Thursday, August 11, 2016

Chitrangada Choudhury - Terror at night in Odisha: 'How could the force shoot at us defenceless villagers?'

On the overcast morning of July 26, Rahula Nayak, a subsistence farmer in his 20s, joined a few hundred villagers, mostly Kond Adivasis, making their way to Gumudumaha, a village in mourning, nestled in the Eastern Ghats in south-central Odisha’s Kandhamal district. The crowds, most on foot, a few on bicycles and motorbikes or a rare tractor, were heading to a memorial meeting for five Gumudumaha residents who had been shot days ago on the outskirts of the village.
“We have come to cry for the dead,” said Keshamati Pradhan, a Kond woman leader from Raikia, over 40 kms away, who was among the crowds. "When one suffers, we all do." On the night of Friday, July 8, returning to Gumudumaha in an autorickshaw after collecting NREGA wages at the block town of Baliguda nearly 45 kms away, the five – three women and a baby boy, among them – were killed when a 15-member team of the state’s anti-Maoist paramilitary force, the Special Operations Group, allegedly fired at the vehicle. Several other passengers were injured – for example, the bullet that killed the baby boy Jehad Gehej, also grazed the side of his mother Sangita. Another bullet hit his father Lota in the upper back, injuring him seriously.

The young couple and others who survived the shower of bullets have since narrated the terror of being fired upon, out of the blue, on a dark, rainy night. Gumudumaha is 12 kilometres away from the nearest black-top road, National Highway 59. It is particularly hard to access in the monsoon due to the absence of a serviceable road – despite multiple public works signs announcing road construction under various government programmes along the stretch, and listing the lakhs of rupees spent on them.

We walked past villages, farms, a church and patches of forest, jumping over mud and slush on undulating tracks, crossing the site of the firing to arrive at Gumudumaha. “I felt I had to come today for the meeting," Rahula said. "How can we protect ourselves against these cold-blooded killings? 

The same thing happened that night [in Gumudumaha] that had happened with my parents.”
July 26, the day of the memorial in Gumudumaha, marked a year since Rahula’s parents Dhobeshwar and Bubudi Nayak had been shot dead in the nearby village of Madaguda. As they did on most Sunday evenings, the Nayaks set out on the evening of July 26, 2015, to seek a “network area”, a forested elevation in the village to speak on the mobile phone to Rahula, then away in Thrissur, Kerala, to work on a stone-breaking site. On the call, Rahula heard his father making a choking-like sound, and his mother scream before the line went dead. A villager called him later that night to say his parents had still not returned home.

Two days later, after protests and a road block by villagers, the police returned the couple’s bodies, saying an SOG team had recovered them after crossfire with "Left-wing extremists" or LWEs, as they sometimes refer to Maoists. Villagers alleged that a contingent of security forces who had crossed Madaguda on the evening of July 26 had killed the couple.

Faced with criticism over the deaths, the government conceded that Dhobeshwar and Bubudi were “innocent people”, not Maoists. But it never took the villagers’ or Rahula’s accounts seriously, nor did it conduct an independent investigation into how the deaths occurred. This February, an inquiry by the Odisha Police’s Human Rights Protection Cell reproduced the exact account put out by the SOG team, and exonerated them. It ended by saying “... it is possible that the deceased may have died due to bullet fired by LWE Activists”. 

With the help of lawyers and activists, Rahula is challenging this conclusion at the Odisha State Human Rights Commission… read more:

Resist degradation of Indian criminal justice system