Human rights activists have welcomed Friday’s statement by the National Human Rights Commission asking the Chhattisgarh government why it should not give monetary relief to 16 women who were raped and physically assaulted by security forces. But the activists have noted that the order does not mention prosecuting the guilty policemen or their supervising officers.
“Why is it that it is talking only about compensation and not about disciplinary actions for allowing these crimes to happen?” said Shreya, who was a part of one of the civil society fact-finding teams that brought to light the rapes, which occured in 2015 and 2016.
Added Shreya, who uses only one name: “It’s a huge victory for the claims of the woman to be validated when the police had been denying the allegations. The onus is now on the state to identify and prosecute the perpetrators.”
In a statement on Saturday, the Commission said there was prima facie evidence to prove the crimes and issued a notice to the state government asking it “to show cause why it should not recommend give interim monetary relief of Rs 37 lakh” to the women.
Since almost all the victims belonged to Adivasi communities, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes in April 2016 had recommended that the state government should invoke the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. However, the state government did not do this. “As a result of this, the due monetary relief under the [Act] has not been paid to the victims,” the Commission noted.
The Commission had begun its investigation into some incidents of sexual violence and looting by the security forces in Bijapur district after the Indian Express reported about them in November 2015. As the commission was carrying out its proceedings, it received complaints about other attacks, in Bijapur and in neighbouring Dantewada district.
However, the Commission was able to record the statements of only 14 of the 34 victims mentioned in First Information Reports about the assaults and has asked its Deputy Inspector General (Investigation) to set up a team to do so. It has asked the team to submit its report within a month.
The sexual assaults first came to national attention at the end of 2015, when a group of half a dozen activists from an independent collective called Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression, travelled to Basaguda in Bijapur. They uncovered chilling stories of sexual violence against several women in the district. Their report formed the basis of the Indian Express article.
With the help of the activists, four women from Pedagellur in Basaguda block of Bijapur on November 1, 2015, filed a First Information Report against a team of security personnel. This was the first time an FIR had been filed against security personnel since the rape laws were amended in 2013 after the brutal rape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi.
The FIR claimed that the armed men had raided several villages in the district between October 19-24, looting homes, molesting and raping three women, including a teenager. One girl said she was grazing cattle when she was blindfolded by security forces and raped by at least three men. Another woman, in the fourth month of her pregnancy, was dragged into a lake by security forces and raped in the water.
Another group of activists investigated cases of large-scale sexual violence that occurred in the region between January 11-14, 2016. These cases involved torture and looting in Kunna village in Sukma district and Nendra village in Bijapur district. Women in Kunna said that men in uniform had pressed their breasts to see if they were lactating and joked about impregnating them. At least 13 instances of gang rape were reported by the women in Nendra.
The Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression report was sent to the National Human Rights Commission on January 21, 2016.
Even after this, reports of rapes found their way out of the dense forests of Bastar. Between May 5 and 7, 2016, another civil society team visited villages in Bijapur and reported large-scale sexual violence and assault on Adivasi women by security forces in the Gangalur thana area.
The publication of these independent investigations landed several activists in trouble. In January, 2016, members of a civil vigilante group burnt effigies of Aam Aadmi Party leader Soni Sori and scholar-activist Bela Bhatia, who had led the team of women activists to Sukma and Bijapur to document the violence.
On February 4, leaflets were thrown into the home of Soni Sori at Geedam, warning her to not return to Bijapur on pain of death.
After repeatedly being harassed, Scroll.in contributor Malini Subramaniam left Jagdalpur, in the heart of Bastar, where she was living. She had reported extensively on the excesses of the security forces in the region. Two days later, a group of lawyers for the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group had to leave the town after an imminent threat of arrest. Members of the group had been part of the independent fact-finding teams and had represented many Adivasis in cases against the security forces. On February 20, 2016, Soni Sori was attacked by three men, who rubbed a corrosive agent all over her face.
Despite the Commission’s statement, the Chhattisgarh police seems unlikely to change its strategy in the region.
Last year, Inspector General of Bastar range SRP Kalluri had announced “Mission 2016”, to “rid Bastar of Maoists”. If the police are to be believed, the mission was a spectacular success. According to police records, 2016 registered the largest number of Maoist deaths since 2000, when Chhattisgarh was formed. However, activists have claimed that the forces have sometimes killed innocent villagers and branded them as Maoists.
Early this year, Kalluri held a press conference in Jagdalpur to announce his Mission 2017. This time the targets are different. “Certain lawyers, journalists and fact-finding teams of activists have tried to pressurise the police in the past few months,” he said according to reports in local newspapers on January 4. “They should be dealt with.”
While Kalluri was speaking to the media, in another part of the city, a civil vigilante group called AGNI (Action Group of National Integration) said it would step up its actions to stop “white-collared Naxals” from creating hurdles to Bastar’s development. They were referring to human rights activists and others who have criticised violations by the security forces in the region.
Already, human rights groups are under pressure. In December a seven-member fact-finding team from Telangana was arrested in Sukma district of Bastar. They were on their way to investigate the killing of a 13-year-old deaf boy who the police claimed was a Maoist. On January 2, their bail was rejected by the District Court in Dantewada. They were prosecuted under section 8 of the Chhattisgarh State Public Security Act.
Such police actions have somewhat dampened the victory human rights activists have achieved with the National Human Rights Commission order on Saturday. “Mission 2017 is being talked about everyday,” said Shalini Gera, a lawyer with the lawyer with the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group. “Not sure how much of a dent the NHRC order will cause it.”