Raipur, June 30: Chhattisgarh police today admitted that the 18 victims of yesterday’s anti-Maoist operation included children and women but sparked fresh controversy by claiming they were all rebel cadres.
The admission came after the bodies were laid out in front of a police station to facilitate identification — a routine procedure — and journalists took photographs. It was clear that several of the victims were children and at least one seemed a girl.
The BJP government had also come under pressure from the Congress, which sent a team to the remote encounter site and claimed that “preliminary information” suggested at least three children “below the age of eight” and several women were among the dead.
The security forces had yesterday claimed to have killed 17 Maoists in a pre-dawn jungle swoop in Bijapur district — an injured rebel died later in hospital — but local people had alleged that most of those slain were villagers attending a meeting called by the rebels.
“As far as our information is concerned, more than a dozen innocent villagers were killed,” state Congress president Nandkumar Patel said today.
Pushed to the back foot, the police insisted the children and women were members of Maoist dalams (armed squads). The rebels are known to recruit children as young as five or six into their bal sangham (kid squad), give them arms training and sometimes use them and village women as human shields.
“It is established fact that the Maoists are using children and women in their cadre,” inspector-general of police (anti-Maoist operations) G.P. Singh said.
The Opposition, however, criticised these claims as well as a statement by state home minister Nankiram Kanwar, who said: “Those killed with the Naxalites too are Naxalites and will meet the same fate.”
Congress chief Patel described Kanwar’s statement as “irresponsible and childish” and asked how a school-going child could be dubbed a Maoist supporter. The encounter is expected to become a major issue during next year’s state polls.
Intelligence sources, speaking on condition they wouldn’t be identified, suggested what might have happened during the joint police-CRPF raid in the Korsaguda forests, launched on the strength of a tip-off about a Maoist meeting.
They said the villagers had been called by the Maoists who wanted to mediate a solution to a local land dispute. When the forces pounced, most of the rebels fled and the villagers came under fire.
The police recovered just one rifle, two country-made guns and a “tiffin box” bomb from the site, raising doubts about their claim of a full-scale rebel meeting. The state government yesterday ordered a probe by a magistrate.
The remoteness of the site, part of a Maoist “liberated zone” in the Dandakaranya forests and difficult to reach by road, has reduced the scope for spot investigation.
Patel said a Congress team led by legislator Kawasi Lakma was on its way to the site. Once the party receives the team’s report, it plans to meet the governor and make the findings public. Lakma said over the phone the team would return by Sunday evening.
The Adivasi Mahasabha, a tribal body that includes members from various political parties, will send a team led by former MLA and CPI leader Manish Kunjam to the site tomorrow.
The Maoists have termed the encounter a “massacre” of tribals and called a bandh on July 5 across Dandakaranya, which includes parts of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra too.
A message from rebel leader Gudsa Usendi said dharnas, chakka jams and marches would be held. The rebels have demanded punishment for the “culprits”, who include Union home minister P. Chidambaram, chief minister Raman Singh, state home minister Kanwar, director-general of police Anil Nawaney and Bastar inspector-general T.J. Langkumer.