Indian security forces went on a village-burning rampage, investigation finds

It may be a forgotten atrocity in a forgotten war, but now, 5½ years later, the burning of the village of Tarmetla, in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, by Indian security forces is finally getting some of the recognition it deserves. The state police had held on to their claim that guerrilla fighters had burned the village, killing people and sexually assaulting women as they went. But a long-delayed inquiry by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation found that the police had done it themselves and, in a rare if not unprecedented move, named and charged specific police personnel.

In March 2011, the residents of Tarmetla, as well as of the nearby villages of Morpalli and Timapuram, were chased from their homes by heavily armed police and paramilitary soldiers who believed militants were being harbored there. The heavily forested, remote region of India where the incident occurred is home to a decades-old Maoist-inspired insurgency that has taken root primarily among indigenous tribal populations known as adivasis.

According to the CBI report, more than 400 soldiers belonging to Indian paramilitary units in addition to local militias co-opted by the Indian state to fight the guerrilla groups descended upon Tarmetla in the early morning. They burned hundreds of abandoned homes and granaries.

The CBI report charged soldiers with crimes such as arson and unlawful violence, but not murder and rape. Three people were also killed in the attacks, three women alleged sexual assault (one while in custody), and three elderly residents who were left behind would starve to death before their caretakers felt safe enough to return to the village. Those cases are still being investigated.

Aman Sethi, then a journalist covering the region for the Hindu newspaper, made it to the villages soon after the attacks and witnessed the destruction. “My husband was sitting in a tree picking tamarind,” a woman named Madavi Hunge told him. “The force saw him and opened fire. I pleaded with them to stop, but they tore my clothes and threatened me.”

Hunge escaped. The police moved farther into the village, leaving her husband’s corpse hanging in the tree, wrote Sethi.

The war between India and the Maoist rebels, known as Naxalites, churns on at a relatively low intensity. Nevertheless, it has spread to most of India’s 28 states and claimed thousands of lives, mostly civilians. Naxalites, for their part, carry out periodic attacks and are known for extortion and the use of human shields. Closer to 2011, when Tarmetla was burned, India’s previous prime minister had said the Naxalites were India’s “biggest internal security threat,” elevating them above the militancy in Kashmir that has flared up again this year.

There is occasional news, such as on Monday, of Indian security forces killing Naxalites, though activists claim that many “encounters” are faked and that the victims are innocents dressed up post-facto as rebels.

Locals and activists have accused Indian security forces of carrying out “collective punishment” against adivasis for their perceived connections to Maoist rebels, whether they exist or not. The CBI report vindicates some of those claims. In particular, it calls out the role of Special Police Officers, or SPOs, like the ones pictured above and below. These SPOs often hailed from adivasi communities but were paid and armed by the Indian government. Seven were charged in connection with the 2011 attacks.

Nandini Sundar, a sociologist and lawyer whose case against SPOs before India’s Supreme Court led to the CBI investigation, said the report was the first step toward justice. An earlier step — the banning of SPOs in the wake of Tarmetla — was diluted as the Indian state simply reorganized them under a new name: Armed Auxiliary Forces.

Sundar is optimistic that the victims of murder and sexual assault will still get justice, though she is skeptical that individual perpetrators will be named. “It is near-impossible in a gang rape situation, in which any of hundreds of soldiers could have been involved, to know who did what,” she said. “But there still must be some kind of command-level responsibility.”

Sundar confirmed that she had heard reports of effigies of her and other victim advocates being burned by state police personnel in the wake of the CBI report’s release. The Wire, an Indian news outlet, published photos of the effigy burning on Tuesday morning.

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