In August 2017, the unexpected happened in Dantewada. For the first time in Chhattisgarh’s conflict-ridden Bastar region, two men of the Central Reserve Police Force were arrested on charges of sexual assault.

Sixteen schoolgirls at a state-run residential school in Dantewada testified that CRPF men molested them during an official event on July 31 to celebrate Raksha Bandhan. The girls, in Classes 5 to 10, recounted how the men groped them on the pretext of conducting security checks.

The following month, Shamim Ahmed and Niraj Kandwal of the CRPF’s 231st company were arrested on charges of sexual assault and harassment. They were booked under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code but the chargesheet was filed under Section 10 of the Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences as well as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Atrocities Act.

A year and a half later, despite the detailed testimonies against them, the CRPF men stand acquitted of all charges. On January 9, 2019, the district and sessions court in Bastar passed an acquittal order, observing the students had made conflicting statements and failed to uniformly identify the men. It also said there had been “unreasonable delay” in filing the FIR. examined court records and written testimonies of the students and their teachers submitted to National and State Human Rights Commissions, and the offices of the chief minister and the governor. The testimonies were collected on August 11 by Sarva Adivasi Samaj, a local Adivasi forum. also spoke with the students, parents, social activists and local representatives in Palnar and Dantewada. What emerged is a frightening picture of the state machinery mobilising to weaken the case, protect the security personnel and deny justice to vulnerable schoolchildren.

Festival that turned into a nightmare

In 2017, India celebrated Raksha Bandhan on August 7. In Dantewada, however, the administration decided to organise a celebration inside a school in Palnar, one week earlier. The festival, when sisters tie rakhis to their brothers seeking protection, is alien to the Adivasis of Bastar. “It is celebrated every year in security forces camps in Bastar so the jawans on duty here do not miss home,” said Sukalu Mudami, the young sarpanch of Palnar.

Palnar, nearly 50 km from the district headquarters, has several residential schools for both boys and girls. A CRPF camp is less than 2 km from these schools. It houses two companies – 111st and 231st – of the paramilitary force.

At around 11 am on July 31, around 100 armed CRPF personnel flooded into the Kanya Awasya Vidhyalaya for the Raksha Bandhan function, while another 100 spread out outside the campus for security. The function was attended by, among other officials, Superintendent of Police Kamlochan Kashyap, CRPF Deputy Inspector General DN Lal and Kuakonda block panchayat CEO Arun Verma.

The school housed around 450 girls, studying in Classes 1 to 9. Another 118 girls studying in Classes 9 to 11 and staying in the Pre Metric Girls’ School, a kilometre away, were asked to join the function as well.

“The programme included schoolgirls tying rakhis to 100-odd CRPF men and the officials, followed by songs and dance,” Draupti Sinha, the school superintendent, said in her statement to the Sarva Adivasi Samaj. The police superintendent, CRPF’s deputy inspector general and some paramilitary men danced on the stage with the students, she added. The event ended at around 5 pm.

It was at this function that 13 girls from the Kanya Awasya and three from the Pre Metric Girls’ School said they were assaulted. Kanya Awasya is one of a network of portable residential schools, commonly called Porta Cabins, which Chhattisgarh has set up for children from interior villages said to be “highly Naxal sensitive”.

Come here beta, I have to search you’

Asha, then in Class 9, was one of the complainants. She has been at the Kanya Awasya for the past nine years. met her at the school and her parents in their Sameli village on January 24.

This is Asha’s story. Around noon, it started to drizzle and the students took shelter on the school’s verandah. Asha headed towards the toilet. “Come back soon,” a CRPF man standing nearby said as she walked past him. When she came out, he told her to stand up against a wall because he needed to frisk her. “Come here beta, I have to search you,” Asha recalled the CRPF man directing her. “He told me to turn towards the wall and raise my hands. He then slid his hands slowly, and purposefully, up from my feet to my chest.”

She began to cry and told the CRPF man she would scream. So, he let her go. She ran back to the function, scared and confused. She did not speak about it to anyone until she found some other girls huddled together in the hostel, whispering and crying. The superintendent heard about this and asked the girls what had happened. They said 13 of them – and three girls from the higher secondary school – had been molested by the CRPF men.

