Villagers flee their homes at Amwatikar village near the Katiya forest in Jharkhand on January 20. Picture by Ahmed Raza
A posse of Jharkhand Jaguar jawans stopped our car as it left Amwatikar village in Latehar last week.
The village is close to the Katiya forest, where a battle between troops and Maoists on January 7-8 killed 11 jawans. Four villagers died when a bomb planted by the Maoists under a jawan’s body exploded. Among the four was a teenage boy, Gannu, whose mother said he had dreamt of becoming a footballer.
The jawans who stopped our car asked us to wait till their seniors arrived. A few young men in uniform began chatting with us.
The discussion chat first centred on their life away from home in the Maoist zone, with death staring them in the face all the time, before moving on to the alleged “non-cooperation” of villagers.
“These tribals are mostly illiterate and get easily swayed by the Maoists. They do not appreciate that we are serving the country and that the Maoists are anti-national,’’ a Jaguar jawan said.
The tall and well-built young man, from Darbhanga in neighbouring Bihar, was evidently proud when he mentioned his upper-caste background and his family’s “tradition” of serving the army and police. But he clammed up when we asked about the allegations of the forces’ highhandedness in dealing with villagers.
So did two officers of the CRPF’s elite CoBRA unit as they braved the night chill sitting around a fire in front of a camp that the central force shares with the Jaguars in neighbouring Nawadih.
Asked about allegations that the villagers were forced to recover the dead jawans’ bodies, some of them booby-trapped, an officer said: “I was away from the village on the day of the encounter and afterwards. So, I can’t say what happened with the villagers.”
He added: “We are not authorised to speak; but how do you know these details when the villagers have gone away?”
He probably didn’t know that some villagers were still present near the Katiya forest, preparing to leave home a second time as more forces were being sent to the area. Earlier, they had left after the encounter to escape its immediate aftermath.
A CoBRA jawan was more forthcoming. “Why do you ask about the villagers’ plight and rights? What about our men whose bodies were blown off? What about the Maoists stuffing bombs inside the body of one of us? Don’t we have human rights too?”
His colleagues nodded.
The minds of the rebels and the troops alike are dominated by feelings of loyalty towards their comrades and a desire for collective vengeance against the perceived “enemy”. Social psychologists describe it as “herd mentality”.
This mindset is often blamed for the competitive violence, leading to the dehumanisation epitomised on the rebels’ part by the “body bombs” and on the forces’ part by their alleged coercion of villagers into helping remove the bodies and clear the encounter site.
M.V. Rao, the CRPF inspector-general in Jharkhand, declined comment on the allegations about the body-recovery mission. “We don’t speak on anti-Naxalite operations. Ask the state police,’’ he said.
In private, though, CRPF and police bosses described the civilian deaths as “collateral damage” at best and the “price of supporting the Maoists” at worst.
The rebels, too, took a hard line. Toofan, spokesperson for the Maoists’ Bihar-Jharkhand-north Chhattisgarh special area military commission, regretted the villagers’ deaths but blamed the joint forces, accusing them of using civilians as “human shields”.
However, Toofan’s audio and written statement did not explain why the Maoists had failed to alert the villagers about the booby-trapped bodies, though it had taken the forces over two hours to gather the villagers and take them to the encounter site.
Toofan had no qualms justifying the booby-trapping as a “befitting payback” for the forces’ “barbarism” on rebel and civilian alike.
He dismissed the charges of desecrating the dead and violation of international norms, bizarrely likening the act to the “surgical incisions made by doctors during post-mortem”.
The bomb ploy has outraged many rights activists, including those sympathetic to the rebels.
Equally appalling was the rebels’ confession that “the bomb inside the belly of a sarkari sipahi (government soldier) was timed to explode either at the spot or on the way of carrying it (the body) out” with the intention of “inflicting further damage to the central forces”.
Maoist watchers reckon, though, that the device was meant to explode in the army chopper that ferried the bodies and the troops to state capital Ranchi.
Lesson for police
S.N. Pradhan, IG (operations) of Jharkhand police, termed the death of the villagers an “unintentional mistake” by the forces, contrasting it with the rebels’ booby-trapping of bodies which he said was a “serious war crime”.
“In hindsight, it (engaging villagers) can be called a mistake, a genuine mistake but not a deliberate one. We learn from our mistakes. Our forces always seek the help of the villagers to remove bodies. But had we been aware that the bodies in this instance were booby-trapped, we would not have risked the villagers’ lives. We did not involve villagers on the second day of the recovery operations (after the body bomb blew up).’’
Pradhan didn’t answer the villagers’ allegations that the forces beat them when they tried to flee after the booby trap killed four people. He alleged the villagers had offered a “tutored version at the Maoists’ behest”.
The IG claimed that some of the villagers, including the mukhiya (panchayat chief), had “volunteered” help in removing the bodies of the jawans killed in the encounter.
But Pradhan admitted the help from the civilians could have come from fear. “Women joined their children to avoid them being arrested, not uncommon during anti-Naxalite operations.”
“Now we have told our forces not involve villagers in removing bodies. The matter has been discussed at the highest level and formal instructions will follow.”
Pradhan said National Security Guard (NSG) experts were “working on how to deal with the body-bombs that Maoists are making now”.
Pradhan said he wasn’t aware of any investigation by the administration in Jharkhand, now under President’s rule. But S.B. Pathak, state secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, claimed home secretary J.B. Tubid had promised to “fix responsibility for the villagers’ deaths”.