Khunti (Jharkhand): Marie* was one of five women gang raped near Kochang village in Khunti district of Jharkhand on June 19, 2018. When we met her on July 11, she had just come home after spending 20 days under ‘police protection’. She was the only survivor from the horrific incident who was willing to speak to the press.
For the past two years, Marie, who has an eight-year-old son, has worked for a Khunti-based NGO, performing in a small street theatre group. She earned Rs 300 for each performance.
The police blamed the gang rapes on leaders of the Pathalgadi movement, and since they had taken the women into custody for ‘safe-keeping’, there was no way to challenge this narrative. Pathalgadi is a phenomenon that has recently swept across Adivasi areas in Jharkhand and neighbouring states, in which villagers erect stone slabs on which they inscribe provisions of the constitution. Marie’s own village too has such a stone slab, symbolising the messianic reverence of a document whose promises of empowerment, villagers say, have been repeatedly broken by governments over the years.
In an interview that lasted two hours, Marie described how she and the other women were taken away by their assailants. There were three young men, she said, who were drunk. They spoke Mundari in a dialect from Chaibasa, which is further south of Khunti, and were clearly outsiders to the area. Marie repeatedly described the men as ‘badmaash log‘ (bad characters) but never as ‘Pathalgadi’ supporters or ‘ugravadis‘ (extremists). The only mention of Pathalgadi came when they yelled at the women, “Don’t you know this is a Pathalgadi area?”
Marie believes that they were targeted. The boys first saw the women in the market, and then followed them to the school where they were performing. When they arrived, all the students watching the play rose, visibly disturbed by their presence. Their motorcycles were different, she said. The young men summoned the women from the performing troupe. They knew Marie by name, claiming that she was a ‘leader’. This was around 12:30 pm. “We tried to reason with them but they were drunk. Badmaash log ne bola hum log police ka kaam kar rahe hai (The bad characters said they were working for the police). And it was only when their nasha (intoxication) came down that they let us go.” The girls were released sometime in the evening.
The men were unarmed when they first appeared in the village. It was in the forests, where the gang rape took place, that they had kept their weapons.
The police took Marie for a medical check up the following night. The other four women were taken two days after the incident, on June 21. In her first complaint, Marie says she never mentioned any of the Pathalgadi leaders whose names subsequently figured in the police account of the crime. According to her, she doesn’t know anything about Joseph Purty or Balram Samad (named in the media as the leaders of Pathalgadi). She is, however, related to another Pathalgadi activist, Jonas Tidu. In fact, she had met him in Kochang an hour before the kidnapping.
A day before The Wire met Marie, one of the alleged rapists, Baji Samad alias Takla of the ‘pro-police’ Maoist splinter group, the People’s Liberation Front of India (PLFI), – which has nothing to do with the Pathalgadi movement – had ‘surrendered’ to the police. Marie, who did not know his identity until she recognised him after seeing his photo in the newspapers, told this reporter that he was indeed the gang leader of the rapists.
Jonas Tidu, Marie’s relative, however, was another issue. Marie examined a news item reporting a police statement that he had given the accused money for alcohol. Why would he give them money, she wondered. She only remembers that he was in the village for his own work and disappeared before the ‘badmaash log’ even showed up. Everything she knows about his involvement, she says, comes from the news reports. (Jonas Tidu and Balram Samad have since been arrested in the gang rape case. They apparently ‘confessed’ to inciting the rapists. Before his arrest, however, Tidu had denied to a local reporter on the telephone that he had any hand in the Kochang incident.)
The local press also reported that Father Alphonso Aind of the R.C. Mission school at Kochang had told the women not to report the kidnapping and gang rape to the police. But according to Marie, they had not spoken to him at all after the incident.
She is angry with the Father though, as well as with the local people like the sarpanch, for not sensing the danger from the ‘badmaash log’ and sending them away.
When asked about the way the case was reported in the media, Marie said, “They’ve written what they wanted to based on testimonies provided by the police. They didn’t let us read the newspapers in custody. I saw the matter about Jonas on someone else’s phone. The police came once and showed me his photo and asked if we had any enmity with him, I said no.”
Meanwhile, her parents who were also present at the interview said that the media should not have mixed up the Kochang gangrape with ‘Pathalgadi’. They were vocal about their support for the Pathalgadi movement.
