‘They were unarmed tendu leaf pickers, not Maoists’: In Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur, families raise questions on encounter that killed 12

Days after police said 12 Maoists had been killed in an encounter with security forces in Bijapur district, families of some of them have alleged that the men were, in fact, tendu leaf pickers who had been rounded up and shot despite being unarmed — a charge strongly rejected by the state’s security establishment.

Early Friday morning, 12 men were killed in Pedia village, about 50 km from Bijapur district headquarters. The village, located deep inside dense forests, has no mobile connectivity and one has to cross five police checkposts to get there. The closest market place, Gangaloor, is around 30 km away.

According to security forces, six of those killed were militia cadres working as eyes and ears for members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), while six others were militia members, area committee members, RPC (Revolutionary People’s Committee) members and a militia commander. The total reward on them was Rs 31 lakh, including Rs 10,000-30,000 on the lower rung militia cadres.

The Indian Express spoke to families of Sanu Havlam, Oyam Bhima, Dula Tamo and Joga Barse — four men described as militia cadres by security forces.

According to these families, the men were out plucking tendu leaves — used to make bidi — early in the morning when security personnel came to their village. They claim the security personnel chased the men, and began rounding them up.

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Seeing this, women plucking leaves ran to see what was happening, but were turned back. Family members say the sequence of events was narrated to them by these women, as well as some men who were rounded up along with the men killed but released the next day.

Oyam Bhima’s father Mangu Oyam alleged, “Security forces chased them into a corner. One of them stood up and said we are members of the public, but he was shot dead. Some were detained and taken away by police. It was only when they returned on Saturday that we discovered who had been killed.”

Bhima is survived by his wife and a three-month-old son.

Also among the dead is Sanu Havlam (40), who is survived by his mother, wife and six children. Asked about the Rs 30,000 reward for Havlam’s arrest, his mother Sukle claimed, “No (I didn’t know about it). My son couldn’t hear or speak. In the past, police have taken him away for questioning on two occasions, and let him go each time. Once, when I intervened, I was beaten up.” She said her son would, in fact, go to the Gangaloor market every week to fetch ration for the family. “He was unarmed. Why shoot him when you could have arrested him,” she said.

His wife Mangli said they learnt about his death a day later — only when the family saw his face on a document released by police.

Similarly, Joga Barse’s brother Barse Dula said, “He had gone to pluck tendu leaves and I was at home. I got to know about his death from a document released the next day. He was an alcoholic and quite sickly. He stayed with us, so I know for a fact he was not a militia member. He did not have a weapon.” Joga is survived by his wife and two children.

Asked about the Rs 10,000 reward for his son’s arrest, Dula Tamo’s father said, “We hear about Naxals who have a reward on them. We never heard of a reward for my son’s arrest. He would visit Gangaloor market regularly; why not arrest him then? He even worked as a construction worker in Bailadila but he was never arrested all this while.”

‘They fired first’

Asked about the allegations raised by the families, Bijapur Superintendent of Police Jitendra Kumar Yadav said, “The Maoists opened fire at us and were killed in exchange of fire. Their top priority is to safeguard their weapons; if a militia member gets shot, others run away with his weapon.”

Police said the identities of the men were ascertained by surrendered Naxals.

“If we wanted to kill them, why would we arrest so many others? Those who were killed fired at us first. We also found some uniforms that they changed on seeing the forces,” Yadav said.

A police officer said Pedia in west Bastar division is largely under Maoist control and is among their last three strongholds, the other two being Abujhmad and south Bastar. The officer said there are around 3,000 militia cadres in Bijapur, including 600 who are believed to be armed.