A five member fact finding team visited Metapal village on 20 December, 2016 to probe an alleged encounter of a minor named Pottam Somaru that took place on the 16th of December. The team had come to attend a meeting organized by People’s Union of Civil Liberties in Matenar, Dantewada for researchers, activists and journalists to learn about the issues faced by Adivasis in the area on questions of forest rights and human rights. At this meeting the members of the team heard about an incident in which the police claimed before the press that they had gunned down a dreaded Maoist during an encounter, while the villagers and family were reported in the local press to have demonstrated outside the Gangaloor Police Station claiming that the encounter was fake. The team—comprising lawyer Atindriyo Chakraborty, scientist Bittu, and journalists Aritra Bhattacharya, Pushpa and Pavani — spoke to several villagers and eyewitnesses. Below is a description of the villagers’ rendition of the incidents that transpired on 16 December, who claimed Somaru had been killed in cold blood after being tied up by the armed forces and police.
The Bastar Division comprises of seven districts in the south of Chhattisgarh, one of which is Bijapur. Bijapur and its surrounding areas has long been the site of a ‘war’ that the Indian state has declared against the left-wing insurgents, Naxalites, in the area. In the beginning of the year 2016, police in the area had announced “Mission 2016” – a mission to rid Bastar of all Naxalites. Towards the end of the year, Mission 2016 has been declared a success by the police force, which boasts of a total of 134 encounter deaths and an even larger number of surrenders of alleged Naxalites in the year 2016. However, in many of the encounters, there have been sufficient reasons to believe that the police stories do not hold and even the police admit that only about 3% of the alleged surrenders are actually those of the Naxalite cadre. It is only pragmatic, therefore, to listen to narratives of the police with a pinch of salt.
The Encounter of a Young and Disabled Boy:
On the night of 15th December, a youth named Pottam Somaru s/o Pottam Kumma, went to sleep in the fields so that he could guard the grain amassed out there. Somaru was a resident of village Metapal (Patelpara), Police Station Gangaloor, dist. Bijapur, and since monkey attacks are quite common in the area, someone’s presence on the farm was essential to protect the ripened paddy that would be harvested in a few days. Somaru was estimated to be a minor by his family who recalled that he was too young to walk during the time of the Salwa Judum. He was hard of hearing and according to his sister had difficulty with comprehension, and was somewhat mentally challenged. While he slept in the fields his parents slept outside their hut in Patelpara.
On 16th December, Somaru’s parents awoke while it was still dark, and lit a fire in front of their house to stave off the cold. Meanwhile, Somaru and four other boys (Punem Kumma, Punem Bhima, Punem Chunni and Pottam Lakma) were returning from the field carrying their blankets and they had stopped at a spot close to 500 metres from Somaru’s house to collect some chapra (red ants) by climbing a tree and shaking down the ants.
The brothers of Pottam Somaru, Paiku and Pande in their house in Metapal Village
Somaru’s parents were sitting by the fire when the armed forces arrived with three captives in tow. Immediately, many male villagers ran away. The security personnel chased them and managed to catch hold of 3 men. One of the men they caught was the father of Pottam Somaru, Pottam Kumma. Seeing this, Somaru’s mother Pottam Jamli ran after the security forces, only to then hear her son screaming for help as he was grabbed by another group of the patrol party while collecting the red ants that had fallen from the tree.
When Somaru’s friends heard the personnel from the first group shout ‘Pakdo, pakdo’ while running after villagers, they began fleeing from the scene towards the forest, shouting warnings to each other, but Somaru may not have been able to hear them due to his hearing and other disabilities. The forces caught hold of him easily, and started manhandling him, asking: What were you doing? Why were you in the field? The forces also took away the blankets the boys were carrying and stole 40 eggs and a knife from the village. The force then took Somaru, his father, as well as two more men from the village, Pottam Sannu son of Pottam Tokra, and Kunjam Somlu son of Kunjam Doga, away to a nearby field. They also took along the three captives they had brought from other hamlets: two of these captives, Punem Mungru and Punem Sukku had been picked up from Errapara and one more captive, Punem Mangu had been brought from Doselpara.