Kanya Awasya Vidhyalaya in Palnar. Photo credit: Malini Subramaniam

In their written statements, the girls described in harrowing detail what the CRPF men had subjected them to. A Class 5 girl said she was accosted by a CRPF man when she went to wash her hands after lunch. He asked her to sit on a bench, she said, and began harshly fondling her breasts until she cried in pain. He let her go but not before warning her not to open her mouth. Three girls from the Pre Metric School alleged that they were made to stand facing a wall and groped.

Conspiracy to defame security forces’

Sukalu Mudami, sarpanch of Palnar, heard about the CRPF men’s “gandi harkat” from the teachers and Sinha. He claimed that some of the school staff were reluctant to make the assault on the girls public, fearing it would harm their education. But Sukalu Mudami convinced them to bring it to the notice of senior state officials. So, instead of informing the “samaj”, or the village elders, about the incident – a decision for which he was subsequently reprimanded by them – Sukalu Mudami, along with the teachers and some local representatives, took the matter up with Saurabh Kumar, then district collector. Kumar was shocked when he heard what had happened, Sukalu Mudami said, and called in the police superintendent.

The police officer listened sceptically as they narrated the girls’ accusations once again, the sarpanch claimed, and then took aside the sarpanch and Zilla Parishad member Nandlal Mudami, whispering threateningly, “Mujhe isme shadyantra ki boo aa rahi hai.” I smell a conspiracy, he said, accusing them of trying to defame the security forces.

The same day, August 1, the collector, along with the police superintendent, the CRPF deputy inspector general and the district education officer Ahilya Thakur, went to the school, Mudami said.

Thakur spoke with the girls, the sarpanch continued, “and they didn’t seem scared”. When the collector asked them if they could identify the men who had frisked them, some of them replied that they could while a few expressed their doubts. The collector and the police superintendent assured the girls of action and left.

Sarpanch of Palnar Sukalu Mudami. Photo credit: Malini Subramaniam

Asked why the function was held inside the school and not at the helipad in front of the paramilitary camp, DN Lal, the CRPF deputy inspector general, said the rains had set in and they chose the school as it was “conveniently close”.

Did he take any action after learning about the allegations? Lal replied that since he felt “responsible” for his presence at the function, he ensured the accused men were immediately handed over to the police after they were identified. They were given “departmental punishment” as well, he added. What punishment? They were transferred after being released on bail, Lal added, and their salaries were not increased for two years.

In any case, Lal interpreted the court’s order of “acquittal due to lack of evidence” as casting doubt on the veracity of the allegations of molestation. “This area is under tremendous hold of Naxals making it easy for anyone to claim anything to shame the forces,” he said, claiming a “conspiracy to defame the security forces cannot be ruled out”.

Unreasonable delay in filing FIR’

One of the grounds the court cited for acquitting the CRPF men was that the school superintendent took eight days to file the first information report, describing it as “unreasonable delay”. But the prosecution does not seem to have delved into the reasons for the delay.

In her statement, Sinha stated that she learned about the incident the same evening when the girls, who “appeared scared and were constantly crying”, narrated their ordeal. She informed “senior officers” of the incident over the phone at around 10.30 pm. The next morning, she went with the Palnar sarpanch and some teachers to meet the collector, who ordered Thakur, the district education officer, to speak with the children.

Thakur told the court some of the girls “shared the manner in which the CRPF jawans had molested them on the pretext of frisking”. They “appeared scared”, she added, and when asked if they could recognise the men who had misbehaved with them, some girls expressed their doubt while others responded positively. “It was thought best to let the children ‘normalise’ and the decision was to gather evidence ‘by other means’ before filing the first information report,” Thakur said.

Sinha explained her delay in filing the FIR saying the “girls were unable to clearly recollect the incidents before the Collector”. But Sinha also said she lodged the FIR after the District Mission Supervisor told her on August 7 that “an FIR is required to be filed”, indicating that she was awaiting directions from her superiors and that is what caused the delay.

Swept under the carpet’

“If not for the Facebook post by social activist Himanshu Kumar on August 6 that caught immediate attention, the matter would have been conveniently swept under the carpet,” said the Adivasi activist Soni Sori, who was able to confirm the allegations of molestation after speaking with some of the girls on August 5 when they returned home for the Raksha Bandhan holidays.

