On October 10, a 14-year-old schoolgirl was returning home from the market in Kunduli in Odisha’s Koraput district when she was accosted by four men in battle fatigues, who allegedly gangraped her. Nearly five months later, on January 22, the Class 9 student’s mother found her hanging from a beam in the puja room of their house in Musaguda village, a tiny hamlet in Kunduli. The girl was declared dead at the Community Health Centre.

“This is not a suicide,” said Radhika Chhati, the girl’s aunt, at the village on January 27. “Our girl wanted justice and the government and police officers have collectively murdered her.”

Sitting next to her sister-in-law, the student’s mother, Domai Chhati, was subdued. She said that if the government had offered her daughter a job, “even a peon’s job”, she would perhaps have overcome the trauma of her rape. “But they offered nothing,” she said. “Instead they tortured her to withdraw the rape allegations against the jawans.”

In the last week of January, a few days after they buried the child, the family, who belong to the Dalit community, narrated how the student was subjected to immense trauma after her alleged rape. Among other things, the police made attempts to coerce her to implicate village folk instead of security forces, prevented her from meeting her family, and state authorities made insensitive attempts to rehabilitate her.

It is also evident that state authorities violated several laws while dealing with her case. These include laws that outline the protocol to be followed when minors are sexually assaulted, those related to crimes against members of the Dalit community, as well as laws on the handling of juveniles accused of crimes.

A photograph of the schoolgirl (sitting) with her friend.

The assault

The teenager studied in a government school, 1.5 km from Musaguda village, which is part of Sorisapodar gram panchayat and comes under the jurisdiction of the Pottangi police station. Her family is one of 16 families living there. Most of them are Dalits who follow the Alekh Mahima dharma, a Hindu reform movement of the 17th Century. The remaining villagers are Christians.

The public transport stop closest to the village is the Malimarla crossing, 2.5 km away. Villagers returning home usually disembark here and walk home, cutting through the forest.

On October 10, the student had gone to the Kunduli market to collect a passport size photograph that she needed to submit in school. While returning, her auto dropped her off at Malimarla crossing, from where she started walking home.

Later that morning, dishevelled and bruised, she stumbled into her aunt’s house in the village and collapsed, said Sunita Chhati, her 22-year-old cousin, who was at home that day. Sunita Chhati said that the schoolgirl narrated the entire incident to her. She had crossed the neighbouring Lenjhigarh village before noon when she was accosted by four “kabra” men. In local parlance, the word “kabra” refers to security personnel in uniform. They dragged her to a nearby hilltop, where they allegedly raped her. “There were awful marks on her body,” said Sunita Chhati.

Koraput district has four paramilitary camps in the 70-km stretch between Pottangi and Jeypore towns, including those of the Border Security Force, the Central Reserve Police Force’s elite CoBRA specialised unit, and the India Reserve Battalion.

Family members took the girl to Kunduli hospital, which referred her to SLN Medical College in Koraput. A First Information Report was filed that day itself against unknown persons.

Dumoi Chhati, the schoolgirl's mother. (Photo credit: Malini Subramaniam).

Flaws in FIR

The first of many shortcomings on the part of state authorities was evident in the First Information Report itself. A case was filed under sections relating to gangrape and unnatural sex of the Indian Penal Code and a section of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, relating to punishment for aggravated penetrative sexual assault. However, a section of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, which applies particularly to offences committed by security forces personnel, was not applied. Additionally, despite the fact that the victim belonged to the Dalit community, the police did not file a case under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

This was not all. The schoolgirl’s testimony at a public hearing held in Bhubaneswar on December 29, 2017, outlines the harassment she faced at the hands of state authorities who seemed keen that she implicate anyone other than security forces. She said that from the day she was admitted in the Koraput hospital, police officers started exerting pressure on her to say on record that she was raped by men from her village and not by police personnel. She also alleged that the Director General of Police, Odisha, offered her Rs, 90,000 in exchange for her signature on a blank sheet of paper, which she refused. A press release from the DGP’s office that same day stated that such allegations were “false, fabricated, malicious and motivated”. It added that the Odisha DGP had at no point interacted with the complainant.

