The NHRC report upholding their claims of rape, assault by security forces is just the first step. For the victims living in villages deep inside Bastar, making it to court hearings itself is a battle. But, they tell DIPANKAR GHOSE, they will not stop fighting. Illustrations by C R Sasikumar based on actual photographs from the spot
Under the shade of a thatched hut, a child sleeps, his cradle made of wood swaying gently. A little over a year ago, the basket that held him was smaller. It wasn’t suspended by a long thin rope from one of the rafters of the home. He was just a few months old, his body fragile, movement kept to a minimum. As he slept then, his mother went to bathe. Soon, she says, security personnel on a combing mission in the jungles of Pedagellur in Bastar began an assault, hitting her on her back and legs. She pointed to her baby in the basket, and told them she was a feeding mother. They didn’t believe her. The only proof they would believe, she says, was the sight of milk from her breasts.
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On January 7, 14 months after the security forces allegedly assaulted 16 tribal women, including her, across three villages of Chhattisgarh, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) said their claims appeared to be true.
The next day, regional and national papers prominently reported the NHRC’s strongly worded release. But 19 km away from the closest motorable road, with no electricity or forms of communication, where few venture for fear of the wrath of both the Maoists and the State, nobody told Pedagellur.
The first news came on Tuesday morning, when a television journalist based in Bijapur, 70 km away, arrived in the village. He told them of the order, the promise of compensation and justice. Says Vetti Hedma, the headman of the village, “He told us that more statements would be recorded. We told him that if the government wanted to give us money, why would we refuse? But that we want those guilty punished.”
The journalist left before darkness fell, the headman remembers, as most outsiders do. “All of us talked long and hard into the night after he left. We didn’t believe him, we couldn’t. But now you have come too….” The first reports of the alleged assaults came in late October 2015 from Pedagellur and four surrounding villages in the district of Bijapur. For the next three months, more reports kept coming, from Bella Nendra in Bijapur and Kunna in Sukma. The NHRC in its report estimated 34 victims, in the three FIRs registered.
In its interim report on January 7, taking note of a report by The Indian Express in November 2015 and numerous complaints by social organisations, the NHRC said 16 women were “prima facie victims of rape, sexual and physical assault by state police personnel in Chhattisgarh” in Bijapur district in October 2015, and said it is of the view that “prima facie, human rights of the victims have been grossly violated, for which the state government is vicariously liable”.
The NHRC, which examined the three FIRs, also said that it could not record the statements of 20 other women, and that those statements should be recorded within a month. In a stern notice to the chief secretary, it asked the state government to show-cause as to why it should not recommend interim monetary relief of Rs 37 lakh to the victims, and said it could issue more directions once its investigation was complete.
‘Peda’ is the word for big in the local Gondi dialect. The village has 137 homes, according to the headman, and, as is often the case in Bastar, the huts are spread out. Even within villages, the dissemination of information is slow, and only through word of mouth. As The Sunday Express reached Pedagellur on Wednesday, one woman who was allegedly raped had just come back after three days in the forest, cutting wood for fire and for repairing a faulty roof.
The headman called out to her, and told her about the NHRC order over the weekend and what had followed, struggling with the words. There are no appropriate words for ‘Rashtriya Manavadhikar Aayog (NHRC)’ in Gondi, the only language she knows. He uses “sarkaar (government)” instead. As Hedma finishes talking, there is silence. Disbelief. Would she accept the compensation if it came, he asks. She nods. Does she want justice? Yes. Does she believe she will get it? A slow, unsure shake of the head. Would she go down to Bijapur to give her statements? Would she fight for justice? She replies with her eyes fixed on the ground, quietly but firmly. “As long as I can,” he translates in Hindi.
But both know the battle won’t be easy.
In the past year, for example, not one official has made his or her way to this inaccessible area deep in the Maoist liberated zone. Not to install electricity, not to build a school, not to set up a primary health facility (PHC), or toilets under Swachh Bharat. The five villages to which the alleged victims belong have no power, school, PHC or toilet.
No official has been here to update the alleged victims on court dates either. It was Soni Sori, a tribal activist and member of the AAP, who travelled to Pedagellur in late December and told them about the dates, urging the women to go. Villagers say that while they managed to record statements at times, on many occasions, the journey was futile. “I went once with a few others to record my statement. But the policemen stopped us outside the gate, and made us wait till the evening. In front of our eyes, people left and the court shut. We returned,” one alleged victim of assault says.
In October 2016, a Bijapur court issued non-bailable warrants against some of the women for not appearing to record testimonies on the scheduled dates. Isha Khandelwal of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, which is providing legal assistance to the victims, says, “It was pointed out to the court that there are practical modalities which make this difficult. But you can’t give out arrest warrants against the victims themselves. The warrants were withdrawn at that point, and there is none now.”
So far, 15 of the alleged victims have recorded their statements before a magistrate. On the day that the Express reached Pedagellur, one victim was on her way to Bijapur to record her statement. But she had got the date wrong; there was no hearing.
Every time the women have to appear for a hearing, they walk 19 km barefeet to the nearest metalled road, over fields and rocks, through forests with wild animals. They must make sure that they reach Basaguda town, 19 km away, before nightfall. They spend the night in the Kotaguda village nearby, in the huts of those they know, eating at their homes. The next morning, they take a bus to Bijapur, 52 km away. The bus leaves in the morning, and returns in the evening. A newly metalled road, during the construction of which 24 jawans lost their lives, means they cover the distance in less than two hours. Should they miss the evening bus on their way back, they spend the night on the side of the road.
