As controversy continues to rage over the last month's killings in Chhattisgarh, Union Tribal Affairs Minister V Kishore Chandra Deo said 17 of the 19 slain by the CRPF and state police were unarmed and innocent.
"The fact is, 17 innocent citizens had died. 17 innocent people, who were unarmed, who were wearing just a dhoti or a baniyan and who did not even have a sickle or a knife. What else you call them (if not innocent)," Deo told PTI citing "inputs" received by him from various sources.
Asked whether he thought these people were killed in cold blood by the para-military force, he said, "When I say innocent, I mean they were unarmed people. If they were
Maoist, there should be a sign or something to say that they were Maoist."
The home ministry as well as the state government has stated that 19 people were killed in a "fierce" gunfight in the dense jungles of Dantewada on June 27-28 in a joint anti-Naxal operation by the CRPF and state police.
Soon after the incident, doubts were raised over the credentials of those killed with allegations that killings took place in a fake encounter.
Deo said a committee headed by Minister of State for Tribal Affairs Mahadeo Singh Khandlea had also reported that those killed were innocent.
"We have got inputs from different sources. In fact there was a committee headed by our MoS Mahadeo Singh Khandela. He had submitted a report to the Congress president. I had received inputs from some other voluntary organisations and agencies working in that area.
"I think all the inputs and information I have got has established the fact that, whether they were maoist or not I don't know, it is not written on one's head that he or she is an extremist. But the fact is, 17 citizens, innocent people had also died," said the Minister who also holds Panchayati Raj portfolio.
When pointed out that Union Home Minister P Chidambaram had defended the "encounter", Deo said, "what happened in this case was that the Home Ministry depended and trusted the state government in good faith."
"Information that they got was from the state government... later it was found that the information the state government provided was wrong or probably they also had the wrong information. I don't want to point fingers at anybody. These are tricky situations," he said.
The Union Minister emphasised that the naxal situation should not be seen only from law and order angle and there was a need to change the mindset of people.
"We all know that there is a security situation there because of Maoists. But that does not mean you allow children, women and innocent to become victims of such actions," he said.
"I all along have been saying and would like to repeat now that this problem whether in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh or Andhra Pradesh, you can't solve this as long as you deal with it as if it is only a law and order problem. There are other angles to it as well," he said.
He underlined lack of development in the tribal areas was the root cause of the entire problem.