Marie, though, didn’t want to express any of her own feelings and thoughts about Pathalgadi. She spoke freely, without overt fear, but with long pauses. Her longest pause was when she was asked if the police made her sign any blank pages. “Yes,” she said, “five times”. She reiterated this when asked again. And when asked if her rapists knew anything about the ideology of Pathalgadi, Marie was quiet.
Marie said she was never mistreated by the police and was always in the custody of the woman constabulary, while male policemen guarded the outside gate. “It was okay, they kept us away from the media and all.”
“When we went to meet her with her son,” her father interjects, “one policeman was slightly drunk, and said he would arrange a meeting. He took us to another senior. We were kept waiting all evening. When we met, she first asked for clean clothes. We weren’t allowed to speak a lot, the police told us ‘Zyaada baat mat karo (Don’t talk too much)’. They kept her husband in custody also for one day. He stayed with the guards.”
The police also told the rape survivors that compensation money had come into their account. There was some talk of training the women for the home guards, but Marie said that she’d like a permanent job.
The death of Birsa Munda
The supporters of the Pathalgadi movement say that the first martyr of the movement is none other than Birsa Munda. Not figuratively with reference to the historic Adivasi leader, but literally. During a raid on Ghaghra village on June 27, in a complete breakdown on negotiations over the release of three security guards of the veteran politician and former speaker of the Jharkhand assembly Karia Munda, 35-year-old Birsa Munda from Chamri village was shot dead by the police.
Two years ago, Birsa Munda’s second wife Karmiki had gone into labour and was ‘referred out’ of Khunti’s Sadar Hospital at midnight. On the way to a private hospital, her child was stillborn. Karmiki died a day later. Birsa started to support the Pathalgadi movement a few months afterwards. He would migrate to Bangalore to drive heavy vehicles for a construction company, and return home during the harvest season. “The roof of this house was built by the money he earned in Bangalore,” said his sister-in-law, Sukru Tuti. “His first wife left him, his second wife and their child died. He used to look after us, his brother’s family, and we were trying to find him another wife.”
Birsa’s village, Chamri, like over 80 villages in the region, has a pathal or stone. Chamri claims to be among the first Pathalgadi villages, along with Marandih, Charidih and Bhandara. All these villages installed their stones on the same day over two years ago.
Sukru told us: “He was missing for two days. We didn’t know he was shot dead until two days later. …The police sent his body, they didn’t tell us anything about what happened to him, they didn’t ask us anything. We saw a wound on his head, and nothing else, he was wrapped in plastic. It was the villagers of Ghaghra who told us he was beaten and then shot.”
The Ghaghra version of events
Meanwhile, the village of Ghaghra is still in hiding. When we visited, there was no one around other than a lone teacher standing before the primary school. She had been coming every day since the incident, but there hasn’t been a single student attending school. The Pathalgadi site was strewn with garbage: paper plates, biscuit packets, plastic cups, apparently all from the police party that raided the village on June 27. A little bit ahead, there were dozens of smashed and broken plastic chairs. Ghaghra is over 50 km from Kochang.
After waiting about an hour in the desolate village, young men began to appear and politely asked us journalists why we had come. They had gathered the courage to return after opposition political parties visited Ghaghra.
Only after clear promises that no names would be taken and no photos, the youth began to speak about what happened.
They had conducted a Pathalgadi or stone installation on June 26. “On the 26th, we were moving around villages meeting people. In Charidih village, the police caught us and didn’t let us go. They told us to go back and threatened us. We didn’t know what we did wrong, we were just going, but they lathi-charged us. Some of us ran, and they took our injured.”
“Why did they beat our people? After that, hum ko bhi gussa tha (we were also angry), so we went to Karia Munda’s house to talk to him. We didn’t find him, but we met his guards, and spoke to them: ‘Bhai (brother), some police have entered (our villages)’. Whatever we had to say, (we decided) we might as well speak in the sabha (meeting), so we took the guards with us. The administration came much later and we kept saying, ‘You took our people, come take yours, and whoever is injured, there should be treatment and investigation.’ All the guards were also Mundas. They were there all night, so were we. In the morning we asked for five of the police officers to come and meet us but they didn’t come. Instead they kept asking us to come to them.”
