An Odisha Human-Rights Commission Order on the Death of an Innocent Dalit Couple Shows the State's Apathy

Dubeswar and Bubudhi Naik, a couple belonging to a tribal community, were killed in July 2015, allegedly amid crossfire during a security operation. MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images
16 February, 2017

On 3 January 2017, the Odisha Human Rights Commission (OHRC) issued an order regarding the death of a couple, Dubeswar and Bubhudi Naik. In July 2015, the Naiks, who belonged to a Scheduled Caste community, were killed in Madaguda forest of Pangalpadar village in Kandhamal district, Odisha, allegedly during an operation targeted at Maoist rebels in the region. The OHRC ruled that the Naiks were innocent. It directed the state government to pay Rs 5 lakh in compensation to the next of kin of both Dubeswar and Bubhudi.

According to the accounts the security forces gave to the press and later to several investigative agencies, a member of the Special Operations Group, or SOG, found the bodies of Dubeswar, a 40-year-old man, and Bubhudi, a woman in her 30s, in the Madaguda forest on the morning of 27 July 2015. The SOG is a state paramilitary unit formed in 2005 to combat militancy in the region. That day, the then Kandhamal superintendent of police, Kanwar Vishal Singh—he now serves as the SP for the neighbouring Nayagarh district—conducted a media briefing. Singh said that the previous day, members of the SOG conducted a combing operation in the area close to where the bodies were found. He said the forces had come upon some Maoist rebels, and an “exchange of fire” occurred, following which the militants escaped. In the later accounts, the security officials alleged that the Naiks were killed as a result of this crossfire. Singh claimed in the briefing that the SOG destroyed at least eight Maoist camps and seized a huge cache of arms and ammunition from the site at which the “bullet-ridden” bodies were found.

On 28 July 2015, the state officials handed the bodies over to the family of the deceased, which included their daughters Junasi and Minu and their sons Rahul, Paula and Soula. On 30 July, Prabir Das, an advocate and human-rights activist, filed a petition before the OHRC seeking a high-level independent inquiry into the incident and compensation of Rs 20 lakh to the kin of the deceased. The OHRC order records that according to Das’ petition, Junasi said “her parents were completely innocent and they have no involvement with the Maoist activities and they were allegedly killed in a fake encounter jointly made by the SOG personnel and the Police.”

A few days later, on 10 August, Rahul—represented by the activist lawyers Biswapriya Kanungo and Bijaya Kumar Panda—filed another petition before the OHRC. Rahul alleged that no cross-firing had occurred, and that the security forces had killed his parents in cold blood. He also alleged that his father was strangulated to death, and that his mother was molested, and one of her breasts cut off.

Following the petitions filed by Rahul and Das, the OHRC ordered several agencies to independently investigate the deaths. It directed the additional director general of police (ADGP) of the Human Rights Protection Cell (HRPC), a wing of the Odisha police that is meant is to investigate cases of human-rights violations; the revenue divisional commissioner (RDC) of the southern division of the state; and the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) of Baliguda to submit separate enquiry reports in the incident. The OHRC issued its final order on the basis of their findings. Though the OHRC found that the Naiks were innocent, it held no one responsible for their death—a pattern that is frequently repeated in the deaths of civilians during security operations in the state. The OHRC also failed to address inconsistencies in the agencies’ findings, of which there were several. Over the course of reporting this story, I gained access to the investigative reports. A look at the manner in which the agencies investigated the case, and in which the OHRC evaluated their reports, indicates the careless approach with which the state treats the death of innocent persons during security operations—many of whom are often people from marginalised communities.

Of the three reports, only the RDC’s report concludes and categorically states that Dubeswar and Bubhudi were “innocent persons.” RK Singh, the RDC, submitted his report to the OHRC on 30 November 2015. He wrote: “The spot (where the bodies were found) is on the top of the hill with dense forest around it. It was learnt that the villagers use [sic] to come to this place to access mobile telephone network.” The RDC’s report states that according to Junasi, the couple went to the hilltop every Sunday to call their sons, who worked in Kerala as daily-wage labourers. The report noted that on 26 July 2015—a Sunday—while her parents walked towards the hill, Junasi returned home. “She saw police personnel crossing their house in the evening and moving towards the hill top,” the report said.

The RDC’s report states that three other villagers accompanied the Naiks to the top of the hill: Sukanta Chalanseth, his wife Filomina, and Bineswar Chalanseth, their family member. They, too, intended to access cellular network and speak to their relatives. Sukanta told the SDM that the three ended their phone conversation around 3 pm and began walking back to village.

According to Sukanta’s statement to the SDM, as he, Filomina and Bineswar were walking through the forest, security forces “sprung out” from behind trees and bushes, and began asking them questions. The SDM report said that the SOG personnel asked Filomina about an umbrella she was “hiding inside her dress.” In an earlier statement he gave to police officials on 27 July, Sukanta said that the group told the security forces that Dubeswar and Bubhudi were still speaking on the phone. The SDM’s report noted that they reached home at around 5pm. Within a few minutes, they heard the sound of gun shots. The SDM’s and RDC’s enquiry reports said that the villagers decided not to return to the hilltop as it was already dark, and because they were afraid. Rahul told the SDM that while he was speaking to his father over the phone, “he could listen [sic] him shouting as if somebody were strangulating his throat. Then the phone was cut.”

Two of the reports noted that on the morning of 27 July, a group of people from the village, including Junasi, Sukanta and Bineswar, climbed to the top of the hill to look for any signs of the Naiks’ whereabouts. They found bloodstained-clothes and the couple’s footwear on the spot.

The villagers proceeded to the nearby Kotagarh police station, where Sukanta narrated his account of the previous day to the police officials and submitted a written statement. He alleged that the security forces were responsible for the Naiks’ death. The OHRC order stated that the police officials did not file a complaint. Instead, they only made an entry in the station diary—a daily record of the complaints the police receives.

