Human Rights Abuses

Meet Chhattisgarh jailer Varsha Dongre: Suspended for exposing torture and sexual abuse of Adivasis

‘The government is highly upset with me,’ says the civil servant, because of old hostility – for exposing its ‘corrupt face’.

“I have seen 14-16-year-old Adivasi girls being stripped naked in police stations and tortured. They were given electric shocks on their wrists and breasts. I have seen the marks. It horrified me. Why did they use third degree torture on minors?”

This Facebook post by Varsha Dongre on April 26 was insider confirmation of the widespread abuse of human rights by the security forces battling Maoist insurgency in the tribal heartland of Chhattisgarh. Naturally, it infuriated the state apparatus that has done everything in its power to keep such shameful conduct from being exposed. So, the 35-year-old deputy superintendent of Raipur jail was duly suspended, and then “attached” to Ambikapur jail about 350 km away.

The preliminary investigation ordered by the Chhattisgarh police has already found “prima facie evidence” against Dongre of violating the Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules, 1964, said Girdhari Nayak, the director general of prisons.

“She is a government servant, not a freelancer,” Nayak said over the phone. “A government servant is bound by a code of conduct. Social media is not the place for a government servant to post anything she wants.”

The suspension order, issued by Deputy Inspector General of Prisons KK Gupta, lists two grounds for the action against Dongre – “making irresponsible statements and citing false facts as well as staying away from duty without approval”.

“No charge sheet was given to me,” Dongre said. “Instead within a day of my response, my suspension order was issued, which is unfair.”

Her response was to the 32-page letter sent by the investigating officer RR Rai asking why the social activist Himanshu Kumar had shared Dongre’s post of April 26. It also sought “clarification” on a series of photos posted and tagged by Dongre as well as comments made by her on Facebook posts of her friends in April.

Rai is mandated to find out, among other things, whether Dongre’s post contravened the General Administration Department’s guidelines on the use of social media by public servants.

“I can be responsible for my posts and, therefore, liable to respond to that and not to posts of friends who edit posts in accordance with their notion and conviction,” Dongre said in her reply to Rai on May 5.

As for her post, she insisted, it was made with “full responsibility by exercising the right to freedom of expression”. “I have never compromised state secrets, departmental information or documents,” she said. “But the responsibility of a civil servant is not just to ensure civic services, it is also to secure the constitutional rights of our people.”

Setting the record right

Her revelation of atrocities inflicted on Adivasis is one with that mandate to secure rights for the poor and the weak. “Freedom of expression is granted to every citizen of this country,” Dongre told Scroll.in. “We do not pawn this fundamental right after becoming civil servants. We are also independent citizens and should have the freedom to speak against injustice against the public.”

She realises, of course, that walking this path is not easy. It is arduous, “strewn with hurdles, conspiracies and unknown dangers”. The battle, she said, “hinges on two main points”. “One is that Article 244 of the Constitution which ensures water, forest and land rights to the Adivasis needs to be strictly adhered to so that atrocities committed on Adivasis owing to corporate loot of minerals come to an end, paving the way for real development in sync with their natural surroundings,” she added. “Secondly, a civil servant is accountable both to the government and the public. Therefore, it is the duty of the civil servant to bring to light any unconstitutional practices so that they can be immediately rectified.”

She has sought to do just that: document abuse by the state and try to stop it. “I have come across several cases of atrocities both in Jagdalpur and Raipur,” Dongre said over the phone from her home in Kawardha, where she returned on suspension leave after joining duty at Ambikapur on May 10.

It was during her time as assistant jailer in Jagdalpur from 2008 to 2010 that she witnessed the torture of the young girls described in her April 26 post. She was inspecting the women’s cell of the Jagdalpur Jail, Dongre recalled, when she noticed four Adivasi girls who looked younger than even 14 years standing in a corner. She approached them to find out what they had been arrested for but the girls felt intimidated. But the other women prisoners, who had grown familiar with Dongre, encouraged them to talk. They were given electric shocks in the police station, they narrated, which had left 10-odd dark spots on their wrists and seven to eight dark spots on each side of their breasts. “The girls then broke down, so did most of us who were there,” Dongre recalled.

Did she report this to anyone? “Unfortunately, unlike now, there was no practice of maintaining medical records of prisoners on admission to the jail,” she said. It was only in May 2010 that the National Human Rights Commission made it mandatory for jails to maintain medical records of prisoners on admission.

That day, however, the jail doctor was present when the girls showed their scars, Dongre said, and she was equally shocked. Dongre asked the doctor to make a note of what she had witnessed so it supports the case of the girls, who had been arrested in “Naxali cases”.

Dongre does not know the exact date of the incident, but remembers going on leave a few days later. When she returned, she was informed the girls had been released on bail. She lost track of them as more cases piled up. But the incident deeply affected her. “Today when suggestions are made to the government for police and security forces to be stricter in Adivasi areas,” she said, “I feel concerned about the innocent people who live in this region.”

Dongre insisted that what she shared in her Facebook post “is neither new nor something that reveal state secrets”. “It is there in reports that are in public domain,” she pointed out, “the Supreme Court’s order of 2011, reports of the Central Bureau of Investigation on Tadmetla arson and loot case, of the National Human Rights Commission on Bijapur sexual assault. These reports clearly reflect the real situation in Bastar.”

“And these reports,” Dongre added, “reiterate what I have personally experienced during my tenure in Jagdalpur, Bastar.”

Then, why is she facing action? “The government is highly upset with me,” Dongre said, by way of an explanation. “The High Court order of August 26, 2016 in response to my petition on irregularities in the Public Services Commission exposed the corrupt face of the government.”

Old hostility

The petition was filed in 2006 and alleged corruption and favouritism by the Chhattisgarh State Public Service Commission in the recruitment for 147 civil services posts in 2003.

After the petition was filed, Dongre claimed, she met Chief Minister Raman Singh at his “Jan Darshan” on June 19, 2006 to complain about the irregularities in the 2003 recruitment, armed with incriminating documents she had accessed through the Right to Information. “I seek justice for me,” she recalled telling the chief minister. He said since the matter was in court, there was nothing he could do. She then requested a CBI enquiry. At this, the chief minster got angry and said, “Guard, take this woman out of here.’’

“In no time, male guards appeared from all directions,’ Dongre claimed, recalling that episode. “I was terribly shaken but I composed myself and said, ‘this is not required, I can go out by myself.’”

In August 2016, the court found the allegations valid and ordered for a fresh “merit list” to be prepared. It also directed the commission to pay Rs five lakh to Dongre as legal expense and Rs one lakh each to two other petitioners who had moved the court separately. “The petitioners have fought a long-drawn-out battle,” the court said in its order. “It is only because of the persistence and tenacity of the petitioners, especially Ku Varsha Dongre that these irregularities, acts of corruption, nepotism, favouritism etc have been brought out.”

“Three lawyers fought the case for nine years but there was no result,” Dongre said. Finally, “unable to pay the lawyers’ fees and disappointed that some of the important documents were deliberately not filed in the court”, she pleaded the case herself and won a favourable verdict. In the end, she remarked, “truth did triumph over corruption”.

That is not the only reason the state is after her, however, Dongre claimed. As the officer in charge of Raipur jail’s women’s wing, she “unearthed crimes against women prisoners and children”. She brought the abuse to the notice of the director general for prisons, she said, and mentioned it in her Annual Confidential Report as well.

“As a result of all this, I stood out like a sore thumb,” Dongre said. “The action against me is a reflection of their anger.”

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