Gang Rape -
As The World Looked On
04 July, 2004
The village of Bhomatola
in Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh derives its name from the adjoining
town of Bhoma. While Bhoma is the name of the town, "Tola"
means a neighbourhood. Hence Bhomatola. There is nothing extraordinary
about the village in order to make national headlines. In fact, the
village might just go unnoticed, as it is half a kilometre away from
the main highway. A signboard indicating the distance to the famous
Kanha National Park is more likely to attract the eye. But recently
Bhomatola made headlines, when three Scheduled Caste women of the same
family were gang raped.
On July 4, a dispute
arose between the dominant Gowli community - an Other Backward Class
(OBC) group - and the largely outnumbered Scheduled Caste community
of Mahars when a Gowli girl, Santoshi Chandravanshi, and a Mahar boy,
Nitesh Kosre, disappeared from the village. (While 125 households in
Bhomatola belong to Gowlis, 13 are occupied by members of other castes,
which include a handful of Dalit families and a Brahmin household.)
When they did not return it was assumed that the two had eloped, as
the young couple knew each other well. Santoshi was apparently a frequent
visitor to the Kosre household.
Matters took a difficult
turn when the Gowlis demanded that the girl be returned to them by the
Kosre family. They also filed a complaint at the Kanhiwada police station,
under whose jurisdiction Bhomatola falls. On July 6, a meeting of Gowli
caste members told Goverdhan Kosre, the boy's uncle, that the girl had
to be returned to them. He was warned that otherwise the consequences
would be disastrous. Kosre, who is the Panchayat Samiti secretary and
the kotwar (a village-level government official who keeps the records
of births and deaths and is responsible for informing the administration
of any important developments), informed the Kanhiwada police station
about the threat. D. Sreenivasa Rao, the Superintendent of Police (S.P.),
Seoni, told Frontline that had the Kanhiwada Station House Officer (SHO)
known that Kosre's nephew had also gone missing, they would have assessed
the gravity of the situation. "People go missing every now and
then. It does not lead to anything serious," said Sreenivasa Rao.
Kosre was given
two days to locate the couple. On the night of July 6, he left for Nagpur
where his relatives lived, thinking that the couple might have sought
refuge there. But the two could not be found. On July 8, he informed
the village that he had failed to locate the couple. By then members
of the Gowli community had decided to teach a lesson to the Mahars,
who had "insulted" them. At 8-30 p.m., they held a meeting
and decided to confront the Kosre household. Only the women were present
at home at that time, said Goverdhan Kosre. The men, Nitesh Kosre's
brother Rakesh and father, had gone looking for the couple in the nearby
villages. Gowlis, numbering around 150, according to Radha Bai, wife
of Goverdhan Kosre, broke open the door, and despite pleadings by the
women that the men were on the lookout for the couple, dragged her,
Kaushalya Bai (Nitesh Kosre's mother) and Maya Bai (Rakesh Kosre's wife)
through the streets of Bhomatola. "Everyone, big and small, cheered
and clapped while we were being dragged," said Maya Bai, who was
married into the Kosre household in February. The women were taken behind
the Panchayat Bhawan and gang-raped.
empty tract of land adjacent to the Kosre dwelling was not the spot
where the crime was committed. The Kosres live at one end of the village.
The women, Goverdhan Kosre said, were dragged from one end of the village
to the other, through the lane, with Gowli homes on both sides. It had
to be a public spectacle. The intention was apparently more than just
rape. While nine persons sexually assaulted Maya, Radha Bai was raped
by five and Kaushalya Bai by two. All the perpetrators were in the age
group of 22 to 25 and none of them was stopped by the older folk. The
Gowli community participated actively in the operation while the outnumbered
Dalit families could do little but watch helplessly. The traditional
methods of settling village disputes as described in the case study
by the late eminent sociologist M.N. Srinivas in Indian Society through
Personal Writings had evidently undergone a major metamorphosis. Faiz
Ahmed Kidwai, the Seoni District Magistrate, told Frontline that there
was no history of reprisals in the area. The S.P. added that normally
it was observed that villagers settled disputes by imposing fines. "The
idea is to resolve it among themselves. I think, initially, there was
no intention to rape. Perhaps they wanted to humiliate them. We spoke
to the accused who have been arrested. They had been egged on by the
elders," said Sreenivasa Rao.
strict patterns of caste-based segregation existed in the village. "The
girl used to watch television in the boy's house. The SHO should have
been more vigilant after the first missing report was lodged in his
station," said the S.P. The SHO and a head constable have been
suspended. A collective fine has been imposed on the village and a compensation
of Rs.50,000 given to each of the victims.
The gang rape cannot
be seen as a crime against women alone. Its social ramifications are
much more. Was this a factionalised village? In all probability, it
was. The Kosres are relatively well off and they own land. "None
of our women works on the land of the Gowlis," Goverdhan Kosre
said. The Kosre children have all attended school at least up to Class
VIII. The household has a television as well. Unlike other Dalit families
in the village, the Kosres were economically on a par with the Gowlis.
