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In November 2015, nearly 40 tribal women from three villages in the restive Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh have accused police jawans of molestation. ‘The women belong to Peddagelur, Budgicheru and Gundam villages of Basaguda block. Soni Sori, tribal activist and Aam Aadmi Party leader, who visited the villages with a team of woman activists, said the harassment took place when security forces from Bijapur were carrying out an operation in the area between October 19 and 24.’
An all-India fact-finding team of women presented some of the important facts of the situations based on the testimonies of the survivors and their observations:
“Rape: We are able to confirm rapes of two women of Peddagulur village. One was a fourteen year old girl and the other a pregnant woman. Both of them have been gang-raped. The young girl was grazing cattle with other women when she was chased by the security forces. Overpowered and blindfolded, she was raped by at least three people before she became unconscious. The four-months pregnant woman was stripped by the security forces on the October 21, 2015 and repeatedly dunked in the stream, and then gang-raped. The security forces had also removed their clothing and gotten into the stream while raping her.
To add to these, there were some other incidents of rape as well which were being recounted but due to the paucity of time these could not be investigated further and they are pending further examination.
Sexual Assault : Many women, at least 15 in Chinnagelur and Pedagelur alone, and many others from the other neighbouring villages (Gundam, Burgichheru etc) reported being stripped, beaten on their thighs and buttocks, their lower clothing was lifted up and they were threatened with further sexual violence (e.g. pushing chillies up their vaginas). Their blouses were torn. At least two women who were breast feeding said that their breasts were pinched and squeezed for milk. Other women also mentioned that their breasts were grabbed, pulled and squeezed.
Sexual Harassment: Women were chased out of their homes which were then occupied by the forces for their stay. In some cases, the policemen removed their clothing and invited the women to come and sleep with them if they wanted to sleep in their own homes, as the village men had run away into the jungles.”
The committee also argued, “It has been established that during these dates an operation was carried out in the area. It has also been clearly identified that the forces involved COBRA, CRPF, DRG and local police; it can easily be traced which troops had been sent to these areas.”
Following the incident, another fact finding committee was constituted by Adivasis and report provided same accounts of Rape and rampant looting by security forces; including eggs, hen, dal, rice to cash upto Rs 65,000. In December Chitrangada Choudhury reported, ‘a police team and a magisterial probe are investigating alleged gangrapes but over 50 days after a formal police complaint was registered after testimonies of widespread violence, including gang rapes of a teen and a pregnant woman, no arrests have been made. A four-member police team, including three women, is conducting the criminal investigation. Only one member speaks Gondi, the language of most of the affected Adivasi women.’
Four months after the incident, regardless of fact finding report, video testimonies, interviews and media intervention- the victims still await justice, as no arrest has been taken so far on the issue. To expose the reality of incident, Soni Sori had been actively raising voices against human right violations by Police and Para Military forces, demanding justice for victims of the Bijapur incident. She had announced a foot march in support, from January 25th onwards. ‘From Peddagellur, along with family members of victims she planned to start the movement to demand justice for victims, by carrying foot-march though out the region. That would go via many villages of Bijapur, Dantewada, Sukma, and after a month and a half will end at Jangadalpur Division headquarter with a massive general assembly. So that by exposing police repression, Adivasi rights could be safeguarded and inhumane atrocities could be put to an end.’ She was being intimidated and threatened on several accounts as she spoke and had become ‘voice’ of the people and those victims.
Earlier this month on February 3, Hadma Batloi, ‘a wanted Maoist’ was killed in an encounter by the Police. However the family members of the deceased, mukhiya of Batloi’s village and AAP leader Soni Sori addressed a joint press conference in Raipur and called police encounter fake. Soni Sori alleged that under the supervision of IG Kalluri, police was
intentionally targeting the tribals. Moreover, later news reports claimed ‘After two days, Sarpanch of Anjer Santu informed him that dead body of Hadma was lying in the morgue. He alleged TI Shukla offered him Rs 10,000 to carry out the last rites admitted wrong man was killed.’
On February 5, Soni Sori received an anonymous letter threatening to burn her alive if she entered the territory of Bijapur. The anonymous letter allegedly branded her as a Maoist sympathizer.
Mere few days after these incidents on February 19, Jagdalpur Legal Aid (‘JagLag’), a group of woman lawyers which provides free legal aid to tribal people implicated in Maoist-related cases, have been asked to vacate their houses within eight days, allegedly at the behest of the police. ‘Within hours of the eviction notice to JagLag, freelance journalist Malini Subramaniam, who once headed the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the State, was also asked to vacate her house within eight days by her house owner.’
Next day on February 20, Soni Sori was “informed” by the Dantewada district civic authorities that her house in Geedam town of the district could be demolished. “They came to my house and told me that my house is on an encroached land and it could be demolished in an encroachment clearing drive,” Ms. Sori told The Hindu. These threats were given a day before she was attacked by ‘unknown’ men with acid-like substance, leading to severe burn and injuries on her face.
Three days after notice to JagLag and Malini Subramaniam, on February 22, BBC Hindi journalist Alok Putul received threats and had to leave assignment in middle. Putul in his article wrote– After several attempts to contact IG Kalluri, he received this message from him, “Your reporting is extremely biased and partial. There is no point wasting my time with journalists like you. The nationalistic and patriotic section of media vehemently supports me, it’d be better if i spent time with them, Thank you.” Later when another correspondent from BBC, Vatsalya Rai tried to approach Bastar IG, he faced the police ire as the senior IPS officer misbehaved with the correspondent and termed him ”bloody media”.
‘The news of Bijapur rape was first brought to the notice after an all-India fact-finding team of women visited Bastar to look at the status of women in conflict areas in October 2015. The following videos are of interviews conducted with women who were direct victims of violence perpetrated by the security forces and police during their patrolling of the villages from October 19/ 20 till October 24, 2015, or those who had witnessed these acts. The testimonies mention physical beating, verbal abuse and threats and molestation and rape along with destruction and looting of property in the affected villages of Chinnagelur, Peddagelur, Gundam and Burgicheru.’
Considering these series of events that have taken place in past 6 months in the region, the February 20th attack on Soni Sori can be interpreted as part of a larger structured propaganda to suppress Adivasi voices against injustice. It is also to instill fear among Adivasis who have started asserting their rights and challenging state’s oppression. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of Rs 24,000 crore investment in Bastar, it is quite evident the state is ready to use any levels of repressive means to facilitate the prospective development projects.