Each court hearing takes the women three days in all, to and fro. “A lot of us will go together,” a woman says, talking of the next hearing, scheduled on January 16. Apart from the intimidating distance, there is another reason they seek company. There is strength in numbers. A strength that will allow them to speak in court.
Apart from what it costs them physically, three days is not something the alleged victims can afford easily. Everyone in Pedagellur struggles to make ends meet, with the men and women putting in equal work in the forests and fields which provide them their livelihood. The landholdings are small, leaving very little to sell in the weekly haats. “The only source of water is the rain. Last year we had good rains, but in 2015, we didn’t. And since there is no irrigation, all we have is a single crop,” a villager says, adding that they have never got any government relief.
On Wednesday, under a gentle January sun, with the grain cut and sold, villagers are busy making small culverts in the fields with spades and forks, to hold in water should it rain. In 10 days, every able-bodied person will make his or her way across the border to Cherla in Andhra Pradesh, where they will spend at least a month earning daily wages picking chillies. Apart from farming, there is no employment to be found in these parts.
“The contractor will send tractors, and only the old and the children will be left behind. We will earn Rs 150 a day for 12 hours of labour, and come back with a little money,” Hedma says.
When they return, the residents will scourge the forests looking for mahua, to be sold in the weekly market in Kotaguda. Once that process is over, it would be tendu patta season. “Then it will be time to sow the crop again and pray for rains. Every day has a purpose that feeds our stomachs,” says Chaitu, a young man working in the fields.
Despite the NHRC’s findings, senior police officials in Bastar whom The Sunday Express spoke to maintained that “the allegations seem to be part of Maoist propaganda”, and “could not be true”. Given “the high-profile nature of the case now”, they did not want to be named, but argued, “The operation that was sent to that area in late October 2015 went on information regarding the presence of Hidma, a commander of a military battalion of the Maoists and one of the most feared men for our forces. How could our men have committed such acts when they would have been in a state of high alert? In those parts, the Maoists are nearly always present. Which is why it is difficult for the district administration to do any outreach for any developmental work. In other parts of Bijapur and even Sukma, there is work being done to electrify villages using solar energy. But Pedagellur and its surrounding places are unreachable unless in big numbers.”
Asked if he didn’t want solar electricity, school or a college like the others, a villager in Pedagellur murmurs quietly, “Schools and a hospital we want. But for electricity, I will have to ask the dadalog (Maoists), or they will beat us.”
In May 2016, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes had handed over the probe in the case to the state CID, finding fault with the police’s investigation until then. CID officials admit that investigation in the cases is “very difficult”. “There is almost no way to get to the villages freely, for fear of an ambush or an attack. A massive police team can’t be sent there all the time, and even if it is, principally there will be duress on the victims with such a large police presence. Most of these cases came to light many days after the alleged date of incidents, so the medical evidence is minimal. So thus far, the concentration is on statements recorded. Even in those, most women cannot identify their attackers at all,” a senior CID officer says, suggesting that laws could be changed when it comes to investigating these cases.
Khandelwal of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group questions police putting “the entire onus of the case on the victims themselves”. “For the first few days, they didn’t even register an FIR. Women are willing to come and testify and have been doing that, but what have police done? There has been no questioning of their own forces, whom they can easily identify. It’s unreasonable to expect villagers to know the names of their attackers, but police can attempt to start an identification process by other means. None of that has been done,” she says.
In the days since the NHRC report, political opponents have been targeting the Raman Singh government, which is already under fire for police excesses. The Congress and the Janata Congress, Ajit Jogi’s new political entity, have both called for the Chief Minister to step down, even sought President’s rule. On Wednesday, a Congress delegation met President Pranab Mukherjee with their demands. Says T S Singhdeo, leader of the Opposition in the Chhattisgarh Assembly and senior Congress leader, “This government has consistently failed in terms of human rights excesses. And each time, an investigation hasn’t been launched by it on its own, but an institutional body had to get it to take action. For instance, it was the CBI which held that 160 homes were burnt in Tadmetla in Sukma, and in this case it is the NHRC.”
On January 9, addressing a conference of inspector generals and superintendents of police from across the state, the CM said that even though police were doing well in its war against Naxalism, human rights violations were not acceptable and officers must keep this in mind.
In the months following the alleged assault, Pedagellur villagers say, there has been no cut-back in the visits of security personnel. The men react like they have always done — afraid of being picked up, they say, they run into the forests. Initially, after the assaults, the women did the same. “But we stopped after we saw a few changes. They no longer come into the village to spend the night, but stay just outside. This entire year, there has been only one small conflict,” Hedma says, talking about the time some security personnel came in and reportedly took away a hen, “threatening” the few elders who protested.
As he recounts the story, Hedma laughs. “This is our normal. All we want for the future is for the women to get justice, and for us to be left alone to live our lives in peace.”
Behind him, the child still sleeps, his cradle swaying gently.
Story so far:
Oct 19-24, 2015: Women allege rape, sexual and physical assault by security forces in villages in and around Pedagellur in Bijapur
Nov 4: FIR registered by Bijapur police
Jan 12-16, 2016: Similar allegations emerge from villages of Bella Nendra in Bijapur, and Kunna in Sukma; FIRs registered
Feb 22: Matter heard by NHRC which, considering “gravity of charges”, sends an investigation team
April 16: A team of National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes visits villages
May 2016: The team says investigation unsatisfactory, transfers case to CID
Oct 2016: Bijapur court issues warrants against women of Pedagellur for not appearing before it to record statements; order revoked later
Jan 7, 2017: NHRC interim report says 16 women are victims of rape, physical and sexual assault, sends show-cause notices to government