A huge portrait of Dr B.R. Ambedkar hung at the entrance of the house.
Social interaction in the village barring eating from each other's household
was prevalent but dependent on the whims of the Gowlis. Several Gowlis
had attended the marriage of Rakesh Kosre and Maya Bai in February.
A protest by the All India Democratic Women's Association against the
The Gowlis and the
Mahars vote differently. Once supporters of the Congress, the Mahars
have gravitated towards the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Gowli votes are
divided between the Congress and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
The BSP has only a marginal presence in the Mahakaushal region, under
which falls the Lok Sabha constituency of Seoni. In this region, it
was the Gondwana Republican Party, more than the BSP, that damaged the
Congress' prospects in the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections.
According to recent
National Crime Records Bureau data, crimes against Dalits and the Scheduled
Tribes (S.Ts) in Madhya Pradesh increased between 1998 and 2002. In
fact, the highest number of rape cases and atrocities against the S.Ts
has been reported from Madhya Pradesh. As for crimes against Dalits,
Uttar Pradesh tops the list, closely followed by Madhya Pradesh.
The profile of the
perpetrators of the crimes is not clear - whether they are from the
upper rungs of the caste hierarchy or from the more vocal OBCs. But
it has been observed that the Gowlis of Bhomatola and the other OBCs
in the State have been asserting themselves aggressively vis-a-vis Dalits
in the past one and a half decades. They have become the landed gentry
in villages as the twice-born castes have largely moved to the cities
and sold them their lands. They are the new elite in the village.
Badal Saroj, State
secretariat member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said that
political patronage enjoyed by these groups had further emboldened them
to commit crimes against Dalits. "It is strange that the BSP leaders
hardly raise these issues vociferously when it is an attack by the OBCs
on Dalits. They say it is a matter to be resolved between the castes
concerned. They react more strongly when the oppressors are the twice-born
castes," said Badal Saroj.
MEANWHILE, the Uma
Bharati-led BJP government has tried to gain political mileage out of
the Bhomatola issue. The Chief Minister even hinted that it could be
a Congress conspiracy. While Bhomatola comes under the Keolari Assembly
segment represented by Thakur Harbans Singh of the Congress, it falls
under the Seoni Lok Sabha seat represented by the BJP's Nita Pateria.
Both the BJP and the Congress blame each other for the incident. With
hardly anyone to speak up for the Dalits, barring the lone Left party
representative in the Assembly, it was not surprising that two other
incidents of rape involving Dalit women were reported from Damoh district
a few days after the Bhomatala incident.
It is baffling that
a host of parallel inquiries are taking place even as half of the accused
are absconding. While the Seoni police is conducting its own investigation,
Uma Bharati has appointed a delegation led by a woman legislator to
conduct an independent inquiry. The State Minorities Commission too
has entered the picture, for the Kosres are Buddhists. Representatives
of the Buddhist Society of India and the Ambedkar Mahila Samiti from
Mandla also came to Seoni and gave a memorandum to the District Magistrate.
In fact, the woman representatives were heard blaming the handful of
Dalit families for having played a passive role. "What could we
have done? They were so many and we were a handful. They would have
done the same thing to us," said Chaandi Bai. Unlike the Kosres
who have land, Chaandi Bai is a bamboo weaver. Kesar Bai, another Dalit
and a widow, works on the land owned by Gowlis. "When they call
us, we go. If they don't then we try to look for other kinds of work,"
Cases have been
registered under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) relating
to gang rape, kidnapping and breaking in as well as under the Scheduled
Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Of the 16
people who have been booked for rape, 11 have been apprehended; 35 others,
who abetted the act, are absconding. However, a CPI(M) fact-finding
committee that visited the village stated that the women had named 65
persons involved in the abetment of the act.
There is little
repentance among the Gowlis. Said Bistobai, a Gowli woman: "Who
knows if the women went on their own or not. We did not hear them shout."
When asked if she justified this form of revenge, she replied that her
caste men had not gained anything from all of this. "They are running
from the law, aren't they? They are reaping the fruits of revenge."
But Bistobai and a Dalit youth Mansa Ram both agreed that the reputation
of the village had been damaged. Sixty-year-old Shyama Bai, an ironsmith
and Dalit, wondered why such an uproar had been made over two young
people running away. "Have not people eloped before?" she
Bhomatola is not
an isolated village. It too is bound to be influenced by social and
economic changes. Panchayati raj elections have created new hierarchies,
which may be unacceptable to the dominant elite. It is to be noted that
Goverdhan Kosre was the Panchayat Samiti secretary.
Social biases are
deep-rooted and they take a criminal turn, as witnessed in Bhomatola,
when the dominant political parties look the other way, especially when
their particular constituencies are not the victims.