The villagers further allege that Teera Sannu alias Punem Sannu and Mangal Punem from village Pusnar brought security forces into their village. Many women from the village, including Somaru’s mother, followed the personnel as they were dragging Somaru to the adjacent area with some tree cover. They pleaded with the personnel to let him go saying he was unable to walk properly, and was sick; that he had a skin problem as well. ‘Why have you caught such a young child?’ – they asked the armed forces. The personnel refused to release him and told the women they would let him go after interrogation, even as they dragged Somaru to a slightly forested area and tied him to a tree with his hands behind his back. One group of personnel was with Somaru in a small patch of forest, another was with the captives who were only about 15 metres away from the forested patch, standing between them and the forested patch, and a third group was preventing the women who had assembled from rushing to Somaru’s aid. When some women started pushing past the personnel, they fired in the air and prevented them from proceeding any further by threatening to shoot them. They had also been joined by some men by then – in all there were more than 20 villagers who have witnessed the fact that an unarmed Somaru was tied up while alive.
Pottam Kumma, father of deceased Pottam Somaru was captured by the police and security forces and prevented from helping his son as the forces tortured and murdered his child.
One group of armed personnel persisted with questioning Somaru and asking him about his involvement in Maoist activities. Those who witnessed this identified Teera Sannu, Mangal Punem and Manish Uika as the men who were questioning Somaru and pointing their guns at him. Somaru could not answer any questions asked or plead to be released. His family attributed his silence to his disability. The men interrogating Somaru began to hit him and he shouted in pain, as heard by the witnesses present nearby. When he continued to not provide answers the interrogators shot. His father as well as all the captives heard the shooting even though the forces guarding them began to distract them away before Somaru was shot. The villagers, including Somaru’s mother, who had rallied together pleading for his release were slightly further away and witnessed Somaru being tied up and the ensuing torture but did not witness the shooting; they heard the shots. Somaru was still alive when he was shot and after hearing the shots his mother hoped he was injured but not dead; another woman who could distantly make out what was happening, Emla Lakke saw that he had died and told his mother he had been killed. The security forces also seem to have stripped off the school uniform Somaru had been wearing that he had borrowed from his younger brother who attends school and had dressed Somaru in greenish brown fatigues; a gun that the police had brought was placed on his shoulder, and a photo was taken.
Somaru’s body was then hogtied to a wooden pole and captive men, Pottam Sannu , Pottam Kumma, Punem Sannu, Kunjam Sudru and Punem Moto were forced to carry his body to the Gangaloor police station. Before they left the village with the body, some of the villagers had already left for Gangaloor, the police station, via a shorter route. They reached the police station before the security forces reached there with Somaru’s body and agitated for the body to be returned for cremation. After it was returned following the post mortem, they demonstrated in front of the police station with the body. They returned at night and the next day they buried his body.
The branch of the tree on which Pottam Somaru was tied. The security forces covered the blood marks with mud.
A continuum of violence:
According to the villagers, there have been 11 people from the village who have been killed by the state forces since the time of Salwa Judum. The villagers of Metapal also seem to have heard that after this atrocity in Metapal the forces had gone to a nearby village Pulum in Bhairamgarh on December 18 and shot another young man named Emla Kopa whom they found walking near the village. We were not able to investigate this incident. However in the case of Pottam Somaru all the witnesses are clear that was not an encounter in any way, and that a mentally and hearing challenged young adivasi boy was tied up, tortured, and shot.
The villagers were not only clear that Pottam Somaru was killed in cold blood under the guise of an encounter they also went to the Gangaloor Police Station with the body the day after the killing protesting against the falsity of the police’s story and demanding a re-postmortem. Various journalists and local newspapers also reported this matter. The fact-finding team, infact, was informed of such contentious encounter allegations in Metapal village through one such report itself. However, no police report has been lodged in the Gangaloor Police Station and no inquiry on the said matter has been conducted by the concerned police station. The Police station has not even extended enough cognizance of the protest to even note it down. It is almost as though the voice of the adivasi in Bastar is not only in a language that most of the police personnel do not speak or understand, but also absolutely ignored. This ‘unhearing’ of the adivasi is not a single event; there has been a systematic silencing of the adivasi in Bastar.