The student was kept at Koraput hospital for 17 days under constant surveillance, ostensibly for her own safety. At the public hearing, she recounted that authorities did not allow her to meet members of her family while in hospital despite several requests.

Domai Chhati also narrated at the hearing that she was eventually allowed a few minutes with her daughter, but always in the presence of a police official. She asked: “My question is – if my daughter was not raped, what treatment was going on and why was she kept under police protection.”

The schoolgirl's grave. (Photo credit: Malini Subramaniam).

Attempted suicide

Besides the dozens of police personnel keeping a watch on her, a child care personnel was also present on the directions of the Odisha Human Rights Commission, confirmed District Child Protection Officer Rajashri Das.

The District Child Protection Officer is an employee of the state’s women and child development department whose job is to ensure the protection and rehabilitation of child rape victims. Asked about the nature of treatment the girl received at the Koraput hospital, Das dismissed it as “minor”, adding that it was mostly in response to the girl’s “frivolous complaints of aches in her stomach, neck, hand”.

In her testimony in Bhubaneswar, the schoolgirl also narrated that one day when she was still in hospital and unable to walk properly, she was “carried by a police team…to the site of rape”. She added that she was not given any food that whole day. Das confirmed that the girl was taken to the site of her alleged rape on October 27, but added that “the minor was certainly in a condition to walk”.

The schoolgirl was then sent to stay in a private child care home in Jeypore, about 70 km away from her village. One night, she was admitted to the Jeypore district hospital after she complained of severe pain while urinating, said Das. She was subsequently treated for a urinary tract infection. Das said that the student tried to escape from that hospital, and at another time, tried to hang herself from the ceiling fan in her hospital room.

She was discharged from the Jeypore hospital on October 30 after which she was referred to a juvenile home in Dumriput, 32 km from her village. Both her family and the District Child Protection Officer concur that she was happier there. She had girls her age for company and the atmosphere was cheerful. Her aunt said that she would join the girls in dancing and looked happy.

But in mid-November, Das received orders from the Women and Child Development Department to send her to a government-aided institution. She was sent to a residential girl’s school in Kotpad, 106 km from her village. Her family says she was reluctant to shift out of the juvenile home. On November 17, she overdosed on iron tablets and started vomiting blood. She ended up at the Koraput hospital again.

The District Child Protection Officer said that the schoolgirl’s repeated attempts to hurt herself were an attempt to remain in hospital for more “publicity and gains”.

On November 18, the schoolgirl was referred to the SCB Medical College in Cuttack, about 546 km from her village. In her testimony in Bhubaneswar, she recorded that “she was tied to the bed in the ICU [Intensive Care Unit]…” of the hospital. Her testimony says: “They were not allowing me to talk to anybody, rather tortured me mentally. I was kept under surveillance like an accused…Though my mother met me in the hospital, I was not allowed to share anything as the lady police officer stood by us. I requested my mother to take me from the hospital”.

Radhika Chhati said: “The doctors [in Cuttack] and police were making designs to declare our child mentally unstable and we therefore decided to bring her back home.”

The schoolgirl was discharged from hospital on November 27 after her mother gave the Child Welfare Committee an undertaking that she would take full responsibility for her.

The District Child Protection Officer did not make a single follow-up visit. Das said that this was because she felt the Chhati family was opposed to her suggestions. Asked if she felt that she had done her job as a child protection officer, Das said that she did what she could, adding that she never imagined that the rape victim would commit suicide.

The mother (front), grandmother and aunt of the schoolgirl outside their home. (Photo credit: Malini Subramaniam).

Coercing a confession

The investigation into the alleged rape also raises several questions of the police and state authorities.

A three-member investigation team headed by deputy superintendent of police Mamata Panigrahi was constituted to investigate the case. On October 14, the police rounded up four persons Pratap Chhati, Sonu Khemundu, Arjun Padal, and a juvenile – all from the village – and interrogated them separately. They were released that evening but picked up again the next day.

