Soft winter light bathes the fields in a glow. But the pastoral idyll of Pandu padda, Sameli, Dantewada district in Chhatisgarh is deceptive. Dark shadows lurk. I am shown the tree from which a 17-year-old Adivasi girl hung herself on the intervening night of 29/30 December, some four months after she had charged security forces of sexual violence.
A charpoy is pulled out for us to sit in the warmth of the sun. The mother who knows only Gondi moves away but the chacha (paternal uncle) Jayant Netam, who speaks fluent Hindi, says he will recount the several shades of violence inflicted on their Guddiya (term of endearment used for young girls in Chhatisgarh) and what perhaps impelled her to take her own life.
On September 14 2018, a Friday, N (name withheld) went missing. She had worked in the fields along with her parents and uncle early morning, gone home to cook a meal and then gone back to the fields to gather firewood taking along her banda (sickle). It was overcast; when it began raining the uncle assumed the girl would have come back.
It was only after the parents returned from the weekly bazaar that her absence was noted and the hunt began. The search intensified with many of the villagers joining in but she could not be found. Her father, set out again at 7 pm but came back worried. The search continued all through the next day, Saturday September 15.
“We had become very anxious now since her banda had been found. We scoured the Kuramnullah (adjoining rivulet) as we imagined the worst, wondering if she had been murdered and body thrown into the river.”
The uncle also made a visit to the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camp at Palnar which lies along the main road towards Sameli. (It may be noted that within two years of the creation of the Chhatisgarh state, the CRPF has been permanently deployed here with many camps set up, largely in the Bastar region, which is among the most militarized zones in the world.) The uncle was not allowed to enter the camp but conveyed to the personnel manning the gates that a young woman had gone missing and showed them the photo that was on her Aadhar card.
After two harrowing nights, the search ended. N was found unconscious near the nullah on Sunday. The police were informed by a phone call and the uncle went personally to Kuakonda police station to lodge a complaint. It is unclear though whether an FIR was actually filed or not.
Meanwhile the girl was taken to Palnar where she was given preliminary treatment and then to Kuakonda hospital where after intravenous glucose she was referred to Dantewada District Hospital, since the hospital said it did not have the requisite female staff.
News of her being found spread. Among those who rushed to Kuakonda were Soni Sori, the Adivasi school teacher who turned ardent human rights defender, after having suffered torture and sexual violence at the hands of the police whilst being falsely imprisoned in Dantewada jail on charges of being a Maoist, and her nephew the photo journalist Lingaram Kodopi who hails from the same village of Sameli. Lingaram had also been jailed and tortured on trumped up charges.
Soni told me she was not allowed by police to ride in the ambulance bringing the young girl to Dantewada hospital. But, curiously enough whilst the police restricted access to the girl’s room and kept a register even for family members, no such restrictions were placed on the presence of Devti Karma, local politician and daughter of the late Salwa Judum leader Mahendra Karma. Karma remained present in the room along with a woman Deputy Superintendent of Police.
According to the uncle, when the girl had barely opened her eyes around 9 pm at night she was instantly subjected to a barrage of questions by Karma and the DSP. She was asked whether she had been attacked by villagers (gai charaane walle or cattle herders) and whether she came in contact with a live wire and suffered an electric shock. (It is said that villagers use a live wire against marauding wild pigs).
Police personnel later alleged that N claimed she had suffered an electric shock (current lagaa). However the next day when she recovered full consciousness and was asked by her mother what she told the women she said she had no recollection of making any such statement.
A full statement to the DSP was made later in the presence of her mother. Bela Bhatia, academician, researcher and lawyer who works in Bastar, and came to the hospital in the capacity of legal representative for the family, said that the uncle was later allowed by the DSP to go into the room since the mother does not understand Hindi. Some part of the statement was read back and re written to accommodate clarifications and omissions.
This insistence is crucial in Chhatisgarh where one of the biggest challenges for Adivasis accessing justice is the language barrier. Adivasis speak Gondi whilst official work is conducted in Hindi. Even the use of translators can be problematic with one never sure whether the narrative is being truthfully recorded or whether biases of a translator have crept in.
Thereafter, according to procedure, N was taken in front of the magistrate at the district court in Dantewada on September 17 where she made her statement again without the presence of anyone except a nurse.
It is agreed by most who knew her, that N was reticent by nature, a person of very few words. But, in her narratives that she had been forced to recount so many times, she was clear on two points. That the men who accosted her were in uniform (chitkabra or khaki) and that something was done to her (kuch kiya). She confirmed the men had been on top of her.
After a seven day stay in hospital N was discharged. However several concerns have been raised about whether the hospital and police followed the protocols and sensitivity required to deal with victims of sexual violence.
One of the key issues has to deal with the way a local politician’s daughter and DSP hurled questions at her and seemed to put words in her mouth when she was not even fully conscious. Had the doctors certified her fit to be so interrogated?
Pertinently, in an interview with Newslaundry, the DSP Dineshwari Nande has said “Ittefaq sah usse hosh aaya tha tab mein wahi maujood thee,” (By coincidence I happened to be there when she recovered consciousness) and then added, “Maine aise hi poocha ki kya hoga?” (I just happened to ask what happened.)
