In May 2013, a group of tribals had gathered to celebrate a festival, Beej Pandum, meant to worship new life in the form of seeds, in Edesmetta, located in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district, one of the worst Maoist-affected districts.
A team of 1,000 officers appeared on the site. In a move that has been shrouded in mystery, they allegedly opened fire, killing eight people. The action was subsequently termed an act of defence, where the Commando Battallion for Resolute Action (COBRA), a unit of the Central Reserve Police Force, were responding to fire that came from the group.
A judicial inquiry commenced, which has finally submitted its report to the Chhattisgarh Cabinet. The report concluded that the group of villagers was, in fact, unarmed, nor was there any instigation of violence from their end. “None of the gathered people had weapons, nor were they members of the Maoist organisation,” it says. The officers in question seem to have acted in bad judgement and “nervous reaction.” “Security forces were not equipped with enough devices for self-defence, there was shortage of intelligence, which is why in self-defence and in panic, they fired.”
The death of the eight civilians, tragic as it is, is not new. Hard-pressed in the battle between Naxalites and counter-insurgents, the civilian Adivasi population is not only deprived of access to health and education, but find themselves fighting for life itself.
Naxalite groups tax and extort tribals, abducting their children who are then trained and hardlined. In some distrcits, Maoists are known to demand five children from every village.
States, on their part, cannot be absolved. In 2005, Chhattisgarh government, with the Centre, planned a counter-insurgency operation called Salwa Judum (peace march, in Gondi language). As a part of the operation, vigilante groups were set up, consisting of villagers. It was revealed that the Judum, and the groups running it, were responsible for several human rights violations, where they forced people to take up arms. Those who refused were hunted down later. Those who surrendered were placed in camps. In 2011, the Supreme Court deemed the operation illegal, and ordered the Chhattisgarh government to retrieve all ammunition.
The civilian tribal population are stuck between a rock and a hard place.