Gadchiroli (Maharashtra): Lakshmi wants to become a nurse. Instead, the Dalit student of a women’s nursing college in Gadchiroli finds herself battling its powerful owner-cum-principal whom she has accused of sexual and verbal abuse.
She is among 30 women students who have submitted a written complaint to the local superintendent of police (SP), citing numerous instances of abuse.
The students, mostly Dalit and tribal women, have told the police that the owner, Dr Promod Salve, touched them inappropriately and threatened them – usually by saying that they would be killed or their careers ruined – if they complained.
The owner of the Dr. Salve Nursing College in Chatgaon village in the Maoist-dominated Dhanora block, 17 kilometres from Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, wields considerable power in the area. A married man in his fifties, he is now out on bail but his whereabouts are not known.
Gadchiroli is a district with a long and documented history of abuse of tribal communities by local landlords and the timber mafia. A part of the so called ‘Red Corridor’ that runs through a swathe of India starting from the Western Ghats up to the fringes of the north-east, this area is seen as a hotbed of Left Wing extremism.
The students, from very poor families, are mostly from the troubled region. Their complaints have come to light because of the intervention of Dr Rani Bang, a globally acclaimed community health activist who runs an organisation called Society For Education, Action and Research in Community Health with her husband, Dr Abhbay Bang, in Gadchiroli.
Laksmi, 19, was the first to complain. She told the police that she was summoned by Salve one evening in January this year. She found him drinking alcohol and tried to leave the room, but wasn’t allowed to do so by the principal. He sat close to her while she was asked to fill in a fake attendance register.
Soon, she says, he started touching her body. Though she tried to move away, he continued to touch her, saying that he wanted to have sex with her. Lakshmi says she managed to run out of the room and back to her hostel.
There are many other complaints about Salve. There were no doors to the bathrooms in the hostel and he would walk in while they were having a bath. There was no woman warden; Salve himself stayed in the hostel.
He would also ask the girls to accompany him and others, including journalists and government officials, on picnics, where the students were made to serve and drink alcohol and dance. Gadchiroli, incidentally, is one of the three districts in Vidarbha where alcohol is banned.
Another student, Durga, states that she was once asked to make tea for Salve at midnight. She was told that he was not feeling well. When she went to the kitchen, Salve allegedly pounced on her and molested her till she managed to pull out of his grip and run back to the room which she shared with other students. The next morning, Salve warned her, as he did with Lakshmi, that her life and career would be in danger if she spoke out.
Durga says in her statement that she was so upset by the incident that she tried to kill herself.
Apart from the physical abuse, the students face other problems, too. Classes are not held, teachers are absent, and though the students pay Rs 1 lakh as fees every year, they have been given no receipts. Most of the students can ill afford the fees. They complain that they had to pretend they were patients or doctors during visits of inspection committees.
The students also allege that the principal would often hurled caste-based verbal abuses at them. They were made to clean toilets and drains, and told that they had to do so because they were Dalits. If they refused, they were threatened with failure in examinations, the women say.
Finally, the students decided that they were not going to take it anymore. On February 15, they travelled some 700 kilometres to Nashik to meet the registrar of the Maharashtra University of Health Sciences. But they hold that they were not given a proper hearing and had to return disappointed. The registrar, despite repeated attempts, did not respond to calls.
When they returned to college, they found that their rooms had been ransacked and their belongings thrown out of the hostel.
Matters came to a head on the night of February 18, when a group of students went to the local police to lodge a report. Earlier in the day, they had been forced to falsely accuse Lakshmi of ragging them at a press meet in Gadchiroli’s hotel Vaibhav. An attempt was made to malign Lakshmi because she had spoken out about Salve’s sexual assault, they say.
Convinced that the local police station was in cahoots with Salve, the students went directly to the SP, Abhinav Deshmukh, who left on an official tour after asking his subordinates to register their FIRs. But the students discovered to their dismay that the police in Gadchiroli, too, were uncooperative and reluctant to take down their complaints. They were sent back after one incomplete FIR was registered.
That was when the students approached Dr Rani Bang, who sought the SP’s intervention, and the FIRs were finally lodged.
But, Dr Bang states, Salve wields such power that even after sitting at the police station from the afternoon till well past midnight on February 19, the FIRs don’t mention the applicable sections for molestation under the IPC.
“However, because of the SP’s intervention, we did manage to get the SC/ST Act sections and the fraud sections included in the other FIRs,” she says. In all, five FIRs were registered. Salve was given bail for the first FIR which was registered without the inclusion of non-bailable sections under the SC/ST Act.
The Bangs have also written to the National Commission of Women about the allegations.
Deshmukh stresses in a telephonic conversation that “necessary action” is being taken. “Dr Salve got bail in the first FIR but he will be arrested.” On being asked about the sections for molestation not being present in the new FIRs, he replied, “I am busy with the zilla parishad elections. For more information you can talk to my PRO.”
The SP, on the request of the students, dispatched a police squad to the college to retrieve the original copies of their class XII mark-sheets and other documents, but the papers could not be found. The students fear that that they will be forced to withdraw the case by Salve in return for their documents.
Lakshmi, who was the first to complain about Salve to the police, is now resigned to the fact that her family’s hard earned money and her two years have been wasted, and that she may never be able to join another nursing college again. But the students are determined that they are not going to let Salve get away. We only wish for justice, they say.
Speaking to The Wire, National Commission for Women chief Lalitha Kumaramangalam said, “We have taken cognisance of the case. I have written to the health secretary of Maharashtra asking what action has been taken and to revert immediately. We have also asked for an action-taken report from the district authorities. Will decide whether to conduct an inquiry based on the action-taken report.”
Note: This report was updated to add the NCW’s response.
The report is based on FIRs and testimonies of the students, whose names have been changed
Valay Singh is a Delhi-based writer and photographer