Another young man said: “Until you come and speak to the villagers, how can you decide anything? We got the guards here simply so that the administration would come and speak to us. Why is it so difficult for them to talk to us?”
It was then (on June 27) that the police attacked the village. The kidnapped guards were released safely on June 29. “Stop all this Pathalgadi, or we will shoot you,” is what one policeman reportedly said. “They beat up our women, and people are still missing after the day of the event,” said another man.
As for the gang rape, the youth were clear it had nothing to do with Pathalgadi: “They are taking innocent people into the gang rape case and the police administration knows what the case is, they know what happened in Kochang, they should go there. Why are they coming to our programme? They wanted to shut our programme down.”
“What would you like to tell the people of this country about Pathalgadi?”
“We wanted to do the Pathalgadi programme peacefully, without confrontation or fighting with anyone. We wanted to erect a stone on the basis of our Adivasi parampara (custom). Our aim is simply to inform people, to educate them about Adivasi customs. Why does the state have a problem with that? Pathalgadi is our culture.”
“We want to tell them that this is how our law is. The law for Adivasis is completely different from that for others.” (This is indeed the case according to the Fifth Schedule of the constitution). “And everything should work according to law. The Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act (CNTA) has been there from 1908.” (The BJP government in Jharkhand has been trying to amend the tenancy act to make it easier for others to acquire Adivasi land.)
One middle-aged woman who joined the conversation said: “The police say Balram and Yunus are the masterminds of Pathalgadi, but no one really knows how this idea started. Today there are people who are only metric pass, young students, who are all reading the constitution. They say we are vikasvirodhi (against development), if we were so, wouldn’t we have shut down the schools and hospitals?”
Returning to Birsa Munda in Ghaghra
When we asked what happened to Birsa Munda, a man disappeared for a while and returned with a biscuit wrapper with three mid-range rifle calibre shells. “He wasn’t just shot once in the head as his family said, but thrice,” said one of the witnesses to the incident.
Two other witnesses from two other villages came forward on the promise that their identities would not be revealed. There are already dozens of sedition cases against the leaders and supporters of the Pathalgadi movement. One of the witnesses is a woman who said the police opened fire with live ammunition and that bullets flew over her head. The other witness is a man who was shot in the leg. He is a trained medical professional who operated on himself: “When I was shot I fell unconscious and two women took me away from the police. The next day I gave myself an anaesthetic and took the bullet out of my leg with a scissor. My brother helped me.”
This witness said, “Birsa Munda was right in front of me when he was shot. Koi hisaab nahi hai kitna goli fire kiya (There is no account of how many bullets were fired).”
The road to Kochang through Arki block has a motorcycle or two parked every 50 metres. There are armed policemen standing everywhere in the thick foliage of the monsoon forest – either Jharkhand Armed Police, Jharkhand Jaguars or CRPF. In the deep jungle you will find an anti-landmine vehicle, or an entire platoon, or groups of four-five armed motorcyclists, or the construction of a new camp, or dozens of policemen off-duty trying to procure drinking water. If you travel two hours through Arki block you will see a man with an assault rifle and an under-barrel grenade launcher every five minutes. There are an estimated thousand or more armed personnel in the entire region. The ostensible rationale is the heinous gang rape, which the police are bent on connecting to the Pathalgadi movement.
Kalyan Singh Munda is a 28-eight-year old gram sevak at Kurunga Gram Sabha, close to Kochang. He feels the new police camp may help to build a road through his village and that a ‘block’ might bring ‘development.’ At the same time, he and other villagers are disturbed by the police presence in their midst: “We went and told the police they must respect our sarnas (sacred groves). We had also said that those accused in the gang rape – Jonas Tidu and Balram Samad – should just give themselves up so as not to inconvenience ordinary people.”
Kalyan is neither a supporter of the Pathalgadi movement nor against it. Recently, he along with two other people forced the district collector of Khunti to give them a copy of the constitution. He then sat before the Pathalgadi stone in his village and marked out the sections that were referred to on the slab, from those pertaining to fundamental rights, Articles 13 and 19, to those concerning the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, 1908. “I will study this and then see,” he said.
All photos by Javed Iqbal.
Javed Iqbal is a freelance reporter and photographer.