Last November, police in Bastar’s Bijapur district registered an FIR against suraksha bal (security forces) after several hardscrabble Adivasi women villagers and a teenage girl from five remote, forested villages, narrated chilling accounts of being assaulted by members of an armed contingent.
The contingent comprised police and paramilitary troops deployed for an anti-Maoist operation in these villages in October 2015. The FIR marked the first time a new section in the Indian Penal Code, introduced in 2013 to prosecute rape crimes by security forces, was invoked in Chhattisgarh.
A year on, none of the alleged perpetrators — who gangraped a teen, a pregnant young woman and her mother-in-law, stripped and molested multiple women, and attacked and looted several homes — has been booked. When asked why the police had made no arrests in more than a year, HK Rathore, inspector general of police, heading Chhattisgarh’s CID, the department in charge of the case, said, “The investigation is still on.”
Asked if his team had formally questioned the commanding officer of that fateful operation, or individual police and paramilitary men who were in the contingent, Rathore declined to comment, and said, “Call back after some weeks.”
In contrast, the law has taken its course. Last month, Bijapur’s district court issued non-bailable warrants against the women villagers, all subsistence farmers and labourers, for missing court dates to record their testimony.
The women are from villages located 18-25 km away from the nearest pucca road and a paramilitary camp, and a further 50 km from the district court. The villages comprise multiple hamlets scattered across large distances, with no telecommunication facilities.
Further, the villages are served by a sarpanch in absentia who lives in another district, thus hardly ever around to communicate official information from the court to the women.
All the women complainants, formally illiterate, are Gondi speakers, while the court operates in Hindi. A Bijapur court official said the warrants against the women were a part of court procedure. He added that other than the recording of the women’s statements, “nobody is paying too much attention to the case”.
Several women have recorded their statements in court over the past year as well as narrated their accounts to statutory agencies.
Multiple national statutory agencies took “cognisance” of the horrific violence reported by the women, but with little impact so far.
For instance, last December, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) took suo motu cognisance of reports in the Hindustan Times from the villages. It issued notices to the Chhattisgarh government and Union home ministry, seeking their responses “within four weeks.” NHRC officials say they are still “waiting for the Chhattisgarh government to respond adequately”.
In March, following several media reports of human rights abuses and a petition by academic Kalyani Menon Sen, the NHRC sent its own investigators to Chhattisgarh. They were tasked with probing the reports of sexual violence by security forces, and cases of intimidation of journalists, pro bono lawyers and human rights defenders working in Bastