Jagdalpur (Chhattisgarh), Dec 16 (IANS) Many poverty-hit tribals in Chhattisgarh are asking why they shouldn't become Maoists and take up arms, pointing to the latest incident in which two civilians were branded rebels and shot dead by police.
The traumatised residents of the Koleng area of Bastar district are at a loss over the killings of their co-villagers by police early this week and say the two had simply gone to collect rations for others from a nearby forested area.
'It's better to become Maoists and fight against government brutalities than being killed brutally after being branded Maoists. I don't know why police are going after us in a planned manner,' 22-year-old Vohru told IANS.
The restive Bastar region is home to over a million people and has been caught in the crossfire between Maoists and security personnel for nearly three decades.
In Koleng, on the outskirts of Jagdalpur town, the headquarters of the Bastar region, many men and women can be found crying, mourning and expressing their anger against alleged police atrocities after their co-villagers were killed in an encounter on the intervening night of Dec 11-12.
'Two of our men - Mahru and Shyam Shankar - had gone to collect rations along with several others from nearby Netanar village for all of us. They were coming back with the rations but police killed them in a roadside jungle area,' Panduram Nag, sarpanch of Koleng village, told IANS.
'We came to know about the killings Tuesday when police came to the village and asked us to be extra alert as two Maoists were killed in the area and said several others were probably hiding in nearby areas.'
Another villager, Ramo, also received a gun shot in his leg in the incident and is being treated at Jagdalpur, some 300 km south of capital Raipur.
The state government has been tightlipped about the incident, but the Bastar district police chief has admitted the 'civilians killings' after initial hesitation.
'It was the Special Task Force (STF) and the District Force (DF) men that claimed to have killed two Maoists in a roadside jungle in an encounter, but the initial inquiry is clearly showing they were poor civilians and I suspect they were killed in the crossfire,' P. Sundarraj, superintendent of police of Bastar district, told IANS.
He promised to look into the killing incident and do justice to restore people's faith in the police force.
Fear runs deep in the minds of tribals in the 40,000 sq km economically backward Bastar area, of which up to 25,000 sq km is believed to have been intensively mined by the rebels.
Mineral-rich Bastar region is made up of five districts - Dantewada, Bijapur, Narayanpur, Bastar and Kanker - and is known as one of India's most impoverished pockets. It has witnessed nearly 2,000 casualties in Maoist violence in the past decade, including over 1,000 civilian deaths.
Maoists also often kill civilians in Bastar after labelling them as police informers.
(Sujeet Kumar can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)