INDIA: Responsibility shot down at Kotteguda
96 hours after the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) firing in Kotteguda panchayat of Bijapur district in Chhattisgarh state, the union government and the state government of Chhattisgarh are on defensive mode, finding excuses to justify the police action that killed 20 villagers, of which at least five are children. The firing occurred on 30 June, when the CRPF, allegedly acting upon intelligence inputs from the state police, fired upon a gathering of villagers in Kotteguda. It is reported that unknown gunmen first fired upon the CRPF, which perhaps explain injuries sustained by six policemen who participated in the action. It is also alleged that the injuries the policemen suffered are from friendly fires. It is reported that the policemen camped in the village after the incident molested women and children and pillaged the village.
An inquiry is ordered into the incident. However, there is no guarantee that it would be independent. Given the numerous experiences from the past, it could hardly be an independent inquiry, and more likely to be the government's whitewashing of the event. To start with the CRPF, the Union Home Minister and the Chief Minister of the state have claimed that of the 20 persons dead, at least four are Maoists and that the Maoists have been holding villagers as human shields for their gathering.
The incident raises several questions. Assuming the claim that out of the 20 persons killed, it is true that four are Maoists, how would it justify the murder of 16 innocent persons, including children? What law allows the extrajudicial execution of suspected criminals without trial? The banality with which the incident is explained off by the CRPF and the government is such that one feels sick at the blatant negation of basic norms of justice during police actions, let alone police appropriating the roles of the complainant, investigator, prosecutor and adjudicator. What proof exists as to the persons murdered, as alleged, are Maoists? If the criminal charges against those alleged to be the Maoists is what is considered as proof warranting punishment wouldn’t that negate constitutional guarantees as to presumption of innocence, silence and the right to fair trial?
If the allegations by the CRPF and the government were true, that the Maoists are using villagers as human shields, wouldn’t that call for the state's armed forces to take extraordinary precautions during operations that they would not hurt civilians while combating armed militants? The statement reportedly made by a CRPF officer who failed to identify his name but has spoken to the media immediately after the incident, that "the CRPF could have razed the village down with grenades and mortars" and that they did not do so to prevent casualties of innocent villagers in fact suggests the lack of appreciation of responsibilities during combat by the armed units of the state - that such an event could be considered as crimes against humanity - and further, the shocking sense of triviality among officers to loss of human lives during field operations. It shows the absence of direction and commitment to protect people and property, and in essence the loss of legitimate purpose in field operations.
Similar absence of responsibility, most importantly concerning accountability for the lives lost is visible from the statements made by the Union Home Minister and the chief of the CRPF, Mr. K. Vijay Kumar. Both minister and Kumar have stated that of the persons killed, four were definitely Maoists. Without any verification how could they so conclude? What proof do they have to make such a statement? Was there a DNA or other medical examination conducted to verify the identities of these persons? Even basic legal requirements like undertaking an autopsy examination of the deceased has not been reportedly complied with. Is there any proof to show that those killed were in fact shot dead in an armed combat or was it the execution of a dreadful policy to shoot to kill executed, involving the highest offices of the country? Would the minister and Kumar assume command responsibility if the entire incident was the result of mistaken information followed by arbitrary and insensitive action undertaken with the cover of impunity?
The only explanation Kumar has offered so far is that "he was so informed by his officers" that at least four persons killed out of the 20 are Maoists. Kumar iterated that his men were following 'standard operating procedures' and have observed all operational safeguards. Considering the disproportionally between the casualty and the alleged target achieved, should there be one, perhaps it is time to undertake a thorough review of these 'standard' procedures. Or does the incident underscore the fact that many officers deputed for anti-Maoist operations in fact are petrified about the fatalities in ambushes that the force has suffered repeatedly and are willing to shoot to kill at any stranger they come across?
Equally despicable is the role played by most of the electronic media in India that have justified the incident. Most television stations are repeatedly airing misinforming views, asserting that the incident is in fact a combat operation wherein those killed are Maoists, that they were armed and are using villagers as human shields. These stations are broadcasting stock shots of militant training camps and pictures of armed guerrillas, about which there is no verification as to whether these pictures are in fact what they are purported to be. There is a clear difference between what is been reported in the print and electronic media. While many print media published reasonably balanced reports about the incident with pictures of villagers having suffered blunt trauma injuries clearly indicating assault and torture, many electronic media is on an overdrive to justify the incident.
These media have fallen to the bottom of the pit of irresponsibility, lack of independency and are biased. Their nepotism was exposed when they called civil society groups "Maoist sympathisers" referring to those speaking against the brute and arbitrary force of the state agencies. They have evidently disconnected themselves from the larger civil society in the country, exposing their lack of morale and understanding of what amounts to the civil society.
The distinguishable and despicable tone of reporting the event is that 'the villagers must be punished' for harbouring Maoists. The concept of collective, arbitrary and disproportionate punishment rimes well with deep-rooted practices of caste based discrimination, an elemental character of many dominant caste individuals in India, of which many dominate the country's media. The pattern and timing during which false reports are repeatedly broadcast, proves that an alarming section of the country's media have reduced themselves to be the spokespersons of the government. These entities cannot be referred to as 'the media'. A more fitting description would be referring them as government spokespersons.
The inquiry ordered into the incident is inadequate and definitely lacks transparency. The assumption that if a magistrate undertakes the inquiry, it would be independent is fatally wrong. Or is it a fact that the government is aware of but would not want to bother since all that it wants is a 'clean-up operation'? Additionally the inquiring officer does not have any acceptable experience in working with communities in extreme trauma. In fact such expertise should not be expected from an inquiring officer, but from professional psychologists, who are not included in the inquiry team.
The villagers who are traumatised by the event would not be in a state of mind to speak about the incident at the moment. It requires a thorough psychological approach guarantying confidentiality and assurances that they are safe to depose before an inquiring agency. At the moment there is nothing to suggest that any of them would depose about the incident, given that they are caught between the state and anti-state forces, fighting at each other, and in the process punishing the villagers in all conceivable means. In such an environment the inquiry ordered without considering any of the above issues is nothing more than a sham.
No doubt the Indian state is engaged in an internal armed conflict. Yet the government is in no mood to first accept that the conflict, to a considerable extent, is of its own making and anti-state actors like the Maoists are merely exploiting each one of the state's failures.
Murdering civilians, pillaging villages at random and sexually abusing women and children are definitely not the manner in which the state could ensure security to the life and property of its people. Unfortunately the Indian state is in a mode of continued denial, that the apathy it has shown thus far to human concerns of Indians living in the remotest corners of the country has distanced a substantial proportion of the country's population from their government.
The Indian state has lost the trust of its people, most importantly of the original inhabitants of the land, who are neglected, exploited and punished before and after 1947. Murder, molestation of women and pillage as it is reported to have happened at Kotteguda is no way to gain it. At the very minimum, those who have lost their dear ones in the firing disserve an unconditional apology from the government. However, such things only matters to a government that cares for its people, a concept alien to Indian administration where responsibility thus far has been the casualty of administration.
# # #
Picture courtesy: The Next Front
For information and comments contact:
In Hong Kong: Bijo Francis, Telephone: +852 - 26986339, Email: email@example.com