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.