Kerala on the 3rd of November has witnessed yet another instance of an alleged encounter between Maoists and the state police force. The incident occurred at the Bappanam Mala forest area that comes under the South Wayanad Forest Division, in the northern district of Wayanad. According to police, they were on regular morning patrol of the area, when the Maoists allegedly opened fire. In self defence, they had to counter fire which resulted in the death of a suspect, Velmurugan (32), who the forces say belongs to Kabanidsalam-2 of the Western Ghats Special Zone Committee of CPI (M).
This event is the most recent in a spate of attacks and counterattacks between the Maoists and the Thunderbolt- an elite command force of the Kerala Police, who are in charge of counter terrorist and counter insurgency operations in the state. In December 2019, in a similar attack at Agaly in Palakkad district, four Maoists belonging to the Kabani Dalam- one of the three units, the other two being Nadugani Dalam and Bhavani Dalam-in which the cadres are organized at the trijunction of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka- were killed. The deceased were identified as Manivasakam, Karthi, Arvind alias Suresh and Rema. Nine months prior to this, in another incident at a resort inVythiri, Wayanad, another cadre C.P. Jaleel was gunned down by the forces. On the same line, in 2016, Maoist leaders Kuppuswamy, Devaraj and Ajitha were killed in the Nilambur forests of Malappuram district.
Human Rights Violation
These alleged encounters raise a series of questions pointing to the blatant violation of basic human rights of the deceased cadres. And these questions become pertinent and falls under the must be answered category in a state like Kerala, that boasts cent percent literacy, progressive leftist ideas and upholding of democratic values under all circumstances. Unfortunately in reality, it is the investigative opaqueness, official impunity, administrative apathy and non-adherence to the Supreme Court and Human Rights Commissions guidelines that become the hallmark characteristics of Maoist killings in the state.
For instance, take the case of two cadres Manikavasam and Rema who were killed in the 2019 ambush. The forest dwellers who were in contact with the deceased say that Manikavasam was suffering from chronic diabetes and was in no position to fight for hours. Similarly, Rema had just recently given birth to a child and wouldn’t hold a chance against the state forces. The Thunderbolt version as it always has been was that the killings were as a result of continuous firing that lasted for almost 12 hours from previous night to next morning. Now anyone who has looked upon the Maoist issue in Kerala forests or the trijunction of Western Ghats can easily understand that, unlike their Central or Eastern Indian Maoist/ Naxalite counterparts, the cadres in Kerala are few in number and with limited organizational power and, arms and ammunitions. They have never been in a position to put up with a massive counter state force, let alone for 12 hours.
According to state intelligence sources, the main aim of the Maoist cadres in the trijunction is to create a cool off base for their leadership in central India and other regions, in case of major setbacks. The state force also has an inventory of arms and ammunitions the cadres possess, which in fact were accumulated when the Nepal routes were active. While protecting the territorial integrity and safeguarding the interest of civilians is the duty of the state, this in no way is a license to carry on fake encounter spree with absolute disregard for rule of law.
Another grey area is the sheer lack of transparency and hostility the state forces show during every instance of alleged encounters. In this recent incident at Bappanam Mala also, police showed their dubious alacrity in moving the dead bodies from the combat site, without letting journalists, human rights activists or even relatives be anywhere nearby. In fact opposition party members and other civil society activists were stopped in front of the government medical college mortuary when they questioned the arbitrariness in police actions.
Such authoritarian tendencies directly rip off the rights of the relatives of the killed persons, civil society and concerned stakeholders. This is unprecedented even in the conflict zones like Dantewada or Bastar or other insurgency affected areas in India. Nor any due processes like submitting reports to the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) by the state after every such incident is followed. However, the public outcry has forced the SHRC to ask report to the state in one of the 2019 cases.
Civil society organisations like National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations (NCHRO), Kerala chapter- alleges that the number of fake encounters under the tag of Maoism has claimed the life of nine persons since 2016. This also includes the killing of Adivasi photographer from Attapady, Benny. They also say that there hasn’t been any credible response from the part of the state, to the RTI applications filed to know about the details of these encounters. However, an interesting angle to this whole episode is the RTI revelation that the centre has allocated around six crores of rupees for anti Maoist operations in the state. In fact, the Communist Party of India (CPI), the ruling government’s coalition partner itself alleges that, it is to avail these funds; the state is staging these encounters.
Judicial Guidelines and International Obligations
Maoists, whether caught alive or killed in ambush, do enjoy the basic constitutional and humanitarian rights enshrined on him/her like any other citizen. And extrajudicial killings are nothing but the violations of at least Articles 14, 21, 22 of the Indian constitution. While Article 14 offers equality before law and equal protection of law, Article 21 provides for Right to life with Dignity and that no one shall be deprived of life except by the due process of law, and Article 22 offers the fundamental rights of opportunity of defence to the accused.
In 2011, the Supreme Court observed in Prakash Kadam vs Ramprasad Vishwanath Gupta case that , fake encounters by the police are nothing but cold-blooded murders, and those committing them must be given death sentence, treating them in the category of ‘rarest of rare cases’. The judgement also observed that “Trigger happy policemen who think they can kill people in the name of ‘encounter’ and get away with it should know that the gallows await them.” Similarly in 2014, in ‘People’s Union for Civil Liberties & Anr vs State of Maharashtra and Ors’, a Bench of then Chief Justice of India R M Lodha and Justice Rohinton F Nariman issued a detailed 16-point guidelines “to be followed in the matters of investigating police encounters in the cases of death as the standard procedure for thorough, effective and independent investigation”.
From an international obligatory point of view too this encounter culture is an obvious violation of Article 6(1) of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”),- to which India is a party- which provides that “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.”
Transparency &Accountability- Need of the Hour
Considering the fact our’s is still a democracy standing on the pillars of constitutional morality and adherence to national and international human rights, it is high time that the authorities responsible for this continuing barbarity of extrajudicial killings be made accountable for their actions. The civil society and its every rule abiding citizen should raise its voice for the need of transparency in upholding basic human and judicial rights of individuals killed in the “encounters,” for the boots of unchecked state power may anytime knock your doors too, in one form or other.
Lekshmi Sujatha is an independent writer