Rights

In a Corner of Bastar, Sexual Assault by the Police Has Not Destroyed the Hope for Justice

An account of first-hand experiences of the growing culture of impunity, procedural delays in filing FIRs and the troubled relation between the state and its people.

Women from Nendra gathered at the Collectorate. Credit: Special arrangement

Women from Nendra gathered at the Collectorate. Credit: Special arrangement

Bijapur (Chhattisgarh): Bastar regularly makes the news. Most often, the stories are of violence and heavy “collateral damage”. The intensity of the brutality often leaves us either disturbed, surprised, sad or more often just indifferent. None of this gives us a real sense of the daily violence nor of the daily struggle in Bastar.

Even small violent episodes that are separated by months or years have an impact that is felt by its people everyday. This everydayness of the violence changes the relationship between the state and the people; the people are no longer the citizens of the state and the state is no longer the people’s government.

This is a truth that slowly grows on you when you visit Bastar. Yet, many women and men walk several kilometres – some carrying their children along – to arrive at courts and police thanas, knocking on their doors repeatedly to get the cases of assaults on them and their families recorded and heard.

A few weeks ago, a friend and I visited Bijapur in Chhattisgarh. My friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, is a member of Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS), a group that works on women’s issues and police brutality in the Bastar region. We had gone to follow up on the discoveries made by a joint fact-finding team with members from the WSS and the Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisations on the January 2016 rape and sexual assault of at least 13 women from the village of Nendra.

After a lot of pressure and effort, the police had finally registered an FIR in the case, with July 31 set as the court date for four of the rape survivors who were to deliver their statements and narrate the incidents of violence to the court.

We arrived in Bijapur by bus on the morning of July 31 and were at the court by 9:30 am. Within ten minutes of us reaching the court, my friend received a message from a journalist friend – who was not in Bijapur at the time – that read, “Heard you have landed in Bijapur!” Information sure travels fast in Bastar.

Any young (or old) man with a smartphone could be an informant in Bijapur. Here, the arms of the state extend beyond those in uniforms. Many of these men sat on their bikes near the court while we were waiting for the women from Nendra to arrive.

My friend was walking around and making phone calls to lawyers and others while I sat inside the court with our bags. While making calls, she noticed that the men were taking photos of her. When she confronted them about it, they said, “Sorry ma’am, humko karna padta hai (we have to do it)”. “The thing is that you know they are not perverts, but informants,” she told me.

We came across a local lawyer that evening and were talking to him about how the bayan (statements) went. At some point, the lawyer’s brother arrived, parked his bike right next to us and began fiddling with his phone. Noticing the lawyer’s sudden hesitance to speak, my friend asked him if his brother could be recording us. The lawyer told her that it was a possibility. When she asked for his phone to see if he had any photos or recordings, she found that while there were no recordings of this particular conversation, a WhatsApp group had some photos of her last visit to Bijapur.

At the court we learnt that the Nendra case had been transferred to the Crime Investigation Department (CID). The women had come previously for their bayan, but could not give them because the police diary had not been presented. CID officer Rajesh Sharma assured us that the diary was present this time, even though it is not needed for the bayan.

Unfortunately, the court date coincided with a bandh that had been called by the Naxals. Any government vehicle or bus that ran in the areas of the bandh would be burnt, a lawyer told me. But a few buses and vehicles in some of the routes were still running, so we waited for the women to arrive. While we waited, some lawyers and others in the court insisted that since the buses were not running, the women would likely not come.

One of them said, “We should wait till two in the afternoon.” Finally, at around 1:30 pm, someone who was accompanying the women managed to get through to the lawyer, who then contacted us. The women were waiting at a village that was an hour-and-a-half away by car. The court and the CID refused to arrange a car to bring the women as using a government vehicle in those areas during a bandh is considered a security risk. Finally, after some frantic phone calls, we managed to hire a Bolero to bring the women to the court.

The women were nervous when they arrived. One of them could not come because she was suffering from chicken pox. The first bayan began at around 4 pm. When she came back to meet the others who had gathered outside the court, we saw that she had was shaking a little. When the court had asked her where she had first filed the complaint, she said that she had given it at the office of the superintendent of police, although it was actually given at the office of the collector. “It is a difficult word to pronounce,” said one of them in Gondi.

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The deeper one goes into the forests of Bastar, the more rapidly the presence of the state decreases. The state compensates for the lack of schools, hospitals and ration shops by increasing its brutality. Every 10-15 kms down a road from Bijapur, there are at least two-three security camps.

