It takes Madkam Deva only 20 paces off a dirt footpath cutting through a verdant forest to find the place where large orange ants crawl over a dark maroon stain. Another bloodstain is a few metres away. This is where he saw one villager cut down by police bullets, and then a second collapsing onto the forest floor, he said. 'I'm scared they'll come after me now,' said Mr Deva, who doesn't know his age but guesses he is around 20. Pointing to a pink scar, he said a bullet grazed his right forearm but he managed to escape the barrage of gunfire. His account of what happened in this remote corner of eastern India on January 8 boils down to this - that police rounded up 24 tribal villagers, told them they were going to a station about 10km away for questioning, and then lined them up for execution en route. Five, including Mr Deva, escaped. Police Superintendent Rahul Sharma, the top officer in the Dantewara district of southern Chhatisgarh, one of the least developed states in India, provides an account as detailed and vivid as Mr Deva's, and completely contradictory. 'It was a very genuine encounter,' said Mr Sharma, who recounted how his men came upon a group of armed Maoists and engaged them in a firefight. No police were killed, though he said one policeman took shrapnel in his hand from a grenade. Numbering in the thousands every year, 'encounters' or 'encounter killings' are shootouts between Indian police or the army and any criminal element, whether terrorists or petty thieves. They can also be stage-managed, as in when police place a gun in the hands of a dead person, leading to the popular phrase 'fake encounters'. India's limited forensics capabilities make investigating the claims of either side - if there are two sides left standing - hard to verify. And the national media often repeats the police's version of events, allying itself with a middle class that is increasingly fearful of rising crime and terrorism; India ranks second only to Iraq in the number of deaths from terrorist attacks. Determined to see a strong Indian security apparatus flex its muscles, Bollywood and Indian media lionise 'encounter specialists' - those police who specialise in shootouts. 'Encounters are staged,' said Vrinda Grover, a respected lawyer and human-rights activist. 'It is the only way to get awards and promotions.' Mr Grover said that when an investigation proved a shootout was a fake encounter, it usually took between five and seven years before the culpable police officers were arrested. 'The courts do not give primacy to these matters,' he said. In that sense, the killings on January 8 are proving to be an exception. Perhaps because it was the largest such killing in recent memory, the highest court in Chhatisgarh has ordered an investigation, starting with autopsies of the remaining 12 bodies that were buried, not cremated. Whether the encounter on January 8 was 'genuine' or 'fake' is of little import to the people most affected by it - the family members of the dead have little to do with India's judiciary, or any other aspect of the state. If anything, the encounter shows that the gap between rich and poor in India could not be starker. 'The fact that the victims are these tribals living in a remote jungle area shows that the middle class is not really concerned about the poor,' said Bela Bhatia, a fellow with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, who has made a close study of the insurgent-heavy areas of southern Chhatisgarh. 'Unless it affects them directly, the reality is that they don't speak up.' It's not that India's middle class is never suspicious of police claims that they shoot only in self-defence. But many just accept that judicial process and civil liberties will inevitably play second fiddle to matters of public safety and national security. However, experts say that the integrity of India's judiciary is at stake. For the incident on January 8, each side has its own proxies and detractors in the form of witnesses, politicians, policy experts and social activists. Mr Sharma's account is corroborated by police officers involved in the raid and conservative politicians at local and state level (who recently won state elections). Mr Deva's account, meanwhile is supported by the other prisoners who escaped, by villagers who claim to have witnessed police wearing fatigues and carrying automatic weapons sweeping through their homes that morning, and by the parents of victims who describe their children being dragged away. The villagers who were killed all lived in an area almost completely under the thumb of Maoist insurgents. 'No villager in the area will go willingly against the 'official' line,' said Ajay Sahni, executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, meaning the Maoists' version of events. 'If you see the Chhatisgarh model, it's neither clear nor hold, or build,' said Dr Sahni. 'They [the authorities] are trapped in the Rambo model, thinking that well-trained and well-equipped troops will go in and beat up everyone and solve the problem. If you rely on small, aggressive commando-type troops, all they will do is kill more people and create more people who are willing to be recruited.' Mr Sharma, the police superintendent, disputes this assessment. 