The Odisha government’s anti-Maoist operation has suffered a big jolt in term of credibility after the killings of five innocent villagers, including three women and a 13-month-old boy, at Gumudumaha village in Kandhamal district on the night of July 8.
A day later, the state police establishment admitted that civilians were killed after they were caught in the “crossfire” between security forces and Maoists.
Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik announced a judicial inquiry, a probe by a special task force and exgratia to the families of slain people in the face of mounting opposition attack.
Eyewitness accounts and reports from ground however clearly indicate that there were no Maoists around when the tragic incident occurred.
The personnel of the state’s Special Operations Group, trained for anti-Maoist operation opened fire on the hapless villagers who were returning home in a three-wheeler after withdrawing their wages for working in works under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Generation Scheme from a bank around 50 km away. Seven persons were injured in the firing.
After knowing that they had killed innocent people, the SOG personnel tried to cover up things and allowed the bodies to remain in the forested area for the next 30 hours.
The incident has lent credence to human rights groups’ allegations that SOG and central forces like CRPF and BSF have murdered many civilians, mostly poor tribals and dalits, in the state in the name of combating Maoists.
On July 26 last year, a couple was killed by the security forces in Pangalpadar village of Kandhamal on the suspicion of being Maoists, though villagers alleged they were bumped off while they were talking to their son working as a migrant labourer in Kerala over mobile phones at a hill top.
On November 14, 2012, security personnel said they killed five Maoists in Bhaliaguda village in the district, but villagers refuted their claims.
Villagers allege they have not seen any Maoists since years in their forest areas but see only security forces that harass and terrorise them.
They beat them up and loot their hens and goats. Villagers do not venture into the forest for livelihood for fear of being branded as Maoists and killed in cold blood.
The villagers’ claims have to be seen in the context that not a single Maoist violence was reported in the district since 2012.
If the state government does not go for a course correction in its anti-Maoist strategy, there is a danger of the villagers trying to find succour in the Maoists who are ever ready to expand to newer areas.
It is good that the state government has acknowledged the latest killings of civilians and announced exgratia, a probe by SIT and judicial inquiry. But it is not enough, the investigation and inquiry must be time bound.
It must ensure for the sake of fairness and credibility of its anti-Maoist operation that culprits are identified and punished – irrespective of ranks and position.
It will also be fair enough to bring other past alleged fake encounters in the state into the ambit of the inquiry commission.
There are many big heads around that have got only promotions and medals for killing innocents. These heads must roll for the sake of the credibility of forces not only in Odisha but across the country.