The three testimonies finally finished around five or six in the evening. Giving the testimonies is one thing, but going back through the police camps knowing that the police know of the testimonies – information travels fast in Bastar – is another.

Often the police thanas (station) and police camps are either combined or exist right next to each other. This banal sounding fact is important to understand the political geography of the land. For the victims of police brutality in a conflict zone like Bastar, the police camps are enemy territory. This is where the people are taken to be beaten or killed. When such a camp is situated right next to a thana – often in the same compound, which is technically a space for citizens to register their complaints and hope for redressal – the meaning of the space changes entirely.

In an area where the police regularly performs not “its duty,” but “area-domination exercises,” and “search and comb operations,” the relation between the people and the state is very different. Most people in such a territory do not deal with “their state” and neither does the state deal with “its citizens”

One can get a sense of why the relations between the police and the people is so troubled from the testimonies of the women who were raped. These are statements that are given to the sub-divisional magistrate by the women.

“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.”

“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…”

“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.”

The testimonies also revealed how policemen squeezed the breasts of the women who were raped or assaulted in order to determine if they were lactating. If the woman was found not to be breast-feeding, then she was assumed to be a part of the Maoist cadre.

Bela Bhatia, an activist based in Jagdalpur, Chhattisgarh, writes, “Rape is not uncommon. But when it becomes too common, it is time to wonder if there is a method to the violent madness.” In Kunna, a village in Sukma district, “women were first stripped and then dragged to the school ground”.

A hand pump broken by security forces in Korcholi. Credit: Special arrangement

A hand pump broken by security forces in Korcholi. Credit: Special arrangement

The threats of making the women relive the days of the Salwa Judum also show that these are not exceptional cases of violence or the doings of a few perverts. It is difficult to believe that these instances are not a part of what the police calls “area domination exercises”. Bhatia says, “rape is being used as an instrument of terror, as [a] part of counter-insurgency ops”. But in their accounts, the women describe not only rape, but also several other forms of violence, which include damage to property. There have been several reports of security forces breaking hand pumps to deprive the villages of the supply of water.

Over the last year, cases of looting and violence have come from three villages in south Chhattisgarh. The earliest report was from Peddagellur, then from Kunna and Nendra. What are called gashts of anything between 200 and 500 armed police and paramilitary personnel go into the forests and camp in different places. As soon as they are near the villages, the men flee, because in all probability, they will either be shot or picked up and taken to the camp or thana to be beaten up. The women, on the other hand, stay to protect their homes and children.

In her article in Outlook, The Pegdapalli Files, Bhatia tells us, “Troopers say the men run away to the jungles when combing ops are on. They take it as a sign of their guilt. In Kunna, the men stayed, and were beaten.” Ten days after the incident in Nendra, Yashwant Kumar, the then collector of Bijapur, asked a 15-year-old victim, “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]?”

While the women from Nendra have managed to register an FIR, those from Korcholi continue go from one official door to another, without getting much in return. This is despite the assurance given to a high level fact-finding team comprising former BSF director general E.N. Rammohan.

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A WSS report titled ‘No Strangers to Violence: More stories of rape and looting in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district’ on Korcholi tells us that it is a small village of less than hundred households. They shuffle between doing migratory labour in the chilly fields of Andhra and Telangana between February and March, subsistence farming, plucking tendu leaves in the summer and breeding chickens and goats for sale in the weekly market. The closest primary health centre, public distribution shop and primary school are at least at a 10 km-distance from the village.

The first reported case of police violence in the village occurred in November where Sukku Kunjam, a young man from the neighbouring village of Itavar, was shot in a fake encounter. He was harvesting paddy when the forces entered the village. He managed to make his way to Korcholi, where, as villagers narrate, he was surrounded by the troops and shot. According to the report, a young girl from Korcholi, Mangli Pottam, was harassed during the same search operation.

The forces returned again in January and continued their work. In one incident, three young girls were sexually harassed. In another, a young mother was raped. In her testimony, the rape survivor said, “They dragged me into a forested patch and hurled me to the ground. I repeatedly asked them to let go of me since my young child was crying. Instead, one member of the police and security forces dragged me. There were two others who held me down. Two of them then took turns to rape me.”

