The plaque in Sulenga village in Bijapur district, Bastar is named after villager Hedma Ram, who was killed on February 4. His name is painted at the top of the plaque, divided into three panels. The upper panel shows man, presumably Ram, resting while cattle grazes. He is then surrounded by armed men in the second panel. “They are policemen with guns in the plaque, I confirmed it from the villagers,” says Kamal Shukla.

In the third panel, at the bottom of the plaque, Ram is again lying on ground. Mr. Shukla, who investigated the killing of Hedma Ram, said following his death Ram’s body was “dragged by police.” Other animals, including a crocodile, are witnessing the encounter in the plaque.

The villagers of heavily militarised areas of south Chattisgarh have embraced traditional Gond art to narrate their tragedies. The last moments of Gond tribals before they are killed by the security forces, are narrated on Mritak Sthamv [memorial plaque] made of stone. The villagers have captured those moments when security forces — not the Maoist insurgents — have allegedly killed the tribals. A writer-journalist of south Chattisgarh, Mr. Shukla, who has documented such plaques, said that he had never come across such unique story telling earlier.

The memorial plaque narrating the story of Hedma Ram, killed in an alleged fake encounter earlier this year. Photo courtesy: Kamal Shukla

Gond tribals often put up a stone or two to mark the passing away of a member in the village. The plaques, not headstones, are not placed in the burial grounds like in organised religion but mostly in an open space near the village and coloured with pigments extracted from trees. And it’s on these that encounter killings are being documented

The Sulenga plaque

“Hedma Ram’s brother is a naxalite. Ram was told to get him surrendered, but he could not. So he was arrested under fake charges and was released in January end,” said Mr. Shukla, which he apparently confirmed from the police. However, Ram was picked up within a week after his release and killed near Sulenga in a “fake encounter.” Following the incident, the police claimed that Hedma Ram is “a wanted naxalite” and an award of Rs. one lakh was on him.

“A man, who was in jail for two years, turned into a dreaded naxalite within a week of his release and killed in an encounter. If he was so, why was he unconditionally released a week back?” asked Mr. Shukla, who himself was threatened several times for investigating fake encounters.

Writer, journalist and blogger Kamal Shukla documented some of the plaques, narrating the tales of conflict in south Chattisgarh. Mr. Shukla was allegedly threatened several times by the security forces. Photo: Suvojit Bagchi

South Chattisgarh has turned into one of the most militarised zones of the world. During the 2013 Assembly elections, the ratio of security personnel to civilians in south Chhattisgarh and Rajnandgaon was 1:31, according to data provided by Chattisgarh’s security forces. In contrast, at the peak of the conflict in 2011, the armed security personnel to civilian ratio in Afghanistan was 1:73, as per Central Statistics Organisation, Kabul and World Bank’s Development Indicators.

The presence of the armed forces in such large numbers has escalated violence in Bastar, especially over last one year. However, the Home Ministry’s Annual Report [2015-16] suggests that death due to violence in 2015 has reduced by about five times compared to 2011. The locals said that reports of fake encounter deaths, when innocent civilians are killed, are suppressed.

A high-end Maoist training camp involving senior members of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army deep inside Abujh Marh in south Chattisgarh. The government claims Maoist presence has escalated troop deployment. File photo: Suvojit Bagchi

“There are many such plaques”

Mr. Shukla alleged that soon after Ram’s death he tried to reach the family in Sulenga but “was stopped” by the police. He could only enter Sulenga later with journalists of national television channels.

Bastar’s journalists have told The Hindu that they are routinely stopped from reaching the encounter sites when naxalites or civilians are killed.

“Earlier, local journalists could go inside the villages, visit family members of the victims, click photos and give them a copy but such things have stopped, leaving no option for the tribals than to document their tragedies on plaques,” Mr. Shukla said. He had earlier led a team of Bastar journalists to Chief Minister Raman Singh to protest the arrest and harassment of the journalists in the region.

Another plaque showing the death of a minor boy, who was going to school in Bijapur district. The incident took place three years ago, but the plaque is recent. Photo courtesy: Kamal Shukla

Mr. Shukla collected few more plaques. One other plaque illustrates death of a child who was going to school. In the above panel, three girls are seen. A school building can also be seen with a cycle on the right corner indicating that the boy was going to or leaving school when he was shot. “The boy was shot by policemen,” Mr. Shukla said.

“But it was not a recent incident. The child was killed about three years back in the same area,” he added.

The journalist plans to document other such plaques as he heard about more such memorials. “But I’m afraid that the plaques —which are interesting work of art — will be flattened once the administration gets to hear about this unusual story telling.”