With Lok Sabha 2024 elections round the corner, situation in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region is tense with regular clashes between the security and Naxalite forces being reported.

Amidst this, allegations are doing the rounds that “the killings of innocent people from the Adivasi community” in the region have increased. According to reports, over 20 people have been killed in the past three months. The police have said that these were all part of the Naxalite movement.

However, to condemn the deaths a bandh was called by the Communist Party of India (Maoist) (CPI-M), a banned Naxalite organisation against reportedly “fake encounters and numerous mining and iron ore projects in the district”.

While the police authorities have said that most of the people killed were Naxals, they averred that civilians too lost their lives in the reported crossfire.

The Adivasi community and activists in the region have been protesting against the proposed mining corporations and projects. They say this will destroy the forests and also give the government more reason to build paramilitary camps.

People have pasted posters against corporate projects and fake encounters in different areas Photo: NIKITA JAIN

Speaking to The Citizen Lokesh Gotea, the head of Orcha Jan Andolan, who has been protesting along with hundreds of people from the community, against mining corporations and fake encounters, said that forest is their home and it is being destroyed by big corporations under the garb of the government.

“Crops are getting destroyed because of these mining companies. In Aamdai Ghati they are washing iron and coal. This is the reason why people of Dongar are protesting as their crops are getting destroyed due to these projects. The water is so contaminated there that the animals are dying. There are breathing issues due to the drilling done by these corporations,” Gotea said.

The Citizen was on ground when reports surfaced, of four trucks carrying iron ore being burnt in Narayanpur District. The incident took place on the night of March 30 where videos of burnt vehicles were shared online.

The trucks, assigned to a private company, were halted by Maoists near Chhota Dongar police station. The police officials said that the drivers were asked to exit the trucks before the Maoists set them on fire.

By the time police responded, the trucks were already engulfed in flames. This act is part of the Maoists’ opposition to the Aamdai Ghati mine project, where they have previously targeted vehicles.

Narayanpur district falls under the Bastar Lok Sabha constituency and is set for elections on April 19.

This is the second incident in less than a month. The Abujhmad region, which is an intrastate border of Kanker and Narayanpur districts, has seen an influx in the number of mining companies.

Jayaswal Neco Industries Limited (JNIL) has been allotted the iron ore mine in Aamdai Ghati and Naxalites have been opposing the project for a long time.

After the burning of the trucks, there was an increase in security, making it difficult for the Adivasi community to move around. This, police officials have said, is regular protocol.

The number of “encounters” have increased in Chhattisgarh ever since Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came in power in December last year after winning 54 seats in the 90-member Assembly.

Speaking to The Citizen Raghu Midiyami, the leader of Mulwasi Bachao Manch that is leading more than 22 protest sites in different parts of South Bastar, averred that the party’s coming has started a blood shed against the Adivasi community.According to Midiyami, there were more protest sites, which were removed by the security forces.

“Since the BJP has come to power, the Adivasi community are being killed in broad daylight. They are forcefully taken to jails and face atrocities. Since January at least 15-20 people have been killed in Bijapur District alone,” Midiyami said.

He claimed that all the killed people were civilians and not part of the Naxal movement.

“If there is any encounter or cross firing happening and a Naxal dies their organisation takes out a press release stating that this many people have died. But the security forces by killing innocent people give them the name of Naxals. This is a conspiracy to end the Adivasi community is what we can see,” Midiyami said.

He added that “fake encounters are also one of the major reasons why protests have been taking place”.

Gotea added that the Adivasi community is being deliberately targeted by the security forces as they continue to protest against the atrocities.

The series of fake encounters, as alleged by the villagers have not stopped and is making life hard for them.

The Citizen visited Gomagal(Gomangal) village, located in Orcha tehsil of Narayanpur district where the Chhattisgarh Police said that two maoists were killed in a gun battle on February 2 this year.

