#GompadMassacre: SC orders SIT probe, but justice may never be done
It's one of the most infamous Adivasi massacres in Chhattisgarh. In 2009, at least 16 tribals were hacked to death, allegedly by paramilitary personnel and Salwa Judum militiamen, at Gompad village in Dantewada.
That's not where the tragedy ended, however.
Since the Supreme Court began hearing the case in February 2010, all the petitioners and eyewitnesses, except one, have gone missing, one by one.
The Adivasis, as young as a boy of two to as old as an 70-year-old woman, had been hacked down with swords and daggers, and their hands cut off and clothes burnt to destroy evidence. The people who carried out this gruesome massacre, activists in Bastar allege, later abducted, and likely murdered, the eyewitnesses.
Chhattisgarh has witnessed several such massacres that are being contested legally, but the farthest such cases have reached is till the Chhattisgarh High Court, "which has virtually gone to sleep over them," as the senior advocate representing the Adivasis Colin Gonzalves puts it.
So when the Supreme Court asked for an independent Special Investigation Team to look into the Gompad massacre, it marked a minor victory for the people who have suffered the worst of the Indian state, gone berserk in its fight against the Maoists.
"Minor" because the direction to constitute the SIT has come seven years after the massacre. Since nearly all eyewitnesses have disappeared and little evidence remains, any investigation may have only symbolic value. But it could perhaps be used as a precedent for other, more recent crimes.
At the hearing last Tuesday, as Gonzalves spoke about extrajudicial killings by the state and Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar about the men the state has lost in Maoist ambushes, the court remarked that "both are not good".
"So what is to be done?" the bench asked both. The government's suggestion of getting the CBI to investigate wasn't approved since the petitioners argued that the CBI, too, was practically an organ of the state.
The SC bench of Justices V Gopala Gowda and Arun Misra then ordered an SIT to investigate, and asked both sides to give a list of officers who would constitute it.
An independent investigation is just what the victims of state-backed violence - perpetrated by Salwa Judum and the security forces during Operation Green Hunt, when thousands of Adivasis were killed and lakhs displaced - have been asking for many years.
"There are many cases like this to be head in the Chhattisgarh High Court. But it has virtually gone to sleep. The high court is uncaring about the plight of people suffering at the hands of the security forces," says Gonzalves.
When the Gompad massacre case was first heard in February 2010, the apex court called the victims to Delhi to record their statements. Gonzalves says, "The Supreme Court's active interest in this case is of supreme significance to us."
Sharmila Purkayastha, a People's Union for Democratic Rights activist, who was part of the 15-member fact finding team that had first reported about the massacre, says this case is important because of Chhattisgarh's "Mission 2016".
The goal of the "mission" is to rid the state of Maoist rebels by the end of 2016. Operation Green Hunt, during which the 16 tribals were massacred, had a similar goal. Which is perhaps why this "mission" is ringing alarm bells for many people who have long observed the state.
"We know about the Gompad case. There may be several others, perhaps even worse, we may not know about. Despite it happening seven years ago, we cannot wish it away. This case was a manifestation of what the state once was. And now that Chhattisgarh has announced 'Mission 2016' to eliminate all Maoists, this case becomes even more important."
In October 2009, Operation Green Hunt had just been launched. It was until then the most ambitious attempt by the Indian state to eliminate the Maoists and their "sympathisers" from the jungles of Bastar.
A few days before the massacre at Gompad, eight CoBRA commandos had been killed in an ambush in Dantewada, and several taken hostage. It was no less than an insult to the security forces.
In retaliation, the security forces personnel and Salwa Judum militiamen allegedly went into the villages of Gachanpalli, Gattapad, Palachalam and Gompad, and brutally killed innocent Adivasis.
This is how Purkayastha's fact finding team reported the atrocity in Gompad: "Eyewitnesses reported that a large number of uniformed men and Salwa Judum members entered the village early in the morning. All able-bodied men ran off into the nearby jungles leaving behind children and old people. Among the dead was a 70-year-old woman, Dudhi Moye, who was found lying in a pool of blood with her breasts cut off."
"Among the many violent incidents the case of Suresh, the infant child of Kartam Kanni, stands out as his mother, aunt and grandparents were hacked in front of him, and even he was assaulted. The vengeance of the killers was apparent in the manner in which they destroyed the meagre belongings of the villagers such as their huts, pots and grain." Kanni survived the massacre, he was found with three of his fingers missing.
It's seven years since the massacre, but the police haven't even registered an FIR so far.
Soon after some of the eyewitnesses had approached the apex court, they began disappearing one by one. They included Sodhi Sambho and Madwi Urray, whose very existence the state police had once denied. There were reports of some of them being bundled into SUVs without license plates, with the accusing the police of abducting them. They have not been heard of since.
Now, of the 13 petitioners, only Himanshu Kumar remains. The others have all "disappeared". Kumar had been working with the tribals of Bastar for 18 years when he moved the court over the Gompad massacre. He was forced out of Chhattisgarh soon after.
"Seven years later, it isn't a matter of life and death for me anymore. Back in 2010 when we had approached the apex court, a decision could have changed a lot on the ground. At that time it was the question of our credibility versus theirs. They were talking about securing the state and we were talking about them killing innocents to make way for corporates," Kumar says.
The most that could happen even if the SIT finds some evidence, Kumar adds, is that some soldiers will be jailed. But what difference would that make?
"Humko wahan se nikaal diya. Ab is ladai mein bacha kya hai. Hum toh maidan mein bhi nahi hain. Kuch haisiyat hi nahi bachi hamari," he says. "Aaj, saat saal baad agar hum awaaz uthayein bhi to woh kahenge tum barso purane chutkule par aaj hans rahe ho."
Shorn of the untranslatable despondency resonating in Kumar's words, it means: "This fight has long been lost. We aren't even in the field anymore. Still, if we raise our voice over after all these years, they will say you are flogging a dead horse."