The charred wreckage of the anti-mine vehicle and the crater on the narrow, rocky road still reeked of burnt fuel and explosives.
It was late in October 2012. About a week earlier — on October 18 — six CRPF jawans had died here in a massive landmine explosion triggered by suspected Maoists in the forests of Dumaria, Gaya, that border Jharkhand’s Palamau division.
If the ruins of the vehicle spoke of Maoist vengeance on centre-state joint forces, another wreckage told a tale equally stark: the human wreckage of families who have lost their men.
In the impoverished but mineral-rich hilly forests on the Jharkhand-Bihar border, conflicts between security forces and armed rebel groups continue to take their toll of local people.
Maoists and civil society groups listed hundreds of cases of fake encounter killings, custodial deaths and other “atrocities” in the past decade and a half. The human rights commission and other state-instituted panels have corroborated some of these allegations.
Caught in the crossfire, the plight of ordinary villagers has often got blurred in the blame game, with both sides claiming to represent the people’s interests.
Take, for example, the widows and children of Avdhesh Bhuiya and Phulchand Bhuiya.
Residents of Chakkarbandha village in Dumaria, they are among the poorest of the poor whom the Nitish Kumar government has included in the list of “Mahadalits”, the most backward of Bihar’s underprivileged sections.
Today, they have to do without their breadwinners who were gunned down by a joint force team after one of its members died in an encounter with Maoists on June 10, 2012.
Residents of Chakkarbandha said Avdhesh, who worked at a shop in Punjab, had returned a week before the gun battle in the forest close to their village.
“After the firing stopped, my husband took our cows out to a nearby ditch to let them drink water. The hand pump in our village was out of order. The forces caught him there and killed him,” Avdhesh’s widow Phuljaria Devi said.
Phulchand, a middle-aged farmer who had followed Avdhesh, was killed too, his wife Kalauti Devi said.
In its FIR at a local police station, the CRPF said both the men were Maoists and had been killed in the encounter.
But the state government-instituted Mahadalit Ayog (commission), in its probe report, said the forces had killed two innocent villagers.
“The police murdered both the villagers who had taken their animals… (so that they could drink) water after the gun battle had stopped.… It was a cowardly and criminal act which deserves condemnation,” the report said.
The report pointed out that no weapons were found on the two men, and recommended legal action against the officials responsible for the killings as well as compensation and jobs for their immediate family.
RJD member Roshan Bhuiyan said a district police official threatened to kill him in a “fake encounter” after he had taken the initiative in the filing of a case against three CRPF and police officials by Phulchand’s son Phaguni.
Mistaken for Maoist
In Sundaha village under Gaya’s Bankebazar police station, security forces killed Sudama Bhuiya on February 13, 2011, their families and neighbours said.
Suresh, Sudama’s brother, said the joint forces shot his brother at night when he had gone to his field close to the jungle to protect the crop from wild herbivores.
The next morning the police came to the village in search of Sudama, who was said to have fled with bullet injuries. Later, his body was found in a nearby jungle. The police asked the family to cremate it without a post-mortem. “Police officials threatened to implicate us in cases if we delayed burning the body,” village youth Upendra Bhuiya said.
“On their way out of the village, a member of the force told me my brother was mistaken for a Maoist and killed,” Suresh said.
Sadhu Bhuiya, of the Bankebazar area, bled to death on October 2, 2011, his nephew Lakshman said. The elderly man was working in his field when security forces chasing Maoists started beating up his grandson Sunandan.
The troopers turned on Sadhu when he tried to save his grandson. “He died in hospital three days later,” Lakshman said.
Karu Singh Bhokta, of Sundaha village, became another collateral victim in a battle between the forces and the rebels on March 6, 2011.
Karu and some others, including a few village girls, had gone to the adjoining forest to gather fallen leaves, which are stitched together to make plates.
Deo Nandan Bhokta, who was with Karu, said the jawans stopped them. The troopers asked them about rebel presence in the area and then told them to carry their provisions.
“As we walked, between the columns of the forces, we heard gunshots. We were told to lie down. After the firing from the other side had stopped, we found Karu lying dead with bullet holes in his head,” Deo Nandan said.
Palamau resident Madan Yadav was picked up by the police from his in-laws’ house in Gaya’s Simraha village under Dumaria police station on June 6, 2012. His brother Lalindar and a relative, Mahendra Yadav, said Madan was beaten to death in Barul police station in adjoining Aurangabad district the next day.
The police and CPI (Maoist) leaders both identified Madan as a member of the rebels’ zonal committee. His family said he was just a poor villager.
On January 16, 2012, in Palamau’s Chhattarpur area, the joint forces reportedly gunned down Debendra Yadav, who was driving a car, and seriously injured its owner, Ajit Singh, suspecting them to be Maoists. While the case was handed over to the CID following a political uproar, a similar probe was ordered into the custodial death of Rajendra Yadav in the same area on January 1, 2010.
Local human rights activists and Opposition leaders, however, spoke of police threats and harassment for pursuing complaints against the government forces.
The police, they said, recently arrested one activist, Santosh Yadav.