Rape And Sexual Violence Against Adivasi Women Continue In Chhattisgarh
By Women Against Sexual Violence And State Repression (WSS)
21 February, 2016
Security forces continue to unleash indescribable sexual violence against Adivasi women, including rape and molestation, in the name of anti-naxal combing operation in Chatisgarh. We are publishing two fact finding reports done by Women Against Sexual Violence And State Repression (WSS) in two different parts of Chhattisgarh. "Nendra held captive by State Forces" describes loot and plunder, sexual violence, rapes, and physical assault between the 11th and 14th of January 2016 in Nendra, a village in the Usur Block of Bijapur District. The second report "The Violent Truth of Anti-Naxal Operations in South Chhattisgarh (The case of villages on the border of Sukma and Dantewada) " follows the same pattern of violence but describes a bizarre incident when women's "breasts were squeezed and nipples pinched with the assumption that if they were not lactating mothers, they would be Naxalites. When a woman was not lactating, she was taunted saying that they could help her conceive"
At the end of October 2015, a nation-wide team of women’s groups traveled to South Chhattisgarh to look into reports of harassment of women human-rights defenders, the arrests of local journalists and news of fake encounters. What we found was far more devastating than we had imagined. As a matter of chance, the group met with women from Peddagellur and surrounding villages of the Basaguda thana area, Bijapur district, while they were returning from the weekly market.
The women reported that during a search and combing operation conducted in their villages between the 19th-24th of October, several women, including a 13-year-old girl and a four-month pregnant woman, were raped, molested and beaten. Food rations and poultry were looted, insults hurled, homes wrecked and property destroyed. The women travelled to Bijapur district headquarters and after days of gruelling testimonies, were able to lodge the first ever FIR against rape by security forces. The issue was then taken up by the media, the local Congress party and other rights groups. Despite investigations and reports by independent fact-finding teams and various media outlets, no action has been taken.
Troubled by the inaction and several new reports of encounters with alleged Naxals and killings in the area, another group of rights organisations visited Bijapur in January 2016. With a chilling sense of deja vu for what had happened in Peddagellur and surrounding areas, we learnt of what happened in Kunna, Sukma and Bellam-Lendra (Nendra), Bijapur between the 11th-14th of January, 2016. The similarity in the scale and nature of violence made it all seem like a recurrent nightmare.
Rapes and Sexual Violence – an Integral Part of Search and Combing Operations?
"When I tried to stop them from taking my chickens, they dragged me into my house. One of them pinned my legs to the ground, another my shoulders, while the third sat on me and raped me”
Sexual violence has defined the grammar of warfare for centuries. But in the 21st century, when a nation has walked the streets protesting against the culture of rape, resulting in the amendment of the laws that govern sexual violence, how is it that the State repeatedly uses rape as a tool to “lay siege” and spread terror unchecked - and gets away with it?
Between the 11th-14th of January, 2016, five batches of police and security forces entered the village of Bellam-Lendra (known as Nendra) in the Basaguda thana area of Bijapur district, Chhattisgarh. The forces blindly fired a round of bullets into the surrounding hills. The men of the village and its surrounding paras fled. Making their way from the hills into the village, the police and security forces invaded people’s homes – they caught their chickens, took their rations, and cooked their food in their vessels. The ones who protested had it worse.
“They took four kilos of rice from my home and promised to pay me. They also took four chickens. We sell chickens to buy clothes. When I told them this and asked them for money for the rice they took, they threw a fishing net over my face and pushed me into my house. They took off my clothes and threw them away. They even held my breasts. One of them held my legs down, another my shoulders. A third raped me. When I screamed for help, my mother-in-law came running in and began hitting the man sitting on top of me. That's when they wore their clothes and ran” said one of the women.
The police and security personnel asked another woman where the men of the village had gone to and why they had run. When she responded saying the men run because they fear what the forces would do to them, she was held by two men and taken into her house. “They threw me on the floor. They took off my clothes, tore my blouse and squeezed my breasts. One of them raped me and said “You give food to the Naxals. We will set fire to your homes. You're lucky it's daytime. If it was night, we would kill you.” My two children held me and began crying. That's when they let go of me and threatened me not to tell anyone what they had done. They took my chickens and left.”
