This large poster, vertically divided into two halves, was supposedly meant to woo the Adivasis. It had a black and white half with the corpse of Madkam Hidme, face unblurred and dressed up in oversize Maoist uniform. The other, colour half shone bright, in the hues of the Indian flag, with another Adivasi woman, smiling and content, who had a cloth hanging cross-body from a shoulder that held together tendu leaves collected from the forest. This was a poster that welcomed you as you entered the town of Dantewada, an Adivasi Fifth Schedule Area. A little further down the road, another poster had Chhavindra Karma’s face beaming from it, announcing his candidacy in the state assembly elections and promising Salwa Judum 2.0 if elected.
Both these posters belonged to the Congress party. The first one tried to contrast the supposedly peaceful, thriving Chhattisgarh under Congress rule with the dark period of fake encounters under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rule.
But to a local Adivasi – especially human rights activist Soni Sori – walking past these posters, what memories do the body of Madkam Hidme dressed up in Maoist garb and Salwa Judum 2.0 rake up? Soni Sori has stood with Madkam Hidme’s mother Lakshmi in her struggle to get justice for her late daughter.
Madkam Hidme, around 23 years old, had been married for about a week, when, on 13 June 2016 Special Police Officers (SPOs) went up to her home in the village Gompad of the block Konta in Sukma district and dragged her out and took her away despite protestations from her and her mother Madkam Lakshmi. Later, Lakshmi and others reached another village while searching for her, where the residents told her they had seen Hidme being taken to the forests by the police. They also told her they had screams and gunshots. The following day Lakshmi’s worst fears came true. Lakshmi and others proceeded to Konta, where they were told that Hidme’s body had been taken to Sukma. That same evening her body was brought to Konta wrapped up in plastic. The police released an image of her daughter, not as she saw her the day before, in her traditional dress, when was dragged away from her house, but her mutilated body in an oversize Maoist uniform – trousers folded at the bottom – that obviously didn’t belong to her. A month later, she filed a petition with all this information in the Chhattisgarh High Court in the face of massive opposition from the police. Directing the District and Sessions Judge Dantewada to conduct an inquiry into the incident, Chief Justice Deepak Gupta and Justice Sanjay K. Agrawal wrote in their judgment, “It is further alleged that the body bore marks of torture as the eyes and ears were pulled out, tongue and breast were cut and left hand was amputated. It is further alleged that when Madkam Hidme was taken by the police, she was wearing loongi (a tribal saree) and also blouse and a gamcha, but the police published a photograph showing her to be wearing a combat dress. The further allegation of the Petitioner was that either no postmortem had been conducted or if it was conducted, it was not a proper postmortem.”
The District and Sessions Judge Dantewada conducted an inquiry, on whose basis the High Court passed an order on 13 September 2018. The order of a Bench comprising Chief Justice Ajay Kumar Tripathi and Justice Parth Prateem Sahu read, “The conclusion of the judicial enquiry is that Madkam Hidme was a part of the Naxalite organisation and she was a member of Kistaram area committee; that there was a genuine Police encounter in which certain deaths including that of Madkam Hidme had taken place and it was not a case of fake encounter. In fact, the whole issue was said to be given a colour by certain vested interest for obvious reasons. It is also pointed out that neither the petitioner nor the deceased Madkam Hidme have any living parents and obviously they are being used by vested persons with an object and purpose.”
All this happened when the Raman Singh-led BJP were in power. According to the Congress poster, these were the dark times when fake encounters were the norm. The Congress led by chief minister Bhupesh Baghel formed the government in December 2018. One of the planks on which they won the election was fake encounters would be reinvestigated and the victims would get justice. Yet in the five years since, Madkam Lakshmi hasn’t been able to convince the court that she indeed is Madkam Hidme’s mother. She has had to knock on the doors of the Supreme Court where justice awaits. Yet the Congress spared no ink in using Madkam Hidme’s corpse to paint itself a well wisher of Adivasis.
Activist Soni Sori, who herself was tortured in police custody, says, she was aghast at the Congress party using the picture of Madkam Hidme’s mutilated body for their election campaign and patting themselves on their backs. “What will her mother do if she sees this? If she finds out in her remote village about this poster, she will come right away”, Sori says.
Degree Prasad Chouhan, advocate and state president of People’s Union for Civil Liberties, says, “There wasn’t much difference between the Congress rule and the BJP rule that preceded it. The Congress’ word and deed were different. One of the many reasons that Congress lost these elections is its failure to provide justice to Adivasi victims of fake encounters.”
Chouhan says there are a slew of cases like Madkam Hidme’s, in which the victims didn’t get justice in the five years the Congress were in power. He says even after the High Court dismissed Madkam Lakshmi’s petition, there is a lot the government could have done – reinvestigated the case, provided her better legal aid and so on.
Salwa Judum was the brainchild of late Congress Mahendra Karma, the father of Chhavindra Karma. The Salwa Judum programme involved arming the local Adivasis to counter the Naxals. The programme set Adivasis against Adivasis, and the armed militia was held responsible for several deaths and burning of villages. It was disbanded under the direction of the Supreme Court in 2011 but soon after the Chhattisgarh government passed a law to regularize the Special Police Officers (SPOs) who were part of the Salwa Judum programme.
Salwa Judum 2.0, which Chhavindra promised on the poster, is hence already in existence, in a possibly relatively less violent form. Still, it was the SPOs who took away Hidme in 2016. In fact, Hidme’s mother Lakshmi told Soni Sori, that the chief perpetrator of the murder of Madkam Hidme posed for a photo with chief minister Bhupesh Baghel, in May 2022 in Konta. In the photo, the chief minister has his arms around the man in question, Madkam Mudraj, now an inspector with the District Reserve Group (DRG).
This is what Lakshmi told her. “Madkam Mudraj was a Naxalite earlier and he had expressed to Hidme his love for her on several occasions but he hadn’t got a favourable response. So, when Mudraj surrendered to the police and became an SPO, he took revenge on her. He took her from her house by force, raped her and shot her.”
According to the 2011 Census, the population of Dantewada district is 5,33,638 of which around 80 per cent (410255) are Adivasis. The total number of voters in this assembly constituency, according to the Election Commission, is 1,87,641. The votes cast in the constituency in the recently held assembly elections was 1,34, 532. Chhavindra Karma (40,936 votes) lost to BJP’s Chaitram Atami (57,739 votes) by 16,803 votes. Surely, the Adivasis saw through the blatant insensitivity, downright hypocrisy – and this has been at the heart of the unraveling of the Congress in Chhattisgarh.
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