the dark was also questioned by local activists.  There have been protests by various adivasi/dalit organisations of Kalahandi condemning the killings.  Considering the seriousness of the issue, PUCL Odisha decided to do a fact-finding into the incident.

During a period of five days, from 27th November to 1st December, the PUCL team met the villagers and family members of the victims of Upar Panchkul village. It spoke to a number of local journalists and activists, met the ADMO, the IIC of Sadar PS and SP Kalahandi, visited the spot where the firing took place, went to the VSS Medical College and Hospital, Burla where the two injured were admitted but couldn’t meet them as they were already discharged. The team also went through newspaper reports.

A glimpse of the locality and the people

Nisanguda and Upar Panchkul are two small villages deep inside the forest in Jugsaipatna Gram Panchayat under Bhawanipatna Sadar Block in Kalahandi district.  They are at a distance of about 25 km from Bhawanipatna, the Block and District headquarters. However, one has to walk a distance of about 10 kms on a rough forest road to reach there.  The villages fall under the Karlapat Wildlife Sanctuary, which also is the area presently being considered for Bauxite Mining to be given to Vedanta for its Lanjigarh Alumina Plant.

Upar Panchkul village has only 14 households belonging to Adivasi and dalit communities.  They are mostly landless. Only two families have got entitlements over some forest land under the Forest Rights Act.  Forest is the primary source of their livlihood.  They not only collect minor forest produces and firewood from the forest but also use it for rearing goat.  Some grow millets and other crops on the dangar land during the monsoon months.  Though they have job cards, availability of wage work under the MGNREGA is occasional for being located in the forest area. Anant Nayak, brother of one of the deceased, Harishankar Naik, told the PUCL team, “There are days when we get only one meal and go to bed without food”.  Since the last four to five years, some of the village youths have started migrating out to other places like Kerala and Bombay, in search of wage work.  The nearest primary school and health centre are located, across a hill, at a distance of about six kms in the jungle route, at Jugsaipatna.  There is not even an Anganwadi centre in the village.

After the firing incident, people are afraid to go to the jungle for their daily livelihood activities.  The few children who used to attend school walking through the long forest road are afraid to go to school now.  During last one year or so, combing operations have been intensified in the area in the name of anti-Maoist operation.  There are reports about interior villages often being subjected to search, raids and harassment of people by the security forces.  About a month ago, people of Mundguda petitioned before the District Collector about security forces searching their houses during night and harassing them.  In Kiapadar village, women complained about security forces making lewd remarks while they were taking bath in the nallah.

Losing life in search of missing goats: the incident of killing

Twelve days past the incident, when the PUCL team visited the village, there was still an uneasy silence all around.  Fear and grief was palpable; people were yet to come to terms with what happened to them. They took time to open up:

On the morning of 15th Nov. a group of people of Nisanguda and Upar Panchkul village had gone to the forest, around one Km from villages, to search for goats, belonging to their Ward Member, Jaya Majhi.  Goats had gone missing the previous evening.  It was something usual for them.  But, at about 9 o’clock, those who were in the village heard something like of gun shots coming from a particular direction of the forest.  They got apprehensive.  After some time, the two injured men, Ichhu Majhi and Arju (Arjun) Majhi returned to the village. They narrated that while they were busy in searching goats and about to cross a nallha, all of a sudden they were fired upon behind their back. Three of them – Sukru Majhi, Jay Majhi and Hari Shankar Naik – fell on the ground and the injured ones hid themselves under the nearby bushes. The security forces dragged the dead bodies towards the nallah and carried them away. After the departure of the security forces, they came to Nisanguda.  On hearing this account, villagers tried to send messages to the nearby villages and took time to gather some people together.  Then they went to the spot as described by the two injured men.  There they saw the blood stains on the ground as well as other signs of firing.  They saw the signs of gun shots on the trees as well as of bodies being draggged. The PUCL team while visiting the spot noticed that there were still marks of gun shots on the trees. These marks seemed all from one direction.  There were also a number of yellow colour catridge cases strewn around the spot.  The team also noticed a patch of blood soaked earth (what villagers say the place of firing) and the signs of bodies being dragged for about 20 feet towards the nallah flowing nearby.  A red colour sleeper – probably worn by one of the men killed – was still lying forlorn on the very spot.