Sitting at the Collector's office ten days after the incident, the fifteen-year-old school girl who had accompanied the women as a translator was posed the same question by the Collector himself. When he asked her why the men ran, she gave him the same answer – they feared being shot or picked up. In response, of the women who stayed to protect their homes and children, he asked “If the men run away to the forests and other places fearing violence and arrests, why don’t the women also run when they know they can be treated in this way (raped)?” Was it evil rhetoric or naïve ignorance that prompted the question? We would never know, I suppose.
Back in Nendra, women from the neighbouring para, Gotum, share similar stories.
“I was working in the fields when they came. Four policemen took me and my mother-in-law to my house. I recognised two of them – one of them is from a village nearby. They used to work for the Naxals, but they were now in police uniform. They chased my mother-in-law away, and tied a cloth to my face. One of the men held my legs down, another my shoulders, and another policeman raped me. I screamed and screamed, but they didn't listen. After raping me they threatened me and told me to keep my mouth shut. They said they'd shoot me the next time they come if I told anyone what they had done. My breasts and private parts still hurt. I also have difficulty walking...”
Another woman from Gotumpara was in the vegetable patch behind her house when two men stealthily approached her from behind. “They covered my face with a black cloth and pushed me to the ground. One of them held my chest down. The other raped me. They pressed my legs down with their shoes...Later, when we approached them at the boring well and asked them why they did such things, they told us not to falsely accuse them. They said they would do again what they did to us during the time of Salwa Judum. They also threatened to burn our houses with us and our children inside.”
These are only a fraction of the testimonies that women gave to the police and the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) when 12 of them traveled to Bijapur District headquarters with the fact-finding team. 8 of the women were rape survivors themselves. The testimonies attest to several other rapes – at least 13 in all. There were several other instances of verbal sexual abuse and molestation. Many others were threatened and physically assaulted.
At exactly the same time, in the neighbouring district of Sukma, the women of Kunna village, were being subjected to similarly horrific abuse in the police thana at Kukanar,. Many were stripped naked, their breasts squeezed as sexually explicit insults and lewd gestures were made at them. Men from the troops made demands that the women sleep with them, tauntingly asking if they wanted to conceive. The breasts of several women and young girls were squeezed – in a ‘test’ to see whether or not they were lactating. The test for lactation is done with the assumption that if a woman is not a breast-feeding mother, then she is of Maoist cadre.
In one instance, women were first stripped and then dragged to the school ground and paraded in their semi-nude state for over two kilometers until they reached the police vehicles in which they were taken to the security camp. While walking, police and security personnel took turns to touch the women – squeezing their breasts, pinching their nipples, touching their stomachs, backs, and thighs. The women report that the police and security forces laughed mockingly as they did this. From the women's descriptions of the sexual torture that they were subjected to - and the use of phrases like “they sat on top of me” - there is reason to suspect that some women might even have been raped, but are afraid to explicitly say so.
In a matter of four months, this pattern of rapes and looting during search and combing operations has come to light in three different parts of South Chhattisgarh – first in Peddagellur, then simultaneously in Kunna and Nendra. Given the scale and nature of the violence perpetrated, it is hard to believe that the men who committed these crimes are a few evil, misbehaving, deviant individuals; we are only left to assume that the infliction of sexual violence has come to be inextricably linked with the maintenance of law and order and the preservation of ‘national security’. This repeated use of sexual violence makes one wonder if rapes have now become a routine part of the “aggressive intelligence-based operations” that the infamous Inspector General of Police (IG), Bastar range, SRP Kalluri – a man who has been implicated in rape cases himself* – talks about.
[*As SP Sarguja, he was the main accused in the case of rape against a tribal woman, Ledha Bai. She had testified before a magistrate that he also ordered his juniors to continue to gang-rape her every day over the course of the next several days following the encounter. The case was filed by Ledha in 2006, but she was later forced to withdraw it. It is also important to remember that Kalluri was posted out of Bastar after 300 homes in Tadmetla and neighbouring villagers were burnt, people killed, and women raped by security forces in 2011 under his watch. He has now been brought back into the region, even though the Judicial Enquiry into the incident is pending and has not concluded.]
