The National Human Rights Commission’s interim report confirming that 16 women were “prima facie victims of rape, sexual and physical assault by state police personnel in Chhattisgarh” in Bijapur and Sukma districts in October 2015 and January 2016 should serve as a wake-up call to the state government. The report has also said that “the state government is vicariously liable” for the rights violations of the victims. The commission has asked the state government to record the statements of 20 other women, who its officials could not meet. The state government must investigate the officials responsible for the outrage and provide relief to the victims immediately.
The NHRC had investigated the rape claims after taking suo motu cognisance of a report in this newspaper in November, 2015. According to the report, women from five villages of Bijapur district — Pegdapalli, Chinnagelur, Peddagellur, Gundam and Burgicheru — had alleged that Chhattisgarh police personnel sexually harassed and assaulted more than 40 of them, and gang-raped at least two. Thereafter, the commission was intimated of more such incidents by villagers in Bellam Lendra village, Bijapur district, Kunna village, Sukma district, and Chotegadam village, Dantewada district. The commission has asked the state government for a report on these incidents. The situation would not have come to such a pass if the state government had been responsive to previous complaints against personnel of security forces, including state police, and state-sponsored vigilante groups. Instead, it attempted to paint all defenders of human rights as sympathisers of Maoists. Police, instead of probing the complaints of rights violations, targeted the complainants. Emboldened by the support of state institutions, vigilante groups hounded activists, academics, NGOs, legal aid workers, even politicians like CPI leader Manish Kunjam, who were critical of police highhandedness. The bizarre spectacle of police personnel burning effigies of activists after the CBI chargesheeted former special police force officers for burning down a tribal village revealed the blurring of lines between law enforcers and breakers. It was the reluctance of the government to rein in unruly elements — in worst cases, its complicity in encouraging them — that forced the Supreme Court and the NHRC to step in and remind the administration of the primacy of rule of law.
The groundwork in the cases now under the NHRC’s spotlight were done by voluntary organisations like the WSS (Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression) and Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group. Instead of appreciating the effort to bring institutional justice to the most vulnerable sections of the society, the Chhattisgarh state has been hostile to them. The forced retreat of voluntary agencies and activists may help the government to hide its failings, but it will hamper the deepening of democratic values and institutions.