Sanmati is sitting in the back room of the Dantewada police station. Subdued and silent. A white scarf with flowers in black draped over neatly combed hair, bare feet tucked under the stool, slim hands resting on the navy blue school-uniform skirt. She reminds me of the freshly-sprouted plants on the Bastar earth after the first rains.
A woman in her thirties stands protectively besides her. Sushila is the anganwadi teacher of the village and has known Sanmati since her childhood, she says.
Sanmati Veko has just entered Class 7 in school. On June 8, 2016 when the incident occurred, she was two days away from her 12th birthday.
"I was visiting my sister during the summer break," she relates in soft tones. "My sister and brother-in-law run a small grocery store in my village."
She is from Pondum village, about 12 kilometres from Dantewada town. There is a Central Reserve Police Force camp in the neighbouring Jaram village, about a kilometre away. The camp was set up around two years ago and since then the security forces have been regular customers.
"On Wednesday I was alone in the shop when the call came," she continues. The caller was a young policeman from the camp. She knew him as RR Netam. "On one of his visits to the shop in April, he had asked my sister, Kumli, for a notebook saying he needed to write something. He wrote his name and mobile number on one of the pages and gave the notebook to me."
He started calling frequently on the store's mobile number. "Whenever he managed to speak to me he would tell me: 'Mai tumhe chahata hun (I want you).' I told him I was engaged. But he would say that even if I had another relation, 'mai tumhe utha kar le jaonga (I will abduct you).' He said he wanted to marry me."
So that evening when he called, Sanmati told him that she was about to close the shop. But he came soon afterwards. "It was around 5.30 pm when he arrived," she said. "I was attending to other customers. He hung around. He was still there when I was getting ready to leave. I thought he would go, but suddenly he pushed me in the smaller room inside the shop and switched the light off. He silenced me by clamping his hand on my mouth, threatened me with dire consequences if I made a noise or told anybody." In the dark hours that followed, his movements were slow but intention firm. He stayed all night, leaving at first light. He could not leave unnoticed, however, and was chased, but managed to escape.
Sanmati's humiliation, confusion, and fear were such that she stayed indoors for most of the next two days without food except for a brief visit to the handpump behind the shop for water. Her neighbours and relatives, however, had realised that something untoward had happened and sent word to Kumli and Aaitu Mandavi, her brother-in-law.
Aaitu was ill and away for treatment. Upon return on Saturday morning, they realised that some cash, about Rs. 35,000, was also missing. An angry Kumli first took out her frustration by subjecting Sanmati to a beating. More upset after that, she headed to the jungle with suicide in mind. Aaitu was able to contain the situation and contacted an Aam Aadmi Party worker in the village, who contact AAP leader, Soni Sori.
In the next few hours a police complaint was made. Medical examination was conducted that evening and an FIR registered at the Dantewada police station.
Unlike many cases where the name of the perpetrator is unknown, in this case there was a name – RR Netam. On enquiry, the Town Inspector said that there was no such person on the Jaram camp records.
But a section of the police force had realised that the wanted person was DR Netam, who was on the register. He was however not arrested until the following evening. In the meantime, it seems that the police attempted to effect a compromise.
Sunday mid-day saw the arrival of the accused along with a dozen or so other men from his village to Soni Sori's house at Geedam. Aaitu, who had also come, said that they had first come to Pondum that morning but he had refused to talk to them. He said that there was talk of samjhauta (compromise) and that he was adamantly against it.
Indeed, that was the flow of the conversation where it was revealed that the full name of the accused was Dashman Netam. He was 32-year-old. He was educated till Class 10, and employed as sahayak arakshak (assistant constable) in the Chhattisgarh Auxiliary Armed Force, since 2011. This force, we may recall, was formed after a Supreme Court order in July that year that SPOs (Special Police Officers) be disbanded. In the ongoing anti-Maoist counter-insurgency operations, SPOs had become notorious for committing various acts of arson and violence, including rape. That they enjoyed a certain impunity was well known.
Dashman is married and has two children. "He got involved with another woman once before and we had to prevail upon him not to bring home another wife," said his father-in-law, who had come with Dashman's brother, a few other relatives and the sarpanch of their panchayat, Maniram Murami. They were from Jodatarai village, that falls under Barsur police station of Dantewada district. They said that the police had come to Jodatarai the previous evening, and taken Dashman with them to the Additional Superintendent of Police. From what they said, it seemed that the effort at "compromise" had some approval from higher-ups.
However, when the Assistant Superintendent of Police was asked about this on the phone, he denied having met Dashman on Saturday evening, emphatically stating that had that been the case, he would have been arrested immediately. However, the presence of the sarpanch, a government functionary, cannot be undermined.
In the face-to-face meeting that ensued, Dashman sat quietly. Questions were asked. He admitted that he had spent the night there but denied rape. He said that he had informed a friend in the camp before leaving that evening. Later, when he had not returned, his friend had called, and he told him that he was sleeping close by. Sanmati also outlined her side of the story. As did Aaitu who recalled the number of times he had scolded Netam to correct his behaviour, pointing out that Sanmati was a minor.
It was impressed upon the group that there was no question of compromise. The Town Inspector arrested Dashman Netam that evening.
This is a simple story. But one that shows a consequence of militarisation – especially for those living in the vicinity of police stations and camps – that does not often come to light. The power of a man in uniform, the gallant admission of love, the promise of marriage, the inability to hear a "No". The attempt at a compromise indicates that compromises happen – that other such instances may have been suppressed in a similar vein.
The purported aim of militarisation is to provide security, but the people of Bastar have been forced to live lives clouded with insecurity on an everyday basis.
The name of the girl has been changed to protect her identity.