The officials said that encounter took place in the forest near Gomagal village under Orcha police station limits, where a team of security personnel was out on an anti-Naxalite operation.

The operation was launched following a tip-off about the presence of 'Arab' alias Kamlesh, the secretary of the Nelnar area committee of Maoists, local organisation squad (LOS) commander Somdu and other Maoists in the area, he said.

However, the families of concerned people have something else to say.

Still reeling with the shock of her nephew’s death, Kume Kovasi, uncle of Piso Kovasi, who was killed on February 2, in an alleged encounter with the security forces, is going around with papers to prove his nephew had no prior Naxalite connections.

Piso Kovasi, who came from the Madiya tribe, was a farmer who was on his way to take a break from work in the afternoon. “He and three others had gone to drink Sulphi (extracted from a tree and is used by the community for use) when they were ambushed by the security forces and killed,” Kume Kovasi told The Citizen.

The family lives together and were busy doing their own work when they heard about the incident.

“It happened about three kilometres away from where we live,” he said. Their small hut, which is located merely a few metres away from the Kundel forest, is a natural source for the community. From basic necessities like water and food material, the forest provides everything to the community.

The four men, unarmed, as the family claims, were together. While Piso and Kanharu Duru were killed, Raju (18) and Somaru Wedde (45) were injured.

Raju was shot in the back, for which he had to undergo an operation and is still reeling with the shock of what had happened.

“I was drinking water from the ‘neher’ (stream), when we started hearing gunshots. While I ran in the opposite direction Piso and Kanharu, by mistake, ran towards where the police forces were standing. While running I was shot in the back but managed to escape and fainted nearby,” he told The Citizen.

Despite repeated attempts their complaints have not been registered, they said. In turn, a complaint against Piso and Kunharu has been filed accusing them of being Naxals.

The police officials, meanwhile, have said that they recovered a .12-bore gun and a muzzle-loading gun. However, the villagers have refuted the allegation.

Regular incidents of encounters have been reported from Sukma, Narayanpur, Dantewada and Bijapur districts.

“During Congress reign, even though fake encounters happened, they were really low. However, since BJP came into power there has been an influx in the killings of innocent Adivasi people. The number of people who have been jailed has also increased,” Midiyami added.

On April 2, tribal activist Surju Tekam was arrested. People on ground have alleged that the security forces raided his house around 4 am. The police have claimed they found material related to naxals at his house. He has been arrested as of now.

However, Tekam's family and other activists have alleged that incriminating materials were planted in his house. He has been arrested and booked under draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and Arms act.

Speaking to The Citizen Ehtmam Ul Haque, member of Forum against Corporation and Militarisation (FACAM), an organisation overlooking human rights issues in Chhattisgarh said that a pattern is emerging from Chhattisgarh in regard to the fake encounters happening in the region.

“More than 20 people have been killed in a fake encounter. The security forces are claiming that either this is an encounter or that people have died in cross firing. This is a pattern statement. No one listens to what the people are saying.” he said.

On January 1, a six-month-old girl was killed, and her mother suffered a bullet injury on her hand. The police officials, in their statement said that both the mother and child were caught in the cross-firing between Maoists and security forces in the forests of Bijapur district.

“It is not like encounter killing is a new thing in this region. This has always been the case. From 2005 to 2012 from Salwa Judum’s time to Green Hunt Operation, many encounters have taken place. Despite the court calling them a fake encounter during that time, no action has taken place. State forces have impunity and there is a corporate loot that is on the rise. BJP’s election manifesto was that they would end Naxalism, but the question here arises, at what cost,” Ulhaque added.

​​Villagers inside a forest. Photo: NIKITA JAIN

The bigger picture, many activists said, is towards the occupation of the forest land and being given to big corporations. While the government has called these development projects, the tribal community thinks otherwise.

“Our forefathers have been living a certain way and we will follow that. We are not against development, but they are not asking us and starting projects. These forests will be destroyed if these corporations continue their work here,” Gotea added.