As the media started to report about the girls’ ordeal, Dantewada’s police and civil administration felt compelled to take some measures. Until then, said the sarpanch, the administration had done nothing more than assuring him that the culprits were being identified. “It was close to a week and no action had been taken nor were the girls being allowed to meet anyone,” he added. “But then as the news came out in the public, the FIR was lodged on August 7 and the arrests were made on August 9. Had the incident not got wide coverage, the administration would have suppressed it.”

In particular, the collector did not take any action for a week after learning about the incident. The court, though, made no observations about his role.

The Pre Metric Girls’ School in Palnar. Photo credit: Malini Subramaniam

Babita Pandey, chairperson of Dantewada’s Child Welfare Committee, said under the Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences Act, her agency should have been notified about the incident within 24 hours. But it wasn’t. She learned about it two days later and went to the school along with representatives of the NGO Childline, only to be shown a signboard, “Prohibition of entry without the collector’s permission.”

She then approached the Kuakonda police station for details about the incident and to complain about not being notified as required by law.

Highly questionable identification exercise’

A day after the FIR was filed, the girls were asked to identify the accused. “We were called one by one into a room at the school where passport size photographs were stuck on large drawing sheets for us to recognise the men who had misbehaved with us,” said Asha. The exercise was done in presence of Sinha, Thakur and Divya Potai, Dantewada’s tehsildar.

The photographs, 201 of them, were provided to the Kuakonda police by Ankit Shukla, commandant of the 111st company who was stationed on duty in Palnar on the day of the incident. Once the identification exercise was done, the police returned the photos to Shukla “in an unsealed envelope”.

Procedurally, the tehsildar should have sealed the pictures in an envelope and handed them over to the police station concerned, the Dantewada court’s order noted, adding, “Instead, returning the photographs in an unsealed envelope to the commandant could have given sufficient opportunity to tamper with them.”

The pictures were identified by the numbers written on them. The court found photos 35, 48, 55, 98, 123, 127, 133 and 185 “completely defaced” while photo 147 was “unclear”. Photo 147 had been picked out by four girls during the identification exercise.

From all this, the court concluded that the identification process was “ridden with bias towards the accused”. Indeed, conducting the exercise “in a closed room with sufficient light and in presence of police personnel” was in itself “highly questionable”.

Conflicting statements of students’

The acquittal order noted the girls were made to narrate the incident to several people, thus “strongly influencing the accuracy of the incident”.

Over a year and five months after the assault, the girls were made to record their statements multiple times – before the police, then the magistrate and finally in the court. They also gave testimonies to the Sarva Adivasi Samaj and the Child Welfare Committee. They were called to identify the accused twice, to pick out numbered photos a week after the assault and then for a parade of the arrested CRPF men on December 15, 2017.

The court considered three testimonies in all. The first by Sinha, the school superintendent, noted that some of the girls mentioned they were molested by two CRPF personnel while others accused one man.

The second testimony, recorded by the investigating police officer Santoshi Grace on August 8 after questioning all the 16 girls who were abused, mentioned that they were molested by one man. The third statement, recorded by the girls before the magistrate on August 10, accused one personnel as well.

In the end, only four of the girls could identify the alleged molesters. Mamta picked out the photographs of both the accused on August 8 but was able to identify only one during the parade. Asked about this during the trial, Mamta explained that she was “searched” by only one man, while the other watched. She also told her schoolmates the CRPF man had tried to force her into the bathroom but she screamed and he her let go, recalled Asha. And she could clearly identify the man since she had tied him a rakhi.

Two of the girls said in their testimonies that they were molested by one man and picked out his picture on August 8. At the identification parade, however, they pointed to two men. The fourth girl turned hostile. She denied having identified one man during the photo identification exercise, though records submitted to the court by the tehsildar show her doing so. Noting these discrepancies, the court concluded they were enough to acquit the two CRPF personnel.

But the “contradictions and confusion reflected in the statements of the victims is not unusual,” explained Enakshi Ganguly of the child rights organisation HAQ. “Any survivor made to speak to different people even before the legal proceedings have been initiated and to repeat what she has gone through is not only traumatised by reliving the trauma but, in this instance, also receives unstated message that she is not believed. It is not surprising that the children get confused and may even turn hostile.”

Question of accountability

The court’s noted the school’s superintendent allowed over 100 armed CRPF personnel into the premises despite government orders prohibiting the entry of men.