Meanwhile, the message spread and more people came to the village. With the help of some local representatives, they took the two injured to Bhawanipatna and admitted them in the Dist. Headquarters Hospital at about 5.30 PM.  They were referred to Burla around 11 PM.  According to the ADMO, Bhawanipatna, the two were referred to Burla as the surgery specialist as well as the anasthesist didn’t feel confident of doing operation on them.

As regards the deceased, people had no idea where the bodies were kept. They complained that the bodies were handed over to them wrapped in polythene sheets after the inquest and post mortem was over.  According to the ADMO, the Post mortem was done in the presence of the BDO by a team of three doctors between 11PM and 2AM – as per the order of the Collector.  It is important to note that the relatives and co-villagers were present in Bhawanipatna and the district police and the administration had the knowledge of their presence, still the police officials didn’t feel it appropriate to ensure the presence of the relatives or co-villagers at the time of the inquest or post-mortem.  “We were asked whether we would cremate the bodies or bury it or it would be thrown away. We said that we would cremate the bodies according to our own rituals in our village”, said one of the villagers.  The bodies were brought at night in a govt. ambulance and dropped near Rapangpadar village and from there the villagers carried these to the village and cremated the next day morning.  Along with the bodies, the police also gave Rs.40000/- each to the families of the three deceased.  The injured ones were given Rs.15000/- each at the time of sending them to the Burla Hospital. The local journalists allege that the relatives of the deceased and injured were made to sign on blank paper. It is imortant to note that people had not asked for money. Rather, they  felt insulted  by this behaviour of  the police as Samudra Naik, widow of Hari Shankar Naik, angrily asked, “ Would the wife of SP be happy, if we killed her husband and gave her Rs.40,000/-?”

The story of the Crossfire: the police vs. the victims  

After the incident, responses of the district police officials have been marked by secrecy and evasiveness.  The concerned IIC of Sadar Police station, though agreed to meet the PUCL team, refused to say anything on the plea that the SDPO is the investigating officer in this case and there has been ordered a magisterial enquiry by the BDO.  On the other hand, the SDPO refused to meet taking the alibi that he was busy. The team could manage to meet the SP.

His account is as follows: ‘The police had received intelligence inputs about the movements of Maoists in the area, so the forces had gone for combing operation.  On the day of the incident it was the SOG unit (23 members) which was sent to the area. While searching the area the SOG team saw about 15 to 20 Maoists.  The Maoists first opend fire upon the SOG personnel and in self defence the latter retaliated.  Whether the three people killed and the two injured were Maoists or had links with the Maoists or ordinary villagers would be ascertained once the investigation is complete.  Arms and ammunitions including .303 rifles and ‘tiffin bomb’ have been recovered from the area.   A case under section 302 of the IPC has been registered by the police.  No SOG personnel have been injured from firing by the Maoists.’  (The PUCL team asked for a copy of the FIR and seizure list but the SP refused.)

On the allegations of not informing the victims’ relatives to identify the bodies and handing over these only after the post-mortem was complete the response of the SP was most evasive when he said, ‘the concerned police officers would have done everything required by the law’.  It is not easily believable that the highest police official of the district did not know what the concerned police officers did exactly on the matter.

The most hush-hush act of the district police is evident in the case of the injured who were referred to Burla Hospital for treatment guarded by the police.  When the PUCL team visited the Burla Hospital on 1.12.15 it was found that the two injured persons were already discharged.  Hospital records show that Arju Majhi was discharged on 21.11.15 and Ichhu Majhi on 28.11.15.  But, none of them had returned to their village till 2.12.15.  It was only when the local journalists came to know of it, published the news in the local media and began to make inquiries from the police, the two were promptly brought to the village on 3.12.15.

While the police tried to hush up the matter in various ways, the victims’ familieis and the villagers slowly gathered courage to question the police’s version.  On 30-11-2012, Laxmi Majhi, wife of Ward Member Jaya Majhi, lodged an FIR in the sadar PS narrating the indiscriminating firing of police force resulting in the death of three men and injury of two.  The SI of police of the same PS received the FIR, but didn’t register a criminal case.  Till date the police have not registered a case on the strength of the said FIR and have initiated no investigation in the light of the FIR given by the wife of one of the victims.

