‘Such behaviour puts us on the back foot,’ said the district collector. ‘It derails our efforts to build trust of the local Adivasis in the government.’
On November 1, while the government of Chhattisgarh was celebrating the state’s 16th Foundation Day, three women and a teenage girl filed into the office of the Bijapur district collector to put on record allegations of sexual violence against security personnel.
The group was from the village of Pedagellur in Basaguda block of Bijapur district. They alleged a team of security personnel had raided their village and others nearby between October 19-24, looting homes, molesting several women and raping three, one of whom was the 14-year-old girl present in the collector’s office.
Based on their allegations, the district collector filed a First Information Report against unnamed security personnel. They were charged under section 376 (2) which relates to rape committed by the security personnel of the central and state governments. In addition, they were charged under Section 6 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, and sections relating to obscene behaviour, molestation and dacoity.
The district collector, Yashwant Kumar, admitted that the allegations were serious and required an investigation. “Such behaviour puts us on the back foot,” he said. “It derails our efforts to build trust of the local Adivasis in the government.”
“However, it is hard to believe that something like this could have happened,” he quickly added.
At Sarkeguda village, however, they came across a starkly different account. Villagers told them the security forces had carried out rape and plunder in villages about 15 kilometres away. The journalists recorded those testimonies.
But to get to the villages where the rampage had allegedly taken place, the journalists needed to get past the barricades of the camp of the elite COBRA battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force stationed at Sarkeguda. When the soldiers heard they were from the media, they snatched their cameras and checked their footage, not letting them move further. The journalists requested an audience with the senior officers of the camp but were turned away.
However, the news filtered out on social media. A team of a group called Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression, a nationwide network of activists, was in Bastar to study the impact of the Maoist conflict on the lives of women. When they heard about the rapes, they travelled to the area, reaching Basaguda on October 30.
It was Friday, the day of the weekly bazaar. Adivasis from nearby villages had trekked to the bazaar to make purchases and exchange information. Among them were women of Peddagellur, Burgicheru, Chinnagellur, Sarkeguda and other villages. They poured out their anguish to the team of activists who recorded video testimonies and rushed to Bijapur to meet the collector requesting him to take necessary action. The testimonies of the women were also published in a fact finding report.
What the women had narrated was chilling.
The 14-year-old girl said she was grazing cattle with other women when she was chased by the security forces. Overpowered and blindfolded, she was raped by at least three people before she became unconscious. A woman in the fourth month of her pregnancy said she was stripped by the security personnel and dunked in a village stream. The security forces removed their clothes and jumped in behind her, raping her in the water.
At the collector’s office
Watching the video testimonies, the district collector requested the activists to bring the women to file their statements to enable him to take necessary action. With support from the administration, the five-member team set off the next morning. They managed to reach the remote villages from where they were able to bring three women and the 14-year-old girl on their motorbikes.
Based on the statements made to the collector and the superintendent of police, the FIR against security personnel was lodged and the teenager was immediately sent for a medical examination at the district hospital.
The women, however, told the collector that the sexual violence did not stop at the rapes. Several women had been beaten on their thighs and buttocks, they alleged. Their lower clothing had been lifted, their blouses torn, and they had been threatened with further sexual violence – the security personnel said they would push chillies up their vaginas. At least two women who were breast feeding had their breasts pinched and squeezed for milk to prove they had breastfeeding infants.
Given the scale of the alleged violence, the district collector fixed November 6 as the date to record more testimonies from other villages alleging abuse. A message asking people to come and testify against security forces was sent to the villages. Over a dozen women from Chinnagellur, Pedagellur, Gundam, Burgicheru and other villages, accompanied by men, reached Bijapur in time to file their statements.
Five days of horror
Outside the collector’s office, Badse Somlu from Pegdapalli spoke in halting Hindi of the raids made by security personnel over the five days between October 19-24.
“The force came in huge numbers of over 400,” he said. “They first entered Pegdapalli on the evening of October 19 and then proceeded to Pedagellur the next morning.” Over the next five days, he claimed the security personnel travelled to Bandaguda, Pegdapalli, Pakela, Pisepara, Kothaguda, Pedagellur, Gundam, Sutwai.
Sanjesh Kunjam from Pedagellur corroborated Somlu’s version of events. “They [security forces] occupied our homes, looted our rice, oil, hens, money,” he said.
The women presented testimonies to a three-member-team of the State Women’s Commission. “This is not the first time we are beaten and abused by the force,” began one of the women, speaking in Gondi translated into Hindi. “Every time the force would seek to know is where they [Maoists] are. ‘If you do not inform, we will beat you,’ they said. They often beat us up. But this time they crossed all limits…” The woman paused to complete her statement. At this point, Scroll.in was asked to leave the room, stating this enquiry was not for public consumption.
