In Two Districts of Bastar, Adivasi Women Report Sexual Assaults by Security Forces During Military Operations; Police Delay and Resist Filing FIRs

A Maoist banner commemorating a fallen comrade in a forest in Bijapur's conflict zone. CHITRANGADA CHOUDHURY
24 January, 2016

For over ten days, authorities in the Bijapur and Sukma districts of South Chhattisgarh delayed or have simply refused to file First Information Reports (FIR) in two separate cases of sexual assault. These include the alleged gang rapes of 13 adivasi women who are subsistence farmers by security forces earlier this month. The sexual violence and assaults are reported to have taken place when security forces conducted anti-Maoist military operations in Bijapur’s Nendra village between 11 and 14 January, and in Sukma’s Kunna village on 12 January. The police reluctance is despite a Supreme Court ruling and a 2013 amendment to India’s anti-rape laws, which makes it mandatory for the police to file a case as soon as a complaint of sexual violence is brought to them.

In Bijapur, the police finally relented and filed an FIR late on the night of 21 January, over a week after the alleged violence in Nendra village took place. By then, a group of women’s activists who had first brought attention to these instances had been urging the police to take action for three days. In Sukma, villagers reported the violence to a senior official in the administration on 15 January, but the police has not filed an FIR yet. The two heavily militarised districts are at the epicentre of the deadly, decade-long, state-Maoist military conflict, which has claimed close to 7,000 people already, a third of whom are civilians.

These two complaints come on the heels of allegations of sexual violence by security forces between 19 to 24 October in five remote villages of Bijapur district. In that case the police registered an FIR on 1 November 2015. They did so only after the victims, aided by a fact-finding team (comprising members of a civil society group, Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression), travelled to Bijapur town—the district headquarters, and narrated the violence to the district collector, Yashwant Kumar, who asked the police to file an FIR immediately. Over a month later, I visited four of the affected villages, located deep in the forests, and 18-25 kilometres from the nearest road. The police had made no arrests in the case nor formally questioned the men who were a part of the security operation. At that point, officials were yet to visit the villages in which the violence had allegedly taken place, or collect evidence from there. In late December, the National Human Rights Commission took cognisance of my reportage for the Hindustan Times to ask the union home secretary and Chhattisgarh’s director-general of police AN Upadhyay to submit detailed action taken reports within a month. As of this time, over 100 days since the alleged rapes, the police has still not made any arrests.

The two latest cases from Bijapur and Sukma bear several similarities to the bout of violence by security forces, which was reported in November. On 17 January, a fact-finding team from Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression and another civil society organisation, the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, visited Nendra after a villager alerted them about the situation. According to Shivani Taneja, a Bhopal-based educationist who was a part of this group, several women were initially inhibited about speaking to them. "The women in our team then spoke to them in smaller groups," she told me over phone, “Supported by other women villagers, they gradually opened up, and narrated being gang-raped and assaulted by the forces.”

The men from the security forces, the women told the fact-finding team, had stayed in Nendra from 11 to 14 January. On 19 January, I spoke to a schoolgirl from Nendra over the phone. She told me that the security forces were present when she had come back to the village from her residential school on the afternoon of 14 January. This young student had helped translate the accounts of the victims for the fact-finding team and had accompanied the villagers along with members of the team to meet the officials in Bijapur. “Several women said that galat kaam (wrong deeds) happened to them,” she told me, before going on to describe these deeds. “Men from the force sat on them, removed their clothes. Others said they were chased and beaten (maar maarke bhagaaya).” Money, oil, flour, spices were taken from many homes, she said.

An Adivasi village in Bijapur's conflict zone. CHITRANGADA CHOUDHURY

From 18 to 20 January, the adivasi women from Nendra, some cradling infants, camped at the Bijapur district headquarters in an attempt to get an FIR registered. According to the members of the fact finding team and Isha Khandelwal, a Bastar-based human rights lawyer who had accompanied them, the police refused to do so. Instead, Kumar, the Bijapur collector, asked the women, all of whom are Gondi speakers, to provide formal statements through a translator to his deputy, the sub-divisional magistrate Rajeev Pandey.

Khandelwal, who was providing legal counsel to the women told me that police officials told them, “We first need to do an investigation, then we will file an FIR.” Although Khandelwal and other members of the fact-finding team repeatedly reminded the policemen of their legal obligation to file the FIR, “they kept evading the issue, saying their seniors are not in town”

It wasn’t until late Thursday night, the police in Bijapur finally lodged the FIR. On Thursday and Friday, according to Bastar-based human rights lawyer Shalini Gera, a group of men who identified themselves as victims of Maoist violence, followed the complainant villagers and members of the fact-finding team, and shouted slogans, calling them Maoist supporters. Gera said, “They did this in the complex of the circuit house and the police station, without being stopped by authorities. They crowd directly threatened the women saying they should not file the FIR and should leave Bijapur. The women villagers felt scared and intimidated.”

