The strip of asphalt, black and smooth, had a way of standing out in the headlights, its smoothness itself in stark contrast to the turbulent times. The times, they say, have changed. But the 12 women in the vehicle know better. They are returning after five days in Bijapur, where eight of them testified to gangrape and all of them to looting and threats, by police and security forces. Some are with small children, three of whom were diagnosed in Bijapur with malaria. The children are barefoot. So are most of the women. Clothed in thin cotton. Bright prints in warm colours.
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 the last three months, three instances of large-scale sexual violence on adivasi women by police and security forces have surfaced in Bijapur and Sukma districts of Bastar. Hindi films have for long promoted rape as revenge, and judging by the complaints, rape is being used as an instrument of terror, as part of counter-insurgency ops.
Parvati was not among the women we met in the weekly bazaar at Basaguda. Nor Somi or Lakke. But we met many other women, at least 30, who recounted the details of six days (October 19-24) when hundreds of security forces, in four batches, passed through their villages: Pegdapalli, Chinnagelur, Peddagelur, Gundem and Burgicheru. That was the first instance.
Parvati is 14, a resident of Patelpara, home to 70 families of Dorla and Gond adivasis. Close to Khammam, villages here share their dressing style with people across the border. Parvati is in a long skirt, Telangana style. Her aunt Nagamma, who brought her up after her mother died, told us that on Oct 21, they had gone to the jungle to graze cattle with a few others when the security forces chased them. “I was caught and beaten severely. They were able to isolate Parvati. She was blindfolded and raped many times until she lost consciousness.” Nagamma found her badly bruised. She said she had to nurse her for days. Parvati does not seem to have recovered, and wears a withdrawn look.
Somi and Lakke live in Mettapara, comprising 60 Gond households. Somi is Lakke’s daughter-in-law. In her early twenties, she married Unga two years ago, and was four months pregnant with their first child when the forces came, the day before Dusehra (Oct 21). It was afternoon. Somi was out grazing cows and Lakke was at home. Somi said she was near a stream when they surrouned her. They stripped her, pushed her into the water many times. Some of them removed their clothes, raped her and left her by the stream.
Lakke listens to Somi in silence. She had told us what happened to Somi. But we learnt of what happened to her only when something she said made us realise she was talking about herself. On closer questioning, Lakke opened up. The forces had come to her house in the afternoon. “They began chasing my hens, so I objected. ‘Why are you catching my hens? Do your own work,’ I said. At this, they hit me with a danda, blindfolded me and dragged me to the jungle where they raped me. I heard them say in Gondi they would kill me there itself.”
Besides gangrape, at least 15 women from Peddagelur and Chinnagelur mentioned being molested, beaten, threatened. Some were chased out of their homes, which the security forces occupied. We heard statements such as: “Sonai ko bol rahe the (They were asking us to sleep with them).” “Bachhon ki maon ke stan se dudh nichoda (They squeezed milk out of the breasts of lactating mothers).” “Kapda utha kar jango aur chithodo par mara (Lifting our skirts, they hit us on our thighs and buttocks).” “Kaha kapda uthao, mirchi dalenge (They said: lift your skirts, we will put chillis up your vagina).” Beatings were reported from everywhere. Batons were used, sometimes even guns. Women holding their infants were hit from behind, some had their hair pulled and were banged on the ground. We saw their bruises.
Looting was common. We heard so many stories we lost count: “Ghar ghar se murgi lai (They took hens from every home).” “Sabun-tel tak nahi chodai hai (They didn’t even spare the soap and oil).” “Kapda jalai.” “Paisa churai.” “Chor company hai.”
As it happened, one of our team members had a video recorder. These testimonies were recorded and shown to district collector Yashwant Kumar, who promised that if we could assist in bringing these women to the district headquarters, he would take necessary action. The villages were 60-75 km from Bijapur. Though we’d not visited the villages yet and didn’t know the terrain and access, we thought we must try.
Next morning, we returned to the area, and with the help of local sarpanches and teachers who had motorcycles, we headed towards the villages. By late evening, we were able to return with some of them. Later, in the district collectorate, in the presence of the collector, the superintendent of police and the assistant superintendent of police (Naxal operations), the women related what had happened. Based on these testimonies, a police complaint was filed and an FIR registerd on November 1. The following day, their testimonies were recorded by the SDM and again by the DSP. Their medical examination was conducted.
The Second Rampage
Like in Peddagelur, this was also during a combing operation from January 11-14, during which time the security forces camped in the village. Nendra has 98 houses of Muria adivasis distributed in four paras. According to the investigating team of Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS), at least 13 instances of gangrape have occurred. Eight women testified in front of the SDM and police. Six of the eight are from one para—Gotumpara—that has 22 houses.
When I first meet Bali, she is sitting in the corridor of the collectorate in front of the SDM office, waiting for her turn. Her boy, Hadma, no longer an infant, stays close to his mother all the time. Bali has a quiet dignity about her. I have often been struck by the restraint that adivasis exercise in the face of sorrow. Their sufferings seem to settle in them.
Bali, a mother of three, said that the forces came to their village on Monday, January 11. That day they raped Kosi. “I was at a little distance and saw one policeman holding Kosi’s legs and another raping her. I had gone there upon hearing her shout. She was in her backyard, plucking vegetables when they came. They had thrown a black-coloured cloth on her face. Their faces were also covered with black cloth. Hearing her shouts, Hidme dokri (old woman) had also gone. She threatened them with her danda. Seeing her they ran away. After that dokri gathered nine-ten women of the para and with Kosi went where the forces were cooking their meal near the handpump. I was with them,” she said, and narrated... We asked: “Aisa galat kaam kyon kar rahe ho? Apne sahab se baat karao. (Why are you doing such condemnable deeds? We want to speak with your officer.)”