The police investigation
The police superintendent of Bijapur said the allegations had been taken seriously and the investigation had been handed over to an all-women team. “A crime is a crime,” said Ummaiza Khatun Ansari, the deputy superintendent of police, Bijapur, and one of the members of the team. “We are committed to investigating this in the most sincere and transparent manner such that once established the guilty, whoever it may be, is punished.” When asked if she faced any pressure since the charges were made against her departmental colleagues, she claimed she had the “full cooperation” of her department.
The assistant superintendent of police, IK Eleseliya, however, sounded more circumspect. “I do not want to state such a crime could not have happened, lest this affects our investigation,” he said. “But these areas are [Maoist] liberated zones and are notorious for ambush and the route is carpeted with IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices].” He implied that the charges were instigated by the Maoists who dominated the area.
Voicing further doubts over the allegations, he said, “The point to be noted here is that if the crime has occurred around October 20, as claimed by the villagers, why did they take such a long time to complain?”
Perhaps the fear of the police discouraged them, I suggested. They possibly felt encouraged only after the women’s group made the effort of reaching their villages.
“The women’s group only suspected rape which has to be established for which due process is underway,” he interrupted. “In any case, when the force enters the village, almost the entire village except for elderly women and small children, evacuates into the forest.”
Doesn’t this show the villagers fear the police?
Evacuating the village is a standing instruction given by the Maoists, especially the men, else they are considered police informers, he said. He acknowledged the security personnel stayed in the village for five days from October 19-24, as they had intelligence inputs, but claimed “our boys” never occupy the homes of villagers.
So where did they stay? Most likely in an abandoned room or home or where cattle are kept, he said. Often when personnel are out on operations, he added, if they have no choice but to stay in the village, they offer a token amount of Rs 200-300 to those whose space they occupy.
The testimonies in the fact finding report, however, offer a completely different picture of what happened. The report states: “Women were chased out of their homes which were then occupied by the forces for their stay. In some cases, the policemen removed their clothing and invited the women to come and sleep with them if they wanted to sleep in their own homes, as the village men had run away into the jungle.”
More fact-finding teams
The team of the women activists was followed by several other fact-finding teams. The Congress party sent a delegation of eleven leaders. The delegation included Deepak Karma, son of Mahendra Karma, best known for mobilising support for the anti-Maoist civil vigilante army, Salwa Judum, for which he was ambushed and killed by the Maoists in 2013.
The report prepared by the Congress delegation puts together testimonies of villages who spoke of widespread vandalisation and loot by the security forces. A 55-year-old woman in Chinnagellur alleged that about 50-60 security personnel forcefully entered her home and looted 11 litres of oil, three litres of liquor, three hens, one quintal of rice.
Seventy year-old Bhime told the Congress team that she was tending her cattle near her house when 60-70 security personnel forcefully entered her home. When she protested, they gave her a thrashing with the branch of a tree, accusing her of sheltering Maoists. Forty-five year-old Bhima said the security personnel looted Rs 55,000 from his house and took him away to the jungle where he was kept and beaten for three days with a rod.
A third fact-finding team of 56 people representing the Sarva Adivasi Samaj reached Pedagellur where women and men from other affected villages assembled on November 14 to narrate their traumatic experience. A platform of various Adivasi community groups, the Samaj was formed in 2002 primarily to pursue social welfare for the communities in Bastar region. “But today Adivasi identity and survival have taken priority,” said Prakash Thakur, president of the Samaj. “Though three women may have come forward to complain of the sexual assault, we believe at least five more women made mention of such assaults, but were too shy to allow any further probe,” added one of the members.
An all-women team of the Adivasi Mahasabha, supported by Communist Party of India also travelled to some of the villages. “This is the first time in the history of at least Bastar that an FIR has been lodged against the security personnel and for that the district administration should be commended,” said Manish Kunjam, a former MLA and CPI leader. “But whether the investigation is done in all sincerity with the purpose of building trust of the people is to be waited and watched.”
Bela Bhatia, the human rights activist who led the team of women activists that visited the area and initiated the complaint against the security forces, sounded more hopeful. “The filing of the FIR in this case is a victory of sorts considering how difficult it is in these parts to get the police to admit even a complaint,” she said. “There are many similar cases of atrocities and sexual assault by the security forces that have gone unrecorded and unpunished in the last decade in Bastar. I hope the Bijapur district administration will continue to diligently follow due process as they have done so far.”