Villagers say innocents were hacked, shot; cops say they were violent, Naxal 'sympathizers'
Bijapur, May 4: On March 31, seven tribals were allegedly killed in an 'encounter' in Santoshpur village near Bijapur in Chhattisgarh.There was no FIR, the killings were not publicised or reported, not even in the local media. Residents of Ponjer village say the tribals, who the police claim were Sangham members (Naxalite sympathizers), were picked up by members of the Chattisgarh Armed Police and Salwa Judum, taken to nearby Santoshpur, and killed.
They say at least four of them were hacked to death and the rest shot. The five Ponjer villagers who were killed: Madiyam Fagu, Madiyam Lakhma, Kudiyan Musa, Markam Sanko and Marvi Mangu. Two others, Kudiuyam Bojha, a former SPO from Santoshpur who had apparently fallen out with the local administration, and an unidentified person were killed.
Two people, Kodia Mura and Podia, have been missing since the incident and villagers fear they have also been killed. "These were Sangham members and we had gone to these villages to conduct a search mission. There was an encounter and we were forced to act," says SP Bijapur, Ratan Lal Dangi.
He, however, is unable to explain why the victims were not carrying any weapons. Home Minister Ram Vichar Netam says he does not know of any such encounter. "I have been out of the city for quite some time and would only be able to provide you with relevant details later," he says.
Director General of Police O P Rathore, however, admits there was an encounter. "Gujarat ki bimari sab jagah faila rahe hain log. Chhattisgarh Police has a reputation for maintaining human rights. The Naxalites are savages and use such techniques, we are not into such things," Rathore says. He says that Naxalite sympathizers attacked the search party and they were killed in retaliatory firing.
But the villagers say that on March 31, a group of security personnel marched into Ponjer at about 8.30 a.m. They started abusing people, alleging that they were Naxal sympathisers. "They asked all of us to gather under a tree and later asked these six people to accompany them for questioning," said Madiyam Soni, whose son was killed.
The security personnel and members of Salwa Judum, the anti-Naxal force supported by the government, were allegedly accompanied by the local sarpanch Minku Gangaram. Villagers say Gangaram was upset with them as they had demanded developmental work in the village.
"The security personnel took these six people to Santoshpur village, where four others were also brought. They started beating these people. When one of them tried to escape, they shot Kudiyam Mura," says a Santoshpur villager. Villagers from the forest near Santoshpur recovered the bodies around 5 p.m.
"How can someone act in such a cruel manner? These security personnel used axes and machetes to hack the victims," said Kudiyan Puria, a resident of Santoshpur village. Soni said the villagers had no contact with anyone remotely concerned with Naxalites. "These men were picked up while they were collecting mahua. Do Naxalites or their sympathisers need to do such things?" she says.
Ponjer, which is home to over 25 families, is now deserted as residents have fled to neighbouring villages. Soni and her son, twelve-year-old Madiyam Mani Ram, are the only people left. Despite threats by Salwa Judum members, the family has decided to stay back. "I want the killers of my brother to be punished," Mani Ram says, pointing to the grave of his brother, who was buried along with three other victims of the massacre.
The villagers are so scared that they haven't even registered a complaint at the police station in Bijapur, 10 km away. "How can we hope to even approach the police when some of their own have committed such an act," says Poonam Ramlu, a Ponjer resident.