In late January 2016, Mangli was collecting firewood behind her home in Korcholi village of Chhattisgarh's Bijapur district. She was about to return home, she said, when a member of the security forces pulled her into the forest nearby. Two of his associates took turns in raping her, ordering her to stay silent.
“We don’t like people who shout,” they told Mangli, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, as have the names of other villagers in this article. “How dare you shout when we told you not to?”
However, Mangli’s screams were drowned in the dried-up canal where the men had pinned her to the ground. When they let her go, she walked the short distance back home, where her three-year-old daughter and six-month-old son were waiting for her, crying.
On May 5, Mangli sat down to recount the incident to this reporter. Her face straight, her voice steady, she said she was determined to file a complaint against the force waale, the term villagers use for both the local police and the paramilitary soldiers who have been drawn from other parts of India and posted in the area to conduct anti-Maoist operations.
Mangli could not identify which force the men who raped her belonged to, but she said they spoke in Gondi, the local tribal language.
Complaint but no FIR
Korcholi is approximately 40 kilometres from Bijapur town, inside the jungle, and away from the Bailadila hills, which separate Bijapur and Dantewada districts. Only 25 kilometres of the distance, upto Gangalur village, is motorable. Beyond that, it takes a trek through the rocky terrain or a tractor ride to reach the village.
Not only is Korcholi bereft of roads and a mobile-phone network, the area also has a large number of security personnel tracking the activities of civilians closely. Gangalur village has a police station, a camp of the Central Reserve Police Force, and another camp of the specialised unit of CRPF called CoBRA, or Commando Battalion for Resolute Action.
As a result, it took several months for the information of this attack and other allegations of excesses by the security forces to reach the activists and the media.
Villagers said they could not muster up the courage to travel to the police station to file a complaint. It is typical in Chhattisgarh's Bastar region for people to be afraid of the police. This area has seen a three-decade-long conflict between the government and leftist guerrillas, now grouped under the banner of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The administration views all inhabitants in the interior villages as potential Maoist sympathisers.
Accompanied by some activists, the residents of Korcholi finally went to Bijapur on May 7. About 70 villagers from the Gangalur area recorded their testimonies in front of a three-member fact-finding team comprising of EN Ram Mohan, a former director general of the Border Security Force, Virginius Xaxa, director of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences Guwahati, and Sunil Kuksal of HRD Alert. The committee is expected to release a report soon.
It was not only in Mangli’s case that came to light in the course of the testimonies made to the fact-finding team. Many other claims of looting and violence from Korcholi and neighbouring villages of Saonar, Todka and Ittavar were voiced by the villagers on May 7 in Bijapur.
After they recorded their testimonies in front of the fact-finding team, the residents of Korcholi, including Mangli, went to the police station to file a complaint. But Nitin Upadhyay, the officer heading the kotwali police station at Bijapur, refused to lodge a first information report. He told the villagers that the matter seemed suspect as the incident was from January. He needed to investigate the claims before registering an FIR.
But as a statement by the activist group Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression, which visited the area, noted, section 154 of the CrPC, makes it mandatory for a police officer to file an FIR on receipt of any information of a cognisable offence such as rape, molestation, or disrobing. "Further, no preliminary inquiry is permissible in such a case," it said. "By refusing to file an FIR, any public servant, is himself culpable under the IPC."
The statement added: "Despite citing the law to the police, an FIR was not registered. Mr. Upadhyay finally admitted that he himself was in a difficult position as the order to refuse an FIR had come from his superiors. Finally, a complaint letter was submitted which was accepted as received by the police, but there was no FIR.”
According to the villagers, last November, a few hundred security men on a combing operation to flush out Maoists, camped in Itaavar village, a short distance away from Korcholi. They forcefully took chicken and rice from a man named Sukku Kunjam and began cooking in his house, alleged the villagers.
On November 23, 2015, a few men in uniforms picked up Sukku Kunjam, one of Sukku’s sisters, and dragged her into the jungles. Her sister Jamli followed her, in a bid to rescue her.
The women were stripped, assaulted and kept in the jungles for two days, villagers said. On November 25, when they noticed a helicopter land, the men dropped off the girls in the neighbouring village of Dowal Nendra. It is common for senior officials to travel by chopper in these areas.
Sukku Kunjam from, who was forcefully taken by the security personnel to act as a guide in the jungles, was later killed and declared a Naxalite, said the villagers.
People of these villages say that women are frequently molested and assaulted when combing operations are underway.
Around the time that Mangli was raped, another young girl was grazing cattle with her sister and her friend. Men from the security forces, villagers allege, tore her clothes and threatened to kill the girls. They dragged her friend by the hair and flung to the ground. They hit her on the stomach with a rifle butt. She still has wounds on her torso.
The girls were saved when an older woman from the village intervened.
Repeated calls from this reporter to the police superintendent of Bijapur, KL Dhruv, went unanswered. However, he spoke to the local Hindi daily Nai Duniya and said the allegations of rape were “unsubstantiated”.
Rapes in Bijapur
In October 2015, women from five villages of Pegdapalli, Chinnagellur, Peddagellur, Burgicheru, and Gundam accused the security forces of sexual violence. Three of them, including a teenage girl and a pregnant woman, alleged that they had been raped. The violence had taken place while the security forces were on a combing operation, they said.
Initially, the attacks went unreported. After activists visited the area and recorded the testimonies of the women, on the orders of the district collector, the police filed an FIR against unknown armed personnel. This was the first time the government invoked a section in the anti-rape laws of 2013, which deals with sexual crimes by armed personnel.
In January this year, when the activists returned to the area, 13 women from Bijapur’s Nendra village came forward to allege that they had been gang-raped by security forces personnel who were on anti-Maoist combing operations. Eight of the women appeared in a press conference organised by the Aam Aadmi Party's Soni Sori, and after much difficulty, FIRs were filed in these cases too.
Mangli said she wants to file an FIR. But what is really wants to do is to rest secure in the knowledge that her husband will return home when he goes out to sell tendu leaves. “We are all targets in this region now,” she said. “No one is safe.”