On 18 and 19 January, Pandey, the sub-divisional magistrate, recorded the statements of 13 women who said that they had been gang-raped. All these women, most of them in their twenties or thirties, are subsistence farmers. In their statements to the magistrate, the women named four men that they had been able to identify from the group that had assaulted them. Taneja told me that the police officials who registered the FIR refused to include these names. Instead, they filled the field for the “Description of the Accused” in the FIR by writing, “Police bal aur suraksha bal(police and security forces).” The FIR invokes several sections of the Indian Penal Code including a new provision 376.2.c, that was introduced into law after the amendments to the anti-rape laws in 2013. This provision deals with sexual crimes by armed personnel.

Kumar and superintendent of police KL Dhruwe did not respond to multiple calls and text messages, seeking their comment on the matter.

On 21 January, Pandey told me over the phone “more than ten women” had given the police formal statements saying they were sexually assaulted. He went on to say that “the enquiry is under process. Medical examination will also be conducted.”

Additionally, five women—Marwi Ungi, Markam Nande, Padam Ayeti, Kuwasi Ungi and Markam Ungi—also said that they had been beaten when they tried to prevent the security forces from attacking their children and taking away their poultry. Some women said they were beaten when they asked the men in uniform to pay for the poultry they were seizing. Several villagers also complained that their money was looted. The amounts that were stolen ranged from Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000.

As of now, no FIR has been filed in the case of the alleged sexual assault that reportedly took place on 12 January in Kunna village in Sukma district. According to a 19 January press release by the Chhattisgarh chapter of the national civil society group, People’s Union of Civil Liberties, several women in the village have testified to being sexually assaulted by officials from the security forces. The violence was reported to a senior official in the civil administration on 15 January, but there is still no FIR.

In the release, the women in Pedapara, a hamlet of Kunna, specified the extent of the assaults. One woman said she was stripped—her “waist string” torn and the clothes from her upper body removed—after which members of the police sat on her and hurled abuses at her. The men also allegedly tore off another woman’s blouse, and forced her to do sit-ups. She was asked why she did not have children, and told that if she slept with them, they would impregnate her. The woman was then beaten with a stick for crying. Yet another survivor said she was stripped and had her breasts mocked. She was also badly beaten. One woman recounted how she was violently dragged out of her house. She sported injuries on her face and body. When she told the men that she had an infant child, a man in uniform came and milked her breast. She was also robbed of her necklace, earrings and Rs 1,500. Another woman was beaten so badly that she suffered from injuries to her right hand, thigh and lower back. According to the release, there were many other women back in the village who had also said they were beaten and verbally abused. The villagers also alleged that the men from the security forces had stolen their rice, hens, cash and ornaments.

Sexual graffiti, allegedly by security forces, on the wall of a defunct school building in an Adivasi village in Bijapur's conflict zone. CHITRANGADA CHOUDHURY

On 15 January, Sori and Gera, the human-rights lawyer, accompanied the victims to the Bastar Commisionerate in the town of Jagdalpur—the administrative headquarters of all the four districts of Bastar. Gera told me Sori and the women villagers were forced to take this step, as they could not go to register their complaints in the police station at Sukma because several forces from the police and paramilitary had been deployed on the roads there the previous day. The police officials in the adjoining Dantewada district had refused to lodge the FIRs, and had told the women that Pedapara did not fall under their jurisdiction.

The divisional commissioner of Bastar, Dilip Wasnikar told me, “I was not in office when Soni Sori and the women came, but they met my deputy. Since the allegations are serious, I immediately sent the complaint to the IG [Inspector General S R Kalluri], who has sent it to the SP of Sukma, who is probing the case.”

Wasnikar, the senior-most official in the civil administration for Bastar’s four districts, evaded my questions about the absence of an FIR. He finally responded by saying, “Registering FIRs is the work of the police."

Political activist and the Sukma-based president of the All-India Adivasi Mahasabha (affiliated to the Communist Party of India), Manish Kunjam told me, “When forces arrive in a village on an operation, the boys and men run away from fear of being arrested, or killed in the name of being Naxals. Only women are left behind.” Kunjam added that there have been several instances of sexual violence against adivasi women during operations in Chhattisgarh. Bijapur, he said, in particular has seen a lot of such violence. He told me, “We have been urging since long that women officers should be part of security operations.”

Kunjam said that he led a team of activists and villagers to protest outside the Collectorate in Sukma district on Friday, 22 January in another attempt to get the police to register an FIR. Police officials, he said, told the protestors that they were busy and that they would lodge an FIR after Republic Day, on 27 January. “It has become hard for us to believe that there will be any action against the guilty,” Kunjam said.