Lawlessness in the Name of National Security: Blatant Refusal to Lodge an FIR
The women, together with the fact-finding team, first met with the Collector to bring his notice to what had happened in Nendra. Given the difficulty in registering an FIR in the Peddagellur case, the team requested the Collector to put pressure on the police to lodge an FIR without further delay. Abhishek Kumar Singh, the CEO of Bijapur Zila Panchayat, sat through the entire meeting with a smirk on his face. He even broke into a laugh every once in a while. When the matter of an FIR was brought up, he said it was a matter of “national security”. Since when did rape – even when the perpetrators are the police themselves – become a matter of national security? The Collector, more cooperative than his CEO, ordered immediate testimonies.
Despite the chilling testimonies recorded by both the police and the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM), the police initially refused to lodge an FIR. When we confronted the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Bairamgarh, Sahu, he said the matter must be investigated before an FIR could be lodged. Section 154 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) makes it mandatory for a police officer to file an FIR on receipt of any information of a cognizable offense such as rape, molestation, or disrobing. Further, no preliminary inquiry is permissible in such a case. By refusing to file an FIR, any public servant may himself be held culpable under Section 166A(c) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). When we cited this law to the DSP, he agreed to lodge an FIR, but when it came to actually filing it, he went back on his word and evasively responded that the police would accept a complaint at that time but not register an FIR, since his seniors were not in town and available for consultation.
Sahu was later joined by the Basaguda Thana-in-charge (TI), Sharad. When the group of activists confronted them about the delay in lodging an FIR, they evaded the issue by talking of Naxalite violence, while the others made phone calls to their superiors. Eventually, the TI exited the Collector’s office through the back gate, unable to come up with reasons for further delay, while the DSP left the matter for lower-ranked officials to deal with as they saw fit. It is clear that, while thana-level officials are granted the power by law to file an FIR in theory, they seem unable and unwilling to do so in actual practice .
When we narrated the refusal of the police to lodge an FIR in our meeting with the Collector, the Collector assured us that he could be trusted, and that he would personally see to it that an FIR was lodged once the Superintendent of Police (SP) was back in town. Earlier that day, a police official in Bijapur had said to us – “In Bijapur, there are no thana-in-charges. There is only one thana-in-charge. And that is the SP himself.” We didn't realise that he wasn't trying to be funny. Two days of gruelling testimonies later, and then another long day of negotiating with officials, there was no sign of the SP or an FIR. When we finally managed to contact the SP by telephone, he said he would first meet with us and then talk about the filing of an FIR. Citing bad weather conditions, he said his helicopter was unable to land that day. By the second phone call, he had flatly refused to order an FIR. “I have discussed it with my seniors... I will not give the order to file an FIR” he said, in no uncertain terms.
On the fourth day, the SP finally called and asked the team to meet with him. By then, the media had already carried reports of the refusal to lodge an FIR, and people had begun calling, texting and emailing the collector, SP and Additional SP about the matter. The SP managed to return the next day, and seeing that a three-member team from the National Commission of Women (NCW) was visiting Bijapur with a view to investigate the Peddagellur sexual violence case the very same day, the SP hurriedly ordered an FIR from the gates of the circuit house, while the rest of the officers made every attempt to prevent the fact-finding team from meeting the NCW delegation. In the end, the team was able to deliver a letter requesting an audience. This put considerable pressure on the authorities.
An FIR was finally filed just before midnight – four full days after the women of Nendra had traveled to Bijapur to register a complaint. On the fifth day, medical examinations were conducted, and the NCW delegation even met with 9 of the women complainants.
