Inquiry exposes "fake" Sarkeguda encounter. Will guilty be punished?
At the end of their joint operation in Bastar's Bijapur district on 28 June, 2012, police and CRPF had claimed their "biggest success yet" against Naxals. They had killed 17, including three teenagers, all of who the soldiers claimed were dreaded insurgents.
But barely a few days later, as facts about the encounter were brought to light, the Chhattisgarh police and CRPF claimed that seven of those killed were confirmed Naxal cadres and the rest ordinary villagers caught in the cross-fire.
After sustained pressure, by media and in Chhattisgarh's state assembly, senior CRPF officers expressed 'regret' over the death of innocent civilians and admitted that all 17 tribals were innocent. This has been the line of the Chhattisgarh government as well.
Despite these admissions, till today, more than four years after the Sarkeguda 'fake encounter' case, nobody's been held accountable for all these deaths.
But this could soon change with the end of the first inquiry in the incident about to conclude. And give the residents of Sarkeguda, who have been resolute in their pursuit for justice, some sense of closure.
A judicial inquiry commission headed by Justice VK Agarwal was instituted to look into the said killings has only two more witnesses to hear after which final arguments in the case will begin, sometime in November. One could expect the final judgment in the case by the end of this year or the beginning of next year.
According to the testimonies of the victims' families, on the intervening night of 28 and 29 June, villagers from Kotteguda and Rajpenta villages in Sarkeguda to plan a tribal sowing festival - 'Beej Pandum'.
While about 70 people were assembled in an empty field and were planning their festivities when the forces opened fire on them. Based on various testimonies, the number of forces - from police and CRPF - who fired at the crowd to be between 50 and 190.
By the following morning, photographers had turned up at the site of the encounter as the dead bodies were being removed from the site. What could easily be noticed in these photographs, were sharp, deep wounds on some dead bodies and blunt, shallow wounds on others.
Some also observed wounds of bullets shot from a very close range.
The DIG leading these operations - S Ilango, did not have any explanations for how these wounds and some of the gun-shot marks.
Notably, his version of the events also differed significantly from the accounts of his juniors who were part of the operation.
While Ilango specifically talked about having closed in on the target after receiving specific inputs, in their testimonies his in junior said they had "no idea" of who they had fired on.
The cover up
In their testimonies and the subsequent questioning, the soldiers were also caught giving discrepant accounts of the events and of the injuries they had suffered. Some soldiers who had claimed to have suffered injuries to their right shoulders were found with injured toes and so on.
The following post mortem was another sham. The doctor who presided over the post mortems, in cross questioning, was found to have claimed to be in two spots at the same time. By his own admission the post mortems were carried out on the ground of a police station in presence of police officers.
"Over the last 4 years, various people from villagers, police, CRPF and the government have testified in the court. On 20 and 21 August, 2016, the VK Agarwal Inquiry Commission administered the cross-examination of Dr. GS Dhruv [who presided over the post mortem examinations]," says Isha Khandelwal, a member of Jagdalpur Legal Aid, which has been fighting the case for the last four years.
Khandelwal added that the cross questioning of the Dr Dhruv, " revealed in the court gross inconsistencies in the post-mortems, contradictions which to our understanding clearly indicates that the postmortem reports were written without the postmortem actually being ever conducted."