Furthermore, the body of Pottam Somaru was wrapped in the plastic sheet and blanket that Pottam Somaru had been carrying. Those belongings of the deceased were never returned to the family of the deceased, his body was rather given back to the villagers and to his family completely stripped off his clothes and dignity—stark naked. This commonplace practise is extremely dehumanising and insulting to the deceased and to the family members of the deceased.
It must be noted moreover, that the belongings in question, i.e. the plastic sheet and the blanket belonged to the family of Pottam Somaru, an extremely economically marginalised family possessing few blankets and plastic sheets to ward off the winter. Infact, most families in the villages in Bastar have not more than one blanket shared between many adults and children and it is common practise for the adults to sit by the fire all night as sleeping is not really an option for lack of winter clothing. To confiscate resources from already deprived individuals amounts to a violence that is rarely spoken of, and never accounted for.
House of Pottam Jamli and Pottam Kumma in Metapal Village.
The fact finding team that investigated this atrocity was subjected to various forms of harassment by the police. There have been repeated raids on the village in which police have searched for some of the villagers who helped translate the complaint of the family of the deceased boy Somaru Pottam. They are unable to even go to the weekly market as the armed forces have been interrogating the villagers asking of their whereabouts.
The lawyers who followed up on this fact finding, Shalini Gera and her colleagues from Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, have since then been falsely accused of wanting to exchange demonetized notes from the Maoists. This false case barely carries a logical narrative, since Shalini and her colleagues went to the village to follow up on an exhumation order from the Honourable High Court of Chhattisgarh for a second post mortem of Somaru’s body, accompanied by the Tehsildar of Bijapur throughout and the SDM for parts of the journey. Subsequently when they were staying at the Goel dharamshala, as arranged by the Divisional commissioner, the police led by S.I Archana Dhuandhar came and asked to search their belongings without a warrant and aggressively demanded that the team come to the police station for interrogation. The SP of Bastar, R.N. Dash, also called her a day later and aggressively warned her to stay away from Bastar. We fail to understand why a police officer should intimidate a citizen, let alone do so from the private number of a Mr. Fahrukh Ali, a member of a vigilante group called AGNI. This same Mr. Ali from the group then circulated the police complaint and various false allegations on social media, suggesting that far from being an independent civil society group, AGNI works closely with the police in Bastar to intimidate citizens.
Last but not least, this fact finding team was interrogated while leaving the site of the PUCL meeting in Matenar. We were asked for our details by the police and our photos were taken. We were shocked to find that these photos were later circulated by the same Mr. Ali on social media along with false and inflammatory information claiming that we were all students of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Naxal sympathisers who had somehow entered Chhattisgarh secretly. The Chhattisgarh police needs to explain how photos taken by them ended up with the members of a vigilante group making verifiably false claims, in a clear violation of our right to privacy. Meanwhile the residents of Matenar village where the PUCL meeting was held have also been harassed by the police and intimidated, especially Sukul Prasad Nag, former CPI worker, and currently with the AAP party, who was threatened with arrest for having helped organize this meeting. This was despite the fact that the SDM’s office was notified of the meeting which was held openly in a government building.
Given the level of intimidation the police and its associated vigilante groups have brought to bear upon members of this fact finding team including lawyers, academics and journalists, we wonder how the residents of these villagers in Bastar can hope for anything better, let alone justice from the same police with respect to cases such as this encounter. We ask that the residents of this village especially the petitioners and translators who travelled to the High Court be given some form of protection from police and vigilante harassment and demand that adequate investigation is conducted by an independent body on the harassment of the advocates and the villagers who have assisted the petitioners, Pottam Kumma and Pottam Jamli, parents of Pottam Somaru, in filing a case in the Chhattisgarh High Court.