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How a 15-yr-old vendor became a ‘dead Maoist’

Posted by Admin on July 25, 2010

BASTAR (Chhattisgarh): On June 3, late at night, in a clearing where the fields of Murdunda village merge into the jungle, a patrol party of CRPF’s C168 battalion is fired on by the Maoists. The CRPF returns fire. The jawans see a figure emerge from the bushes and break into a run. They take aim and shoot. The figure is hit. It collapses. It turns out to be a young boy.

Till this point, the narratives converge — that of the police and the dead boy’s family. But from here on, there are vastly different versions about what happened. The police say they found explosives near Lalu’s dead body. “He was a Sangham (group) member of CPI Maoist and was planting a bomb at the spot,” says Vijay Chauhan, officer in-charge of the Awapalli police station.

But Lalu’s father, Unga Ooyam, says his 15-year-old son had gone to the fields that night simply to relieve himself. “He had gone to Awapalli to sell vegetables and buy rice. On the way back to our village Tekmetla, he stopped for the night at Murdunda. Past midnight, he woke up his cousin and asked him to accompany him to the fields. His cousin groggily refused, so Lalu stepped out alone. Next morning, townspeople alerted us that his corpse had been carried into the thana at Awapalli,” he says.

Ooyam pulls out Lalu’s picture from his shirt pocket. With it, tumbles out his membership card for ‘Divine Life’, a spiritual movement founded by Swami Sivananda. Its ashram near Dantewada has a substantial following among Bastar’s tribals. Ooyam’s entire family are devout believers. So was Lalu, says Ooyam.

Could the dead boy have been both Maoist and Divine Life believer? No, says the entire town. He was just another boy, insist many of them walking up to this correspondent on the muddied main avenue of Awapalli. “He sold vegetables right here,” points one woman, adding, “Even the CRPF men bought lemons from him.”

As the conflict intensifies in Bastar, Lalu’s case could be a pointer to its complex faultlines. To start with, there is the classic counter-insurgency dilemma: how do you target the rebels without harming innocent civilians?
Security experts say ‘mistakes’ are bound to happen in any conflict, but it is best to acknowledge these as “regrettable civilian deaths” instead of denying or falsifying them as that turns the tide of public opinion against the security forces.

Take Munjmeta village. In 2006, the Maoists targeted a CRPF party near this village in Narayanpur. An exchange of fire took place not too far from the village pond. Two young brothers, bathing in the pond, were hit by bullets. The older died, the younger one was injured. Their grandmother rushed to look for them, with her neighbour, local barber Kishan Lal Srivas chasing after. “That’s when the CRPF picked up my husband. They were angry since they had lost some men. He was repeatedly bludgeoned in the chest,” recounts Kishan’s wife Meena Bai. “He died on the seventh day.”

Meena says she went to register a police case but “they said if you give in writing that your husband was killed by Naxals, we’ll ensure you get compensation. But I refused. I thought if I did that, the next thing we know the junglewaale (Naxalites) will come and trouble us.”

An investigation by a district judge found Meena’s allegations against the CRPF ‘prima facie true’. Her case is now being tried in the high court at Bilaspur. She still waits for compensation.

So far, there is just one instance of the security forces owning up to a mistake. In 2008, a woman and a child were killed in Cherpal, when a CRPF jawan fired at a man who was running away. The police gave the families Rs 1 lakh each as compensation. The state has given Rs 10 crore as compensation to the victims of Maoist violence but just Rs 1 lakh to those killed by security forces.

But compensation is not what preoccupies Ooyam. Sitting on the steps of a temple in Bijapur, he recounts: “When I saw my son’s body, the policemen simply said he has been killed in a Naxal encounter.” It was a shock to find out later that the police had labelled his son a Maoist.

A senior police officer claims the inability to separate civilians from the rebels limits the CRPF’s operational ability. “Instead of being trigger happy, the CRPF men are timid, unwilling to shoot, scared they might get into trouble.”

“These Naxals are clever people. Their leaders are first circled by the jan militia of armed adivasis, then protected by the Sangham of unarmed villagers. A lungi-chhaap walking past us often returns fire,” says a jawan, betraying his frustration.

But a CRPF officer explains the reluctance to own up: unlike the Army that enters a conflict zone with immunity from criminal law, the state police and CRPF jawans are liable to be tried and sentenced under the normal legal process. “They could face a homicide sentence for an accidental civilian killing.”

What complicates matters further is the hardening of the ideological divide in Chhattisgarh. The state government has skirmished long and hard with its critics, some of whom, it believes, act as a front for the Maoists, deliberately implicating the security forces in cases to cripple the fight against the rebels.

It doesn’t help that the Maoists have a reputation for sophisticated propaganda. Truth or paranoia, this has made the state evade acknowledgement of error, lest it be seen to have ceded ground to the human rights lobby.

This intense ideological warfare leaves little middle ground for those caught in the crossfire — those like Lalu, whose death incidentally is not even on the radar of human rights groups. TOI

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