Women who had left their children behind had begun to worry for their safety. Sitting on the floor of the Collectorate, exhausted after multiple retellings of the violence she had survived, one woman said she couldn't stay another day – What if the forces come again? Our men will run. What will happen to our children then? she said. Three children who had accompanied their mothers to Bijapur were also taken seriously ill. All three were diagnosed with malaria, which is endemic in the area. It took the doctor less than a minute to diagnose the children, because he had seen it so many times before - and his suspicions were later confirmed by a blood test. Other doctors at the hospital told us that around eight out of any ten children in the region would almost certainly test positive for malaria. As though the violent brutality of what they had been put through was not enough, the women of Nendra were forced to spend five gruelling days recounting their trauma, and negotiating with and testifying before unreceptive, apathetic police authorities and contending with the callousness of bureaucracy, all to register a simple FIR – an FIR that the authorities are required by law to file immediately when a case is brought before them.
Through unwarranted delays and refusals, all the state officials the team encountered, and the police in particular, seemed determined to harass the victims even further. Such blatant disregard for the law compels us to ask which, if any, of the State's own institutions people can turn to with the hope of demanding justice? Are those two grand words – “National Security” – enough to allow for complete lawlessness, or to grant those in positions of power complete impunity?
Pitting People Against People
While a few members of the team were waiting to meet with the NCW delegation, a large mob of about two hundred individuals identifying themselves as victims of Naxal violence had gathered around the circuit house. While representatives from the group presented their grievances to the NCW delegation, others continued shouting slogans demanding that the human rights team leave Bijapur. This carried on for some time, and then the crowd finally dispersed without any major confrontation. However, the next day, when the complainants and the team waited to meet with the NCW delegation, a smaller section of the same mob reappeared at the circuit house. They engaged in a discussion with some of the activists who were part of the team, accusing them of being “Maoist supporters” for taking up issues that pertained to violence by the forces but not violence by the Maoists. Some members of the assembled mob confronted the women directly for registering an FIR against the forces and even threatened them, demanding that they leave Bijapur immediately. This altercation was extremely upsetting and intimidating for the 12 complainants, including the 8 rape survivors.
The group - which included some ex-Salwa Judum members - seemed to have the complete support of the police. They arrived in what appeared to be police vehicles. Their sudden appearance and the ease with which they were let into the fortified thana which is otherwise unapproachable without prior permission also raises questions. More than this, their unrestricted access to the team at all times, without any sort of intervention on the part of the police, indicates prior knowledge of the presence and objectives of the complainants.
The mob followed the team from the meeting with the NCW to the thana (where some paper-work had to be completed for the medical examinations). They also continued to blindly defend the security forces despite the team’s efforts to argue that victims of violence - as some of them claimed to be - should stand together rather than apart.
While some of the discussion was amicable – and a few individuals from the mob and members of the team seemed to see eye-to-eye issues – there were those in the group who began shouting the same slogans in the same antagonistic, threatening tone the moment such civilised dialogue began. It was clear that while some of them were genuine victims troubled by their experiences, others were there with a singular agenda, clearly present as instigators only. This is not the first time we have witnessed such a phenomenon. Time and again, the State and those in power have pitted people against people, driving a wedge between them, and ensuring that they do not stand together. The blind defence of the security forces, the mindless repetition of slogans, the dismissive way in which they declared the women were lying about the rapes, and the repeated suggestions that they would have believed the complainants if their men had accompanied them, made it evident that it wasn't simply a mob that had gathered to stage a spontaneous protest. They appeared to have some prior information about the goings-on in the thana, and given the manner of their arrival, knowledge of the team’s whereabouts, and the unwillingness on the part of the officials present to take any action against the mob, we can only conclude that this information came from the police.
A week after the FIR was filed, the group, together with the Samajik Ekta Manch, went so far as to stage a rally in Bijapur, targetting individual members of the team, and also shouting slogans against Arundhati Roy, who had nothing to do with recent visits to Bijapur. If they have genuine grievances with Naxal violence, then rather than seeking more active protection from the State, why is it that they are targeting rights activists? What could they possibly hope to gain from it? It would serve the police well, however, to begin such a campaign to malign those who dare to question the atrocities they commit.
Even more recently, members of the Samajik Ekta Manch - ostensibly a group of 'concerned citizens' committed to fighting Naxalism which includes ex-Salwa Judum members and relatives of local politicians, landed up at the Jagdalpur home of Malini Subramaniam, a journalist who has been reporting on issues relating to the displacement of adivasis and human rights violations in the area. Members of the group shouted slogans against her, spread rumors that she was involved in supplying arms to the Naxals, pelted stones at her home, and smashed the windshield of her car. They also burnt effigies at a rally earlier the same day and have now released a statement saying that they aim to target the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group – a group of human-rights lawyers – next.
