Fifteen people have been arrested and sent to judicial custody in connection with the rape of a minor tribal girl at a residential school in Maharashtra’s Buldhana district. All 15 have been remanded to judicial custody until November 25. Besides the main accused, school sweeper Ittusingh Pawar, those arrested include the chairman and secretary of the school committee, the school’s principal, seven teachers and the sarpanch of the village.
On November 3, the mother of a Class IV student of the government-aided ashramshala Swargiya Nimbaji Kokare Ashramshala, located in Pala village of Buldhana’s Khamgoan tehsil, registered a complaint of rape against Pawar. The ashramshala is meant to provide free stay and education to tribal students. On November 6 and November 9, two more girls came forward to register cases of sexual assault against school staff at the Hivarkhed police station.
Buldhana Superintendent of Police Sanjay Baviskar said, “Till now, the police has arrested 15, including the headmaster, chairman, trustees and other staffers of the school. We have received one formal complaint of rape against the school sweeper Ittusingh Pawar. Though there are speculations that more girls must have raped, we want parents to come forward with information. As of now no other girl has come forward. We have arrested Pawar for rape and relevant sections of Protection of Children Sexual Offences Act (POCSO).”
“To hide information of sexual harassment of children is also considered a crime under the POCSO Act. Hence we have invoked relevant sections against these accused,” Baviskar added in reference to the arrest of several school authorities, including headmaster Digambar Kharat and chairman Gajanan Kokare.
Meanwhile, Maharashtra director general of police Satish Mathur has constituted a special investigation team led by IPS officer Shweta Khedekar to investigate the case.
The incident first came to light when the first girl, at home for the Diwali holidays, complained to her mother that she was having stomach pains. During a medical test, it was discovered that she was sexually assaulted, after which the girl revealed to her mother that Pawar had raped her in the school dormitory on multiple occasions before the Diwali vacations began. When the girl complained to Kharat, her school principal, about the assault, he asked her to keep mum. After this, the girl’s mother filed a FIR at the Hivarkhed police station with the help of a social activist.
According to the police, Pawar is not on the school payroll. They say it was the village sarpanch who would send Pawar to work instead of going there himself. Pawar would enter the girls’ dormitory under the pretext of cleaning the rooms. Pawar allegedly brought more than 50 tribal students to enrol in the school and was thus had access to the hostel.
The police say the girl has said five other girls had also been raped but only two others have come forward to register official complaints. According to a social activist, “tribal girls do not get food to eat at their houses due to the extreme poverty they live in. The ashramshala provides them an opportunity to get a place to stay, have food and also study free of cost. To come forward with a complaint is like losing the opportunity to stay at the hostel forever”.
There have also been rumours that incidents of sexual harassment have been happening for a while at this ashramshala, which is run by an ex-MLA. In fact, some tribals reportedly withdrew the admissions of their daughters from the school after finding out about this.
After the incident came to light, some tribals attempted to obstruct in the way of Vishnu Sawra, tribal development minister, during his visit the school on November 3. Sawra promised that the case would be investigated and charge sheeted within 30 days, and that it would be tried in a fast-track court.
However, he made a stoked controversy when responding to questions from the media about the rape. He allegedly said “such incidents do happen”.
Meanwhile, the tribal development ministry has swung into action. Rajgopal Deora, state secretary of the department told The Wire, “We have derecognised the school and all employees, including teachers and other staffers, have been suspended. Some have been arrested. All 400 students will be accommodated in nearby ashramshalas. ”
Rajiv Jadhav, commissioner of Nashik’s tribal development department, said, “The ashramshala is private and aided by the government. We have suspended two officers from tribal development department for failing to monitor the schools. They were responsible for protecting students from all type of harm. Soon CCTV cameras will be installed at ashramshalas and professional security guards through outsourcing will be deployed for security of the students at ashramshalas.”
Underlining the seriousness of the matter, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Phadnvis told the media that district-level teams including women officers will be assigned to inspect all state-run and aided ashramshalas from November 15 and will need to submit their reports by November 30. The teams will investigate whether standard operation procedures are being implemented across all schools. If schools are not following the procedure, they will face stern action.
Meanwhile, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has asked the district magistrate to investigate the alleged rapes and submit a report within a week.
According to Buldhana collector Vijay Zade, “The victim has been given out Rs two lakh under the state government’s Manaudharya Scheme. As asked by the chief minister, committees comprising women officers will be formed and sent to inspect all ashramshalas to evaluate the infrastructure and facilities. The teams will interact with girls to know the problems they face. Detailed reports will be made. Besides, based on the suggestions of the team, we will formulate schemes to monitor the schools in future to avoid problems like these.”
There are 556 state-run and 552 government-aided ashramshalas for tribal students in Maharashtra, which have 4.5 lakh students, including over two lakh girl students.