The OHRC noted in its order that the Kotagarh police did not register a case since “a cognizable case” had already been registered. On 27 July 2015, after the SOG member found the Naiks’ bodies early in the morning, SOG personnel went to Phulbani—located nearly 120 kilometres away from Kotagarh. At the Phulbani station, the SOG sub-inspector registered a case regarding the crossfire and “unidentified” bodies, for the offences of murder, attempt to murder, criminal conspiracy, and imputations that threaten national integration. The SOG case was registered against “unknown persons”—it did not charge anyone in particular.

The findings of the agencies differed on many points. For instance, the SOG team told the ADGP that it found various objects, including arms, ammunition, tiffin bombs, household items and food, “on or around the spot” where the bodies were discovered. Contrary to the ADGP’s report, the SDM’s report said that the SOG found such items “at around 30-60 meter distance from the dead bodies.”

Kanungo, who filed Rahul Naik’s complaint with the OHRC, pointed out several other inconsistencies. He raised a concern before the OHRC regarding column 13 of the seizure list made by the police officials while investigating the case. The column is supposed to reflect the location at which the seized objects were found, the identity of those who spotted the objects, and the witnesses to such an event. Kanungo noted that in this case, the column was left blank.

He also noted that the SOG’s FIR claimed that, during the operation, they fired 41 rounds of bullets, but that the police seized 32 khokas—shells—from the crime scene. Kanungo added to the commission that “enough material” was not available to confirm the SOG’s account of a crossfire. But the commission bypassed these concerns.

According to the post-mortem reports, there were six bullet wounds on the Naiks’ bodies— Dubeswar’s body had four injuries, and Bubhudi’s body had two wounds—but only one bullet was seemingly recovered and sent for testing. Dubeswar’s injuries included three lacerations, and a perforated wound. The post-mortem reports do not mention any injuries similar to the ones Rahul described, but states that foreign bodies such as bullets and ligature “could not be detected.” However, the ADGP’s and the SDM’s reports state that the security forces claimed to have found a bullet in Dubeswar’s body, and sent it for a forensic test. The reports even quote the ballistic examination: they state that forensic tests found that the bullet was not fired from the SOG personnel’s AK-47s—but came from an “AK family gun.” Kanungo had brought this up before the OHRC as well—he noted that there was no evidence linking the bullet sent for testing to the bullet allegedly removed from Dubeswar’s body.

Setting aside these inconsistencies, the commission refrained from concluding who was to be held responsible for the Naiks’ death. “Whether the victims fell to the bullets of the Maoists or fell to the bullets of the SOG Jawans … the fact remains that two innocent tribals lost their lives by sustaining bullet injuries,” the order stated. When I spoke to Kanungo in mid January 2017, he said that the OHRC “did not apply its mind” while passing the order and that it was “devoid of facts and material devices.”

The Naiks are two of several innocent civilians in Odisha who have lost their lives during security operations, allegedly amid cross-firing. In July 2016, six persons were reportedly killed in a crossfire during at Gumdumaha village in Kandhamal district. Though the government set up a special investigation team to look into the deaths, it announced a compensation of Rs 5 lakh for the victims even before the report was released. (The SIT report is still pending.) Both Prabir Das and Kanungo said that during their careers, they had rarely seen security officials being held responsible for deaths of innocent civilians or during a “fake encounter.” Das could not recall any instances of this happening, and Kanungo named two in which the OHRC had recommended prosecution: one in Rayagada district, in 2016, and another in Gajapati district, in 2011.

In January 2016, Kanungo filed a right to information application with the police’s human-rights protection cell to obtain data on deaths that occurred during police encounters between 2004 and 2015. The response he received said that between 2011 and 2015, as many as 95 persons were killed in police encounters during anti-Naxal operations. The HRPC added that records for encounter deaths during the years 2004–2010 was “not available.”

The Ministry of Home Affairs classifies 19 of Odisha’s 30 districts as Left Wing Extremism, or LWE, affected. Many of these districts also fall under Scheduled Areas—territories within India that are recognised as having a high population of tribal people. Unlike in Kashmir and Manipur, the security forces in the districts of Odisha that have been classified as LWE-affected are not granted any special powers. The only protection they enjoy is under Section 197 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. According to this section, an investigative agency seeking to prosecute a police official must obtain sanction from a senior government official. The rank for officials who can grant this sanction is based on the offence in question, and prescribed by the central or state government.

The attitudes of police officials towards the deaths of civilians, too, are telling. Soon after Singh held the media briefing on 27 July 2015, several news reports emerged that identified the Naiks as “Maoists.” I spoke to Singh in mid January 2017, and enquired whether he had identified the slain couple as Maoists during the briefing. “Who told you that we did a press conference on 27 July and called them Maoists?” he asked. “Mujhe saboot dikhaiye”—show me proof, he added. I sent him a report published by Odisha Suntimes, a web-based news portal run by Eastern Media Limited, one of the largest media companies in the state. “Besides the bodies of the two slain Maoists, security personnel also seized three guns, live cartridges,” the report quoted Singh and Thakur.

Singh responded with a link to a story published by Odisha TV. Although the article stated that the “police recovered two unidentified bodies,” its headline said: ‘Fire Exchange: 2 Bodies of Maoists Recovered.’ I made repeated attempts to reach him again, and sent him several queries, including one asking if he stood by his claim that the events that unfolded that day included an exchange of fire with militants. He did not respond.

In a conversation in mid January 2017, I asked Amitabh Thakur, the inspector general of the southern range, who had addressed the press along with Singh, if he stood by his statement that there was a cross fire on 26 July 2015. Thakur said, “It’s a matter of investigation.”