This interrogation became the premise for the bid to falsify N’s narrative. The police (probably from Aranpur police station) came into three hamlets in Sameli on September 23 and spread the word among villagers that the girl had contradicted her first statement because she was being instigated by the parents and uncle. A local youth named Manglu was also picked up adding to the intimidation.
Jayant Netam, the uncle, says that whilst he was not threatened the girl’s father was told he would be severely beaten. It was against this backdrop that the Adivasi Samaj held a meeting the next day on September 24 in which some 300 Adivasis gathered and where in front of them the girl recounted her tortuous ordeal.
Both the Adivasi Samaj and the Mahila Adhikar Manch , which conducted a fact finding, concluded that there was no pressure being brought on N and her family to give a wrong statement against the police and that she was truthfully stating what had happened to her.
One of the most painful experiences for a survivor of rape is to mentally revisit the scene of violence over and over and try and recall minute details that she would prefer to erase even as she is forced to recount her experience. Rinchin of Mahila Adhikar Manch points out that N was incredibly brave in speaking out in front of so many people at the public meeting. “The community had extended their full support to her but that she had to speak out because police were falsifying her story must have been extremely traumatic. It must have also weighed on her mind that the police were threatening the villagers and taken away a local youth.”
In a pattern that is almost routine whenever charges are brought by Bastar villagers against security forces, the police deny agency and allege that it is a conspiracy by human rights activists to defame them and CRPF.
Bela Bhatia says that just a little before the Sameli incident she, Soni Sori and Lingaram had gone to investigate an incident at Fulpad, near Sameli, involving violence by Maoists. But this was twisted and cited as evidence that they had gone to villages and entered into a conspiracy. The term “Urban Naxal” that has gained currency with the police was also hurled as an accusation.
Along with these formidable challenges to access justice, the attitude and professional services of the medical community was found to be inadequate and lacking grossly in sensitivity.
The family alleges that N received poor treatment at the hospital. Medico legal reports which reportedly say that rape cannot be conclusively proved were not given to the family. Nor were any hospital records.
The girl suffered from acute pain in her lower abdomen and painful urination after the incident but, according to what the mother told the Mahila Adhikar Manch, she did not appear to get any treatment for that at Dantewada hospital apart from the glucose drip. Her discharge paper from Dantewada hospital says she was diagnosed with anaemia. She continued to suffer and came with another villager and her father to Raipur where a member of the Mahila Adhikar Manch took her to the government hospital. Here she was diagnosed with urinary infection.
Deepika Joshi of the Mahila Adhikari Manch points out that the girl was visibly uncomfortable and in pain when she came to Raipur. Apparently she was so distressed by the continuous and intrusive presence of security personnel in the Dantewada hospital and the careless and apathetic attitude of the staff that she just wanted to get out and lied about feeling better.
It is even more appalling that no kind of emotional counselling or positive steps were taken for mental well-being. Deepika Joshi noted how there is a patronising, demeaning view of indigenous communities which reflects on the services and lack of supportive environment.
Even when there are positive mechanisms or protocols drawn up for sexual assault survivors, they have not been implemented in the state and nor has the staff been adequately trained. The lacunae is accentuated in cases where the accused is from the security or police personnel as the power equations are then problematic.
N remained severely withdrawn after the incident says her uncle. She did not express her anxieties but seemed very disturbed inside. She would refuse to go to fetch water and showed extreme anxiety. Perhaps her ill health also affected her.
And on the intervening night of December 29/30 she decided to end it all.
Sadly N’s narrative is a reflection, not just of the systemic and institutionalised violence on Adivasi women by security forces but of the unabashed impunity forces get. This can be illustrated by the way the cases of sexual violence by security forces on the women of Peddagalur, Kunna, Korcholli and Nendra, have gone nowhere despite the successful filing of FIRS and media attention.
I met very briefly with the women of Nendra on January 16. Three years ago between January 11- 14, 2016, five batches of police and security personnel had entered the hamlets in Bajau district and gone on a rampaging and vandalising spree. Some 15 women reported gang rapes during this period and say that the sexual violence occurred when they offered resistance against their chickens and foodgrains being plundered.
The women made a long march to Bijapur in search of justice and spent four days in biting cold with their small children, recounting their testimonies several times. Besides their own acute distress the women were deeply concerned about their young ones left behind. It was with great difficulty and only after orders from the Collector and sustained pressure by activists and the Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) that an FIR was eventually filed.
But three years hence the repression has returned. The women feel vulnerable because they say “force waale” (the CRPF and 10 District Reserve Guard comprising of surrendered Maoists) come into the hamlets and threaten and intimidate villagers, particularly after any incident involving Naxalites, has taken place. The lack of progress in the case has been a disheartening one.
“We thought that after we have complained and it has even been written down (reference is to the written statement) then at least something would have been done.” They find it risky to go to the forest to gather firewood.
One of the women, who had been raped, had a three-year-old child who was witness to his mother being pinned down by the men before being driven away. I learnt how this woman has since then borne a child but, a very mature and enlightened community, has provided support and not raised any questions. They have questions for the state though: How long must we wait for accountability and justice?