It is important to note that, contrary to the picture being painted by the police and large sections of the mainstream media that tends to pit the local adivasi public against human-rights activists, journalists and lawyers, the adivasi civil society in Chhattisgarh (Adivasi Mahasabha, Sarva Adivasi Samaj) as well as other political parties have been themselves raising concerns over the increasing murders of innocent people masked as encounter killings, and the systematic use of sexual violence as a tool in this war against the Maoist movement.
We must remember, that the most violent phases of this war have been carried out in a similar manner – by groups like the Salwa Judum which too, claimed to be a result of public mobilisation, but enjoyed full support of the State and police (and lest we forget, the Tatas). This has been a tactic of violence – from riots to war – whether in Gujarat, Bombay, Bihar or Chhattisgarh that those in power have invariably resorted to.
It may be relevant here to recall what the Hon’ble Supreme Court said about the Salwa Judum in its judgment. Pursuing policies of using adivasi youth to counter the Naxal movement, the judgement said, would be “tantamount to sowing of suicide pills that could divide and destroy society”(Para 20). In Para 17-18, the Honorable Judges point out that “[r]ecent history is littered with examples of the dangers of armed vigilante groups that operate under the veneer of State patronage or support. Such misguided policies, albeit vehemently and muscularly asserted by some policy makers, are necessarily contrary to the vision and imperatives of our Constitution which demands that the power vested in the State, by the people, be only used for the welfare of the people...” The judgment goes on to say that the use of local adivasi youth in the identification of Maoists or Maoist sympathizers would not only result in the branding of persons unrelated to Maoist activities as Maoists or their sympathizers but would also in turn “almost certainly vitiate the atmosphere in those villages, lead to situations of grave violation of human rights of innocent people, driving even more to take up arms against the state.” (Para 51).
It is telling that IG SRP Kalluri has publicly declared his disagreement with this view and his support of Salwa Judum even recently, claiming that the Hon’ble Supreme Court has been misled by activists.
Despite the Supreme Court ruling on the Salwa Judum, we are witnessing what Nandini Sunder has called the 'return of the Judum'. Explaining the use of this phrase, she writes “In the last one year, however, the Chhattisgarh government has made a concerted effort to revive the Salwa Judum under various names, such as Jan Jagran Abhiyan (the original name of the vigilante group before it was rechristened Salwa Judum), Vikas Sangharsh Samiti, Samajik Ekta Manch and Nagrik Ekta Manch. These groups hold large rallies organized by the police in which Salwa Judum leaders like P. Vijay, Soyam Mooka, Madhukar Rao and others play a prominent role. Several of them face charges of rape and other heinous offences, but are given full police patronage. Vijay was named in an FIR for assaulting Swami Agnivesh but five years on, the CBI is still to give its report on the incident to the Supreme Court. Most recently, these leaders burnt effigies of AAP leader Soni Sori and Bela Bhatia, social scientist and human rights activist, for taking up the rape cases. They have also threatened journalists Malini Subramanian, Kamal Shukla and others for questioning the police version of encounters and surrenders.”
Concerns Regarding Further Investigation
Two days after having personally listened to the women of Peddagellur narrate their experiences of violence, and having seen the wounds on their bodies for themselves in November last year, the ASP (Naxal Operations) and SP were quoted as saying that it was all mere propaganda to slander the forces. Few days later, the Bastar Inspector General of Police (IG) Kalluri repeated their claim, saying it was all done to reduce the morale of the forces. This time, even before the FIR had been filed and investigations initiated, the DSP, Bhairamgarh, and TI, Basaguda, who were present at the Collectorate, were already claiming the very same thing. It is difficult to conceive that there is scope for a fair police inquiry given this evident bias.
Since the women from Nendra had already spent five days in Bijapur having left their homes and children, the police have said that they would travel to the village to record testimonies. However as has happened in the past, investigation conducted in the village is carried out by the police who go there accompanied by a convoy of security forces. Given that the accused are the security forces themselves, it is inconceivable that the survivors of violence will be able to participate in such a process free from fear and intimidation.
