An independent fact-finding team comprising representatives from different states and local activists on Wednesday released a preliminary report in connection with the gang rape of five workers of a non-governmental organisation at gunpoint in the Jharkhand’s Khunti district. The team was formed by the civil society group Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression.

The women were abducted on June 19 while they were performing a play at a school in Kochang village. They were reportedly taken to a nearby forest at gunpoint and then raped. They were later released. Last week, the police arrested two people in connection with the incident. Among them was Catholic priest Alfonso Alien, head of the school from where the women were abducted, PTI reported.

The police claimed the arrested men had revealed in their statement that they believed that “anti-Pathalgadi sentiments will be portrayed in the NGO’s nukkad natak and that they wanted to teach them a lesson”.

Pathalgadi is a practice adopted by some villages in Jharkhand to declare their gram sabha as the only sovereign authority, not the state or central government.

The fact-finding team’s team report has accused the state police of carrying out a campaign to tarnish the Pathalgadi movement instead of investigating the rape case. “In the name of pursuing unidentified suspects, the police has artificially linked those associated with the pathalgarhi movement with the gang rape, and has unleashed targeted persecution, harassment and arrests on them,” the report said.

The report further states: “There is sufficient evidence to suggest that the four bikers who committed the crime were not locals. One of those from the video has been identified as Baji Samant, resident of neighbouring Sarai-Kela. Yet, instead of pursuing these identifiable accused, the police, with the support of security personnel, is targeting pathalgarhi leaders as the prime suspects in the case.”

The team claimed that while the police had received information about the incident on June 19, they registered first information reports only on June 21. The fact-finding team said it was not allowed to meet the five women, currently in police custody.

“The Jharkhand police and administration are maintaining utmost secrecy in the actions and proceedings subsequent to the incident,” the report said. “The legal proceedings subsequent to the incident are shrouded in doubt, as these are based entirely on the questionable narrative proposed by the police and Jharkhand administration, without any avenues for independent verification and corroboration.”

On June 26, the police raided homes in Ghagra village, and six other villages, to arrest the suspects. During clashes between the people and the police, one person was killed. “Why did the police raid the gram sabha meeting in Ghagra where the pathalgari event was ongoing on the pretext of arresting the accused, when they knew that the accused belonged to Sarai-Kela?” the team asked.

The fact-finding team demanded an independent inquiry into the alleged gangrape and its aftermath, by a committee comprising retired judges, layers and women’s rights activists. “The team also demands that the state government ensure the immediate removal of the five survivors from the control of the Khunti police and that some safe arrangement be made for them, taking into consideration their own choice,” it said.