But Sinha, the superintendent, had explained in her statement that Verma, the Kuakonda block panchayat’s CEO, visited the school on July 30 to inform her about the programme. She was not given a “written communication”, Sinha said, but Verma assured her the event was being organised on “orders from the authorities”. Further, the presence of senior police and CRPF officials and Sinha’s supervisors at the programme presumably put her concerns to rest.

“It is difficult to fathom why senior officials such as the collector, police superintendent, CRPF deputy inspector general and top people from the education department are not being held accountable for such a shameful event,” said Prakash Thakur, president of the Sarva Adivasi Samaj in Bastar.

Prakash Thakur, president of the Sarva Adivasi Samaj in Bastar. Photo credit: Malini Subramaniam

The Adivasi forum shared the testimonies they had collected with a team of the National Human Rights Commission that visited Palnar in October 2017. The team accused the Dantewada administration of covering up the “heinous crime” and held senior officials, including the collector, superintendent of police, CRPF deputy inspector general, responsible.

“What stopped the collector from registering an FIR immediately after he heard the girls narrate their ordeal?” asked Sori. “If this is not a cover-up by the CRPF and the Chhattisgarh police, what is it? We have been consistently bringing to light cases of sexual assault by the CRPF and the police in Bijapur, Sukma and Dantewada.”

Mamta Sharma, a social activist, added, “It is devastating enough that blatant violations happen in the presence of senior officers and they are not even held accountable. Instead they use their powers to protect the perpetrators. This means if such things happen in future, they will continue to look the other way.”

The court had asked for CCTV footage from the school “to ascertain the facts” but the principal Dharam Das claimed the cameras were not working at the time. His failure to explain how many cameras were under repair and when exactly, the court said, harmed the prosecution’s case.

“As head of the District Child Protection Unit, the district collector must know that the POCSO Act calls for mandatory reporting,” said Ganguly. “The girls complained, as did the head of the institution. Instead of complaining to the police he chose to ‘investigate’.”

There was pressure’

The girls claimed they were instructed by the school superintendent not to speak about their ordeal. “She said the school’s reputation, and our futures, could be at stake,” said Asha. “Before the school broke for Raksha Bandhan holidays, we were told not to share or discuss the matter with anyone, including family members.”

Asha’s mother, a widow with four children, recalled that when her daughter returned home, “she was very quiet and reticent” and refused to go back to school after the holidays. “The district education officer came to enquire why she was not attending school,” her aunt said. “Madam told her not to give any statement as her family would be in danger.”

Her mother said “pressure” from district officials took a toll on her daughter and she fell ill, missing a month of school as a result. The officials also didn’t allow the family to accompany Asha when her statement was recorded, she added.

“There was pressure,” admitted Pandey, chairperson of the Child Welfare Committee. “However, I did not budge.”

She would not spell out what kind of pressure she was subjected to, however, or by whom, merely saying, “You know how things work here.”

Compensation for the girls

Sharma, the social activist, wrote to the National Human Rights Commission on August 8, seeking “immediate intervention in the absence of state inaction in such a serious matter”. In response, the commission sent a three-member team led by Deputy Superintendent of Police PMS Gill to the school in late October 2017, and they “interacted with the girls, teachers, senior police and CRPF officers”. Based on the team’s findings, the commission closed the matter “after seeking certain measures like strict guidelines for the district administration and the education authorities for organising such functions”. It also sought compensation for all the 16 survivors and directed the CRPF to “issue necessary guidelines for dos and don’ts during community policing”.

Accordingly, the district administration announced Rs 1,50,000 for each of the girls and Rs 50,000 more if the court ruled in their favour. Five of the girls refused to accept the money but it was anyway deposited in their bank accounts. “Initially, the compensation was offered only to girls belonging to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities,” said Sharma.

It was only after Sharma sought the National Human Rights Commission’s intervention, arguing the pain and humiliation suffered by the girls can’t be “compensated as per their caste” that the money was provided to them all.

“This is a classic example of state failure,” Ganguly concluded. “The delay in filing the FIR, the utterly flawed identification process, as noted by the judge, reflects a deliberate attempt to derail the criminal justice system by those responsible to protect and provide justice to children. It is equally intriguing why the court did not hold those responsible for this derailment accountable despite identifying those lapses.”

Some names have been changed to protect identity.

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