It is imperative that investigations be sensitive to the survivors and that they are carried out with care and empathy. Under Section 157 of CrPC, investigations in case of rape must take place at a location of the survivors choosing. Given recent developments such as the presence of the mob that followed the team, we are concerned for the safety of the women and demand that further investigation take place in an atmosphere of security and comfort for the women. They must be assured that they will be free from intimidation from any source – the police or private groups. In addition, we demand that investigation in such cases, and in particular this case, be moved from the accused police to an independent investigating agency, in order to ensure fairness and transparency.
We also call upon both parties – the security forces as well as the Maoists – to ensure an atmosphere in which an independent and neutral investigation is possible.
In Ariel Dorfman's play Death and the Maiden, a woman who was repeatedly raped and tortured in custody during the dictatorship asks her husband, (a human-rights lawyer who has been appointed to the commission to look into crimes perpetrated by the previous regime once the country has transitioned to democracy) - “And then? You hear the relatives of the victims, you denounce the crimes, what happens to the criminals?” “That depends on the judges.” he says. “The courts receive a copy of the evidence and the judges proceed from there to—” Cutting him off, his wife asks “The judges?...Who never accepted a single habeas corpus ever? Judge Peralta who told that poor woman who had come to ask for her missing husband that the man had probably grown tired of her and run off with some other woman? That judge?...”
Reading the play, more than twenty-five years after it was written, one is almost tempted to replace Dorfman's words with “The police?...Who refused to accept an FIR? The policeman who told that poor woman who had come asking for money for her chickens that they would burn her house down with her children in it? That policeman?...”
As Dorfman himself said some years ago: “I'm thrilled that Death and the Maiden has not aged over these 20 years...Thrilled, yes, but it is also sobering to realise that humanity has not managed to learn from the past, that torture has not been abolished, that justice is so rarely served, that censorship prevails, that the hopes of a democratic revolution can be gutted and distorted and warped. I can't help but ask if 20 years from now I will be writing this phrase all over again: this story happened yesterday, but it could well be today.”
In Chhattisgarh, this story did happen yesterday. And five years after Dorfman expressed his fears, it continues to happen today.
Of Malice and Power, Violence and Impunity
Listening closely to reports of violence experienced by the people of Nendra, we note that the language used and the atrocities committed reveal a deep malice that appears to accompany the relish of wielding power. It is particularly disturbing that not only did the troops loot, pillage, and overturn houses in the village, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake – they killed goats that they did not eat, spilled rations that they did not take. They tore up lungis and blankets for which they had no use, making the daily survival of the people of Nendra even more difficult than it already is. Where does this malice come from? What allows it to exist?
“Your men will drop to the ground like falling leaves shaken out of a tree” a woman who traveled to Bijapur to testify was told by a member of the security forces. Other troops threatened to destroy the hand-pumps in the village: “Where will you drink water from then?”. They even made references to the Salwa Judum, threatening people with a repeat of the brutal wave of violence and terror unleashed during that time. As one of the women revealed in her testimony, she was even issued a warning in the name of the Prime Minister: “If Narendra Modi gives us the orders, then we'll burn down your village”, she was told. She had never heard of Narendra Modi before.
Is it the faith of the police and security forces in officials in positions of power that grants them this impunity, this relish of power over the most vulnerable people of our society? Is this what the special training and “better co-ordination” of the forces has resulted in? Is this daring impunity what the IG, S.R.P Kalluri refers to when he speaks of the “morale” of security forces? Is this then, the same morale he accuses the villagers and rights activists of 'reducing' when they bring to light the rapes and looting? Have those in power succeeded in creating such a culture of hatred – a culture in which the capacity for such extreme violence is born, justified and sustained?
In the face of such extreme violence perpetrated by a State that is intolerant of any form of dissent, where and to whom must we turn in search of justice?
Read the two reports here:
Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) is a non funded network of women’s rights, dalit rights, human rights and civil liberties organizations and individuals across India. For more information visit wssnet.org