Sunita and Munni working on the PIL. Credit: Special arrangement

Sunita and Munni. Credit: By special arrangement

The WSS report says, “The rape was witnessed by two women from the village, who reported it when they returned. Each time a team has visited the area in the last few months, new instances of sexual violence have come to light. Since such fact-finding visits do not cover extensive areas, we are led to believe that there are many other instances of sexual violence that get buried in silence”.

Since May, young women from the village, including the rape survivor, have made several trips to Gangalur and Bijapur. On the morning of August 1 we left for the Gangalur thana where four women from Korcholi were to give their statements. The women were accompanied by two others, Sunita and Munni, who were from the same village. A few days ago my friend told me that Sunita and Munni have managed to file a PIL in the high court regarding six encounters.

Roads are a major zone of conflict in Bastar. They are brought in with the rhetoric of development and progress. In an interview to Scroll.in, Prakash Thakur, president of the Sarva Adivasi Samaj, said,  “All one sees in the name of development are road construction activities dotted with security force camps”. Schools, hospitals and other infrastructure are missing. There were two police camps on the way from Bijapur to Gangalur. Teams of policemen along the way were busy cutting trees in the forests that banked the roads in order to ensure that the Naxals couldn’t hide.

Those of us who have been to a police thana in Delhi or elsewhere know that entering one is the right of every citizen. However, things are different in Bastar. To begin with, the thana and the CRPF camp in Gangalur were right opposite each other. One cannot just walk into a police thana. You will be stopped at the gate and asked for your name, after which your name will be conveyed to the police in-charge. You can enter only after his or her approval.

The in-charge was expecting us, so we were let in. A WSS team had been there before when the thana refused to take the statements. We were seated under a tree, given lal chai and our names were noted down one by one on a piece of paper. None of the women who had come to the thana were older than 24. The youngest, and perhaps the most fierce, was 14 and the other two were certainly below twenty. To make the women feel comfortable, a friend from the WSS was able to get one of the women to sit near the room in which the bayans were being taken.

It had been raining, so we had to move to a little round hut. Once all the women came back, the policeman who took the bayan had a satisfied look on his face. “The bayan did not go so badly for them,” my friend told me. The strategy of the police is to paint the complaints as a conspiracy by Maoists and their sympathisers to malign the police. As the women could not write, they narrated their complaints and the shikayats (official complaints) were written by the members of WSS. All the police has to do was make the victims claim that they did not write or sign the letters of complaint. My friend from the WSS then insisted that when a complaint of rape (a cognisable offence) was made, the official procedure was to immediately file an FIR.

It is clear that when it comes to women, their alleged involvement with the insurgency is proved not by solid evidence, but by their lack of submission to patriarchal norms. Not a mother, must be a Naxal. Talks too confidently, must be a Naxal.

“I can’t tell you what they have said in the statement, but two of them have denied having written or signed the shikayats. We are not sure about some facts, more investigation needs to be done,” said station house officer Abdul Sameer.

“But two others had not and the complaint of rape had been made in the bayan, so you must file an FIR,” said my friend from the WSS.

This conversation went back and forth, and tempers were about to rise when a sense of helplessness brought them down.

“You know this is what the procedure is, I don’t need to tell you. You know the law better than I do,” my friend said.

“Yes, I do. And I know other things better than you do as well,” Sameer said.

Whether he was just lashing out at a woman who was challenging his power or whether he was hinting at his own limitations, one may never know. “Nobody in a small thana like Gangalur can just file an FIR. There is no way,” my friend said.

Getting an FIR filed, that too against the police, is almost an impossible task in Bijapur. Having failed to convince the police, the team working on the Nendra case met the collector to ask him to pressurise the police to file an FIR. Abhishek Kumar Singh, the CEO of Bijapur Zilla Panchayat, was present at the meeting and apart from interrupting us with a laugh, he told the team that the FIR could not be filed as this was a matter of national security.

Woman from Nendra at the Collectorate. Credit: Special arrangement

Woman from Nendra at the Collectorate. Credit: Special arrangement

The bureaucracy in south Chhattisgarh has created a procedure to delay FIRs. They take testimonies from the victims to pretend that something is being done about the case, but they refuse to file an FIR. Both in the Gangalur thana as well as with the Nendra case, the police claimed that it must investigate the matter before filing the FIR. In the case of Nendra, when the law was cited to Sahu, the deputy superintendent of police of Bairamgarh, he agreed with the law but told the team that his superiors were out of town and he needed their permission to file the FIR.