The juvenile was singled out for coercive interrogation. “They accused me of having committed the rape,” he said, visibly disturbed. “When I said, ‘How can I, sir? She is my sister.’ I was told, ‘Aajkal sab chalta hai. [Everything goes now]’”

He said that the police stripped off his shirt and insisted scratches on his body indicated that he was the rapist. He alleged that senior Koraput police officers – including the superintendent of police, deputy inspector general of police and the inspector in-charge – were present at his interrogation. He said that they coaxed him to agree to the crime and promised that nothing would happen to him. They even promised to get him married to the girl. When he remained resolute, he alleged that the superintendent of police beat him on the soles of his feet with a baton and abused him vilely.

The interrogation, which began around 4 pm on October 15, continued late into the night. Around midnight, the juvenile said, accompanied by senior police officials, he was taken to the Koraput hospital and was forced into accepting the crime in front of the victim, who was admitted there. He said that unable to bear the pain and humiliation, he capitulated. The schoolgirl was woken up and asked to acknowledge that the juvenile was indeed the person who had assaulted her. But she denied it, insisting that the boy was her brother and that the men who raped her were four uniformed personnel.

Ignoring the other problems with the juvenile’s coerced confession, this confrontation is in complete violation of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, which clearly lays down that in case of sexual assault of a minor, “the child must not be brought face to face with the accused while giving his/her statement to the police or magistrate, or while testifying in court”.

The juvenile was handed over to his parents on October 21, a week after he was taken into custody. During his police custody, he was not produced before the Child Welfare Committee even once. This is a violation of the Juvenile Justice Act, which states:

“As soon as a child alleged to be in conflict with law is apprehended by the police, such child shall be placed under the charge of the special juvenile police unit or the designated child welfare police officer, who shall produce the child before the Board without any loss of time…”

Denying that the juvenile was tortured, a senior Koraput police officer, who wanted to remain anonymous, said that the boy was taken into custody “for interrogation, [and was] not arrested”. The officer claimed that the police custody was necessary because the threat of left-wing extremism in the area and the anger of the villagers would have otherwise impeded the investigation.

The police picked up Arjun Padal and Sonu Khemundu, who also live in Musaguda village, in connection with the rape on October 15. They were released later. (Photo credit: Malini Subramaniam).

Politics over forensics

The forensics report is also embroiled in controversy.

The Forensic Science Laboratory, Bhubaneswar, collected the minor’s clothes for testing on October 14. It submitted a report on the biology and serology examination on October 18. The contents of this report were not made public. On November 7, Mahindra Pratap, the additional director general of police (human rights protection cell), as well as Kantar Vishal Singh, the superintendent of police in Koraput, spoke to the media, denying that the girl was gangraped and said “medical reports” said so. “As per medical reports given by the team of doctors, chemical examination tests and police investigation, there is no proof that the girl was gangraped,” said Singh.

On Republic Day, regional channel Odisha TV released a Forensic Science Laboratory report that confirmed the presence of “human semen” in two separate patches of the girl’s underwear. They came from two separate blood groups, A and B.

The laboratory moved swiftly to discredit its report. In a press release issued on January 28, it said the October 18 report was not the “final inter-divisional report”, which was submitted on October 23.

There is speculation in Odisha about why the October 18 report surfaced when it did.

Odisha Television is owned by Jagi Mangat Panda, the wife of Baijayant Panda, an MP of the ruling Biju Janata Dal who was suspended for anti-party activities on January 24.

“Although OTV [Odisha Television] did a great service by revealing the FSL [Forensic Science Laboratory] report, one cannot but question the intent,” said a senior journalist from the region who wished to remain anonymous. “Perhaps they were in possession of the report prior to this but as the tables turned against Panda, he chose an opportune time to settle political scores with the BJD [Biju Janata Dal].”

With Odisha due for elections next year, Opposition parties, including the Congress and BJP, have seized upon the alleged rape as an opportunity to corner the Naveen Patnaik government, which has ruled the state since 2004. Since October, Opposition parties, as well as the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), have called a series of bandhs and rallies on the issue.

Though Patnaik announced a judicial enquiry into the case, both the Congress and the BJP want the Central Bureau of Investigation to take charge. At least three pleas relating to the girl’s case have also been filed in Odisha courts. But so far, there has not been a single arrest.

Bhagwan Chhati, the schoolgirl's brother. (Photo credit: Malini Subramaniam).