Death. And Dark Lies in Bastar
As the hazy picture of the midnight operation that killed 17 villagers gets clearer, the paramilitary force is le with plenty to answer for. By and Photographs by
AT 4 AM on 29 June, there was a loud bang on the door of K Santosh, a local journalist with Zee TV in Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh. Taken aback by the disturbance at the odd hour, Santosh asked, “Who is there?” “Police,” came the reply, “Sir wants to talk to you.” Despite being a journalist for almost eight years, Santosh was wary of opening the door and hesitated. The impatient voice then informed him that “something big” had happened and the station officer wanted Santosh to accompany the police team to the crime scene. Confused by this development, Santosh refused to budge.
Fifteen minutes later, a senior police officer approached Santosh’s door and said that 12-13 villagers have been killed and 56 CRPF jawans injured in an encounter and he wanted Santosh to cover it. The journalist, who knew the officer, complied and followed the police team on his motorcycle to Basaguda, a village located 50 km from the district headquarters. Little did he know that he was going to witness the aftermath of one of the worst massacres of the year, in which 17 tribals from Sarkeguda, Kotteguda and Rajapeta villages were killed in an alleged encounter by a 200-strong CRPF team.
“For the first time in my career, the police, which has a history of withholding information, was so forthcoming and actually came to my house with information,” says Santosh. And the most important thing was the shifting narrative: What began as the “deaths of 12-13 villagers” changed to “17 Naxals killed” within the next 5-6 hours. How and when this change happened is an interesting story.
This was the biggest operation undertaken by the CRPF in the Bastar region since 1999. So how did the operation, which was being planned for almost a fortnight, go horribly wrong? Was it plain oversight or just frayed tempers getting better of the conventional wisdom of war?
What happened at Sarkeguda was plain misfortune, says a senior CRPF officer. “We had received intelligence that (Naxal leaders) Paparao and Ramanna were going to be in Silger village and there was also a major Naxal movement near the Andhra Pradesh-Odisha border. They seemed to be planning a major operation,” he says.
On the basis of that input, the police and the CRPF decided to take two parties of 400 jawans from Basaguda in Bijapur to Silger. One party each from Jagargunda and Chintalnar were also supposed to meet them at Silger. At around 9 pm on 28 June, two CRPF units started from Basaguda camp towards Silger. As a standard operating procedure, the units generally stay away from the main roads and avoid villages in order to keep Naxal informers at bay.
“At around 11 pm, when we were about 300 m from Sarkeguda village, the 85th battalion of the CRPF and COBRA unit detected some movement,” recalls a senior CRPF officer who was involved in the operation. “We moved towards the village