Arju and Ichhu – the two key witnesses to the firing  – gave their eye witness account in a press meet in Bhawanipatna on 8th Dec. (published in The Samaj and The Sambad on 9th Dec.).  Their account is: the firing was sudden and one sided firing; Ichhu got the shot on his back and he managed to hide behind bushes; Arju was shot on his back and he too hid behind bushes but he could see how the other three were killed; when the other three fell to the bullets on the ground and were writhing in pain five/six jawans came near them and again shot at them till they died; then the jawans carried away the bodies wrapping it up in polythene sheets.

They also talked about the threats given to them by the police while they were in Burla and even after they returned to Bhawanipatna.  Arju Majhi was kept in a lodge in Burla till Ichhu was discharged on 28th under the watch and ward of the police and was threatened.  Both of them were brought to Bhawanipatna and kept again under the watch and ward of the police till 2nd. During this period of confinement they were threatened by the police to say that ‘they had gone to the forest for hunting and the three were killed by Maoists who were wearing black clothes’, and if they said anything different there would be police cases against them, they would be jailed and they wouldn’t get any financial help from the government.

Observations:

On the basis of the above accounts, the PUCL Team makes the following observations:

  1. The version of the police that three people were killed and two injured in the crossfire and that the SOG personnel opened fire in self defence is not credible. Rather, there is preponderance of probability that innocent people were killed and injured in an unprovoked, indiscriminated and one-sided firing by the SOG.
  1. There are clear violations of the guidelines issued by the Supreme Court of India in the matters of investigating deaths in police encounters. Neither the concerned police officers nor the executive magistrate, ensured the presence of family members or their relatives/co-villagers during inquest or post mortem of the dead bodies. The post mortem was conducted at the dead of night and the reason is best known to the administration.
  1. The team further observes that the mysterious confinement of the two injured, threats and inducement by the police, and subsequently their statements in the press create a reasonable doubt that the district police are trying to hush up the truth and influence the investigation.
  1. The Team has reasons to believe that the investigation into the incident by the SDPO may not be free, fair, and independent as the Investigating Officer is subordinate to the SP and the SOG units deployed in the district work under the control, command and supervision of the SP and are accountable to him.
  1. The Team further believes that the investigation by SDPO on the basis of FIR lodged by the police will go in a direction that the police want it go as the conerned police official did not register criminal cases in the light of the FIR lodged by Laxmi Majhi, widow of the deceased Ward Member, Jaya Majhi.

Demands:

  1. The PUCL demands that compensation to the tune of Rs.25 lakhs at least be given to the next of the kin of each deceased victims and to the tune of Rs.10 lakhs to each of the injured victims, though the loss sustained by them is irreparable. The government should take steps for providing all assistance to the victims’ families for their proper rehabilitation but also for their physical security.
  1. The govt. should institute a criminal case on the strength of the FIR lodged by Laxmi Majhi, wife of Jay Majhi, and provide her a free copy of the FIR as required under the law.
  1. The governmet should put the entire SOG team, involved in the killing, under suspension and draw disciplinary proceedings for major punishment against them.
  1. The incumbent SP and the executive magistrate should be transferred for an independent and impartial investigation into the incident.
  1. The state government should constitute a Special Investigation Team headed by a former High Court or Supreme Court Judge and this SIT should be constituted under Section-37 of Protection of Human Rights Act 1993.

Finally, we in PUCL are concerned at the killings of innocent adivasis and dalits in the name of combating Maoists.  It seems as if the Right to Life, guaranteed under the Indian Constitution, has no meaning when it comes to the lives of most vulnerable sections of our society.  We appeal to all concerned to put pressure on the government to ensure that human rights of people living in the concerned areas are respected.

12th December, 2015
Bhubaneswar

Contact details: Pramodini Pradhan, Convenor, People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Odisha  Mobile No – 9439200989
Email: pramodinip@gmail.com