Madkam Deva walks 20 paces off a dirt footpath cutting through a verdant forest, before stopping at a place where large orange ants crawl over a dark, decomposing maroon stain. He then points to a similar splotch a few feet away where he says two villagers were executed by police in January.
"I'm scared they'll come after me, now," said the 20-year-old Deva, who shows a reporter a pink scab where a bullet grazed his right forearm before he escaped with four others into the forest.
Deva's story in this remote corner of eastern India boils down to this: Police rounded up 24 members of the Gond tribe of the village of Singaram for questioning as part of a counter-insurgency campaign against Maoist guerrillas. Instead, Deva says 12 were murdered en route to the police station.
Police chief calls claim fake
Rahul Sharma, the police superintendent in the Dantewara district of southern Chhattisgarh – one of India's least developed states – provides an equally vivid but contradictory account.
"This is absolutely a fake allegation – that (the police) killed defenseless people," said Sharma, who says he has lost 60 police officers in the past year fighting Maoist insurgents known as Naxalites. (The word Naxalite comes from the West Bengal village of Naxalbari, where a rebellion against landowners broke out in 1967.) "It was a very genuine encounter."
Each year, thousands of Indians are killed in so-called "encounter killings," or shootouts between Indian security forces and criminal elements, ranging from Maoist rebels to petty thieves. Human rights groups say the military often kills rebel sympathizers and police have been known to place guns in the hands of criminals after executing them.
"It is the only way they can get awards and promotions," said Vrinda Grover, a human rights activist in New Delhi.
India's limited forensics capabilities makes investigating the claims of either police or human rights groups difficult to verify. And no state agency keeps statistics on the number of encounter killings.
In fact, the national media often echo police versions of events, allying with a middle-class that increasingly fears rising crime and terrorism, and a consensus that civil liberties are not as important as public safety and national security, says Bela Bhatia, a fellow with the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi.
India is second only to Iraq in the number of deaths from terrorist attacks, according to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, which notes that 3,674 Indians were killed in terrorist attacks between January 2004 and March 2007.
Determined to see a strong security apparatus flex its muscle, the Indian media often lionizes "encounter specialists." In the 2004 Bollywood film "Ab Tak Chappan," Hindi for "Until Now 56," the hero is a policeman who has executed 56 criminals in fake encounters.
Most encounters involving slain criminals are not investigated; and those that are investigated can take from five to seven years before a suspect police officer is arrested, rights activists say.
The Chhattisgarh killings, however, appear to be an exception to the rule due to local anger sparked by the large number of victims. In February, the highest state court ordered an inquiry starting with autopsy reports of the 12 victims.
Some 50 families live in Singaram, a low-slung collection of dry fields, where cattle and chickens amble freely and men shinny up skinny palm trees to harvest a natural palm wine called toti. Walking is the dominant form of transportation and cell phone reception is nonexistent, dirt roads give way to footpaths, and most residents survive on just one meal a day.
"The fact that the victims are tribals living in a remote jungle area shows that the middle class is not really concerned about the poor," said Bhatia, referring to a lack of outrage in other states over the incident. "Unless it affects them directly, the reality is that they don't speak up."
But in Chhattisgarh, each side has its detractors, witnesses, political supporters, policy experts, and social activists.
The account by Police Superintendent Sharma is corroborated by police officers involved in the raid and conservative politicians while Deva's version is substantiated by the four men who escaped with him, and villagers who saw the police sweep through their homes that morning. All the victims lived in an area almost completely controlled by Naxalites, who are typically better armed than the police.
No association with rebels
Villagers concede that some of the victims were Naxalite sympathizers, albeit part of the general militia, not hard-core cadre. But most had no association with the rebels, they say.
In coming weeks, facts should become clearer. The survivors, their lawyers and human rights groups are pressing state courts and the federal government for a high-level investigation that could take months.
In the meantime, the highest court in a neighboring state issued a landmark decision that may influence the Chhattisgarh decision. Andhra Pradesh, which has the highest rate of encounter killings in India, recently ruled that all such incidents resulting in death must be investigated immediately.
"It shows that the rule of law is not antithetical in fighting any of these menaces of leftist insurgents, terrorists and common criminals," Grover said.