They said: “Sahab nahi hai (The officer is not here).”
We asked: “Kaun aisa kiya? Usko dikhao (Who has done this? Bring him.)”
They said: “Yahan nahi hai. Tum log yahan halla nahi karo. Ghar jao. (He is not here. Don’t create a scene. Go home).”
Then she carries on. “This was Monday. On Tuesday, I was raped. The forces came from the side of the Gotum hill. It was late evening. Hearing them come, my husband Deva fled. Two came inside my house. They overturned the cot I was lying on with Hadma. They cornered me, removed my lungi and tore my petticoat. One held my feet while the other raped me. They covered my mouth to stop me from shouting. But an elder relative had heard and came with a danda and torch. Seeing the light they ran away. It was dark and I could not see their faces but heard them speaking in Gondi.”
Among the troops were both Gondi- and Hindi-speakers. Those who forced themselves on Hidme, Tulsi and Paike, also in Gotumpara, were speaking in Hindi. Tulsi said: “I was alone at home with my three children. Around 5 pm on Monday, three men in police uniform came to my house. They were speaking in Hindi. Do jan mujhe pakde the aur ek ne galat kiya (two were holding me while one raped me). Hearing my cries, my sister Avlam Devi came to my rescue. Seeing her, they ran away. The next day, I had gone to my mother’s house. My neighbours told me five of them had come again.”
Paike, fiercely independent-looking, paid the price for seeking payment for the hens two intruders took from her house on Tuesday. So did Raimati in Masodpara, on Tuesday afternoon. “They were three,” she said. “They took four kilos of rice, promising money. When they started helping themselves to the hens, I stopped them, saying I plan to sell them and buy clothes. At my refusal, they got angry and covered my face with a fishing net and pushed me inside the house. They were speaking in Gondi and Hindi. My mother-in-law, Uike Devi, heard my yells and hit the back of the policeman who was on top of me. He stopped, dressed, and escaped with the two others, picking four hens as they left.”
Three women recognised ex-Naxalites amongst those who attacked them. Four such persons have been named in their testimonies, one is from their own village and para (Gotumpara). This suggests that district reserve guards (DRG), a troop of surrendered Maoists (Gondi-speakers) and normal recruits (Hindi-speakers, mostly), were also on combing ops.
Women were threatened with more dire vengeance. Ungi, a 45-year-old woman who was raped, was told, “Tum log naksalion ke sath rahte ho, tumhare gharon ko aag laga denge (You people are with Naxalites, we will burn your houses).” Jogi, in her early twenties, was told that they would kill her next time they came if she spoke about what had happened (“Yeh baat kisi ko bhi bataigi to agli baar goli mar denge.”) She was raped by three, including two ex-Naxalites whom she recognises. Kosi recalls them saying, “Tendu patta jaise udta hai, vaise udainge (We will make you [and your men] fall like the leaves do of the tendu tree).”
The Third Assault
Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, on January 11-14, the same dates as in Nendra, another combing operation was taking place in Peddapara of Kunna village in Sukma district. This operation also boasts of features that are now familiar. Twenty-nine persons, including some women, were rounded up and dragged to the school, a kilometre away. En route, they were beaten, and the clothes of women torn. Verbal and physical sexual abuse followed. Six women suffered severe sexual assault. Three men were taken into custody.
The security forces often complain that the men run away when they go to the villages and that this was indicative of their guilt. In Kunna, the men did not run away, but were subjected to brutal punishment. One youth died of the beatings. Laloo Sodi’s mother told us her 21-year-old son was in the fields when the forces caught him and beat him black and blue. He was not able to eat or drink anything, not even pej (rice gruel) that night. He died the next day (January 14). The family cremated him without a post mortem.
Fighting for justice is not easy. More so in an area where the ordinary villager is regarded with suspicion and hostility by the administration, especially the police. Even registering an FIR is a challenge. It is a myth that any citizen can go to a police station and get a FIR registered. Not in Bastar. At the thana level, there is blatant refusal. At the SP level, one is told that there will be a jaanch (investigation) first. Even though such refusal or delay is in clear violation of the law (Section 154, CrPC).
Under the circumstances, the filing of the FIR in the Peddagelur case seemed a victory of sorts. This became the first case in the country, after the amended rape law (2013) allowed for the indictment of central and state security forces (Section 376 2c, IPC). However, no serious action has been taken so far. With much difficulty, FIRs have also been registered in the Nendra and Sukma incidents. As a first step, it is important that the investigation of these cases be handed over to an external agency, other than the police and the security forces who themselves stand accused in these cases.
What is happening now is beginning to look like the early years of Salwa Judum (2005-06), when more than 99 rapes occurred. There was no FIR then. Women are speaking out now. They have come forward and testified despite the fear they must feel. Relating and reliving such INStances is always traumatic for those who have been at the receiving end of such violence. Many times, one saw women staring into space, tears welling up in their eyes. But the impunity of the police and security forces remains unshaken—so far.
(Bela Bhatia is an independent researcher and activist based in Bastar. She was part of the Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression team that intervened in these cases.)
By Bela Bhatia in Jagdalpur
Note: This report has been corrected at 6.30 pm, Saturday, February 13, 2016, following an editorial error in New Delhi, which clubbed all the rapes and assaults together.