'This is absolutely a fake allegation - that [the police] killed defenceless people,' said Mr Sharma, who claimed to have lost 60 police officers in the past year fighting local Maoist insurgents, known as Naxalites. The police recovered only five guns - old battered rifles. But experts such as Dr Sahni agree that the Naxalites are almost always better armed than the police. Police and politicians estimate that the insurgents control up to 90 per cent of the area for which Mr Sharma is responsible. One technique criminal suspects in big cities have developed is to run to the nearest television station when being chased by police, in the hope that live news coverage of the pursuit will prevent them from being gunned down in the street. The hypercompetitive 24-hour news channels are happy to oblige. That's not possible in places like Singaram, where mobile phone reception is non-existent, forests are dense, dirt roads become forest paths and the clamour of India's cacophonous democracy gives way to simple truths, like how to survive on one meal a day and get by without a health clinic. The dominant form of transport is walking, except for the lucky few who have bicycles. Well-educated civil servants, like Mr Sharma, who was sent from far away New Delhi and has a master's degree in philosophy from the country's premier tertiary institution, Jawaharlal Nehru University, often feel like aliens in these parts, where the majority of the population is tribal. Unable to either speak the local language or provide substantial development - that's the task of other, far-removed departments in India's enormous bureaucracy - police officers like Mr Sharma are forced to make their name on security, defined crudely as the ratio of insurgents killed to police. 'Right now it's a negative attrition rate,' says Mr Sharma. 'More policemen are dying than Naxalites and that has to reverse. We need to hit them, and hard. The ideal attrition rate is four to one. This is crude, but we are working in a crude situation.' Mr Sharma said he needed at least 1,000 more trained officers as well as stronger legislation. Police stations there are operating under a siege mentality, covered in concentric razor wire - more akin to ones in Baghdad. Police officers who are sick have to be evacuated by helicopter because the roads are too dangerous. Some tell of paying bribes to join the police - in order to extort money once they reach a position of power - and paying further bribes to get transferred to a less hostile environment. Aside from the time of day that the attacks happened (around 3.30pm), one of the only facts the police and villagers agree on is that the Indian government has virtually no presence in the area. 'We want development,' says Karam Malla Patel, the chief of Singaram village for the past 20 years. 'We want electricity but we don't know what to do about it. The people in this village here have never seen the city.' His village of 50 families is in a low-slung collection of dry fields, where cattle and young chickens amble freely and men shimmy up palm trees to harvest a natural palm wine called toti. For their part, villagers familiar with the victims concede that at least some were Naxalite sympathisers, albeit part of the general militia, not the hard-core cadres. They would organise village meetings, collect protection money and keep tabs on who was working with the police. Whether they were picked up by police and gunned down in a forest clearing in order to send a message, or were killed in a firefight, is now the main question. The details of the incident are disputed: police claim 15 bodies while the victims' families say there were 19; police claim 84 officers were involved, while villagers reported twice that number; police say their patrolling party swept along the edge of the villages, while residents say they came inside their homes and looted everything from cash and jewellery to chickens. These facts should become clearer in the coming few weeks. The survivors of the attack, together with lawyers and human-rights groups, are pressing the state courts and federal government for a high-level inquiry. Two weeks after the January 8 encounter, the Naxalites were back in business, digging up the few roads that connect Dantewara district with the outside world, cutting down large trees and placing them across the road, and looting and burning cargo lorries that travel through the district. They leave behind posters, banners and pamphlets which hold Mr Sharma responsible for what they allege was a massacre and call for his head. Back in his office, Mr Sharma receives calls from frantic lorry owners who are fearful of transporting their goods through his area and want police protection. With his force already overstretched and undermanned, he declines. As for a possible long-term solution to the problem of villagers turning towards the embrace of violent revolution, Mr Sharma has an unexpected solution. 'My answer is television,' he said. 'Once they are exposed to an ideology of the mainstream, they will give up arms.' That may be true, but many villagers, hungry and neglected by a state grappling with a slowing economy and the threat of terrorism, would probably settle for a clinic.