A police official in Bijapur told the team, “In Bijapur, there are no thana in-charges. There is only one thana in-charge and that is the SP himself.” When the team confronted the SP, he apparently said, “I have discussed it with my seniors… I will not give the order to file an FIR”. What finally pushed the SP to file it was not necessarily the media pressure that was building, but a visit from members of the National Commission of Women (NCW). The team writes, “An FIR was finally filed just before midnight – four full days after the women of Nendra had traveled to Bijapur to register a complaint.” If not for the visit of the NCW, it is possible that the FIR would have been further delayed, if at all filed.

When the National Commission for Schedule Tribes (NCST) visited Bijapur to look into the matter, they too found that “there are delays in the filing of FIRs”. The NCST report states that in many cases the police refused to file an FIR, and when pressured, the police insisted that an investigation was needed before the FIR could be filed.

Once we were outside the thana, the women began to discuss how the bayans had gone. One of the women had, due to fear, denied having signed or written the shikayats. When another one of them was asked whether it was the police or the Naxals who attacked and raped her, she hesitated for awhile and was not able to say anything.

Women from Nendra gathered at the Collectorate. Credit: Special arrangement

Women from Nendra gathered at the Collectorate. Credit: Special arrangement

It is important to understand that for many of these women, going to a police thana is not just about going there but almost equivalent to entering enemy territory, particularly when the thana stands right opposite a police camp. Where sexual violence is used as a strategy, antagonism is not against those individuals who perpetrated the crime, but against all those who wear the uniform. Both the police and the women know that the complaint and the statements that are given are not against individual policemen, but against the police presence in that area per se. Imagine going to a police station to tell the police that they have raped and looted you and your family.

Yet, two of the women gave strong statements and answered questions with clarity and confidence. They clearly told the police that the shikayat was not written by them (as they don’t know how to write), but was dictated and signed by them. They described the attacks clearly, perhaps all too clearly. The 14-year-old was stopped midway through her testimony and told, “Naxali jaise baat mat karo” (Don’t talk like a Naxal). While the weaker testimonies were recorded in great detail with handwritten notes running nonstop, the stronger testimonies were not given the same respect. For significant portions of the stronger testimonies, the camera was not on and notes were not being taken.

These instances and those of the rapes reveal what the words ‘national security’, ‘anti national’ and ‘Naxal’ mean in this context. The testimonies tell us that women were raped particularly when they resisted the loot of their chickens and rice. The breasts of women were squeezed to see if they bore children. A confident woman was ordered to not talk like a Naxal.

It is clear that when it comes to women, their alleged involvement with the insurgency is proved not by solid evidence, but by their lack of submission to patriarchal norms. Not a mother, must be a Naxal. Talks too confidently, must be a Naxal.

Given the way women are treated, one wonders what makes them go on with this court case – which will probably linger on for awhile due to bureaucratic delays. While some women leave their children behind in the villages to come to the thana or the court, many others bring their children with them. One of the women from an earlier case got tired of giving repeated bayans and running from one government building to the other. She said that giving the statements again and again is worse than what had actually happened to her.

While one can’t escape seeing all of this in Bastar, one does see and sense a lot more than merely the intensity of brutal violence and impunity. One can sense, almost immediately, an intense comradery amongst the women. It is difficult to describe the comradery, but this diary of Bijapur will be incomplete without it.

I was sitting next to a policeman in the Gangalur thana when one by one the women went in to give their bayans. Opposite us, my friend from WSS, along with Sunita, Munni and others, cracked jokes and told stories in suspicious whispers. They would whisper into each other’s ears, but laugh loudly and often rested their tired heads on the shoulders of one another. Often the policeman would look up at them and then quickly look down into his notepad. On two occasions when they laughed and smiled, the policeman turned towards me to ask, “What are they talking about?” I didn’t know, so I shrugged, feeling a little left out myself. I could see that their camaraderie made him uncomfortable.

When the twin pillars of the anti-insurgency, and police brutality and impunity, destroy all hope, faith begins to construct itself. This faith enacts itself through care, tenderness and affection for each other and those piercing angry looks with which the women often looked at the court and the thana.

In the time we spent waiting for the procedure to move forward at the thana and court, these women often held hands, pinched cheeks, ranted, laughed, told stories, hugged and laughed again. Their hope in the court and in the police may not frighten the agents of the state, but this faith certainly made them uncomfortable.

C.S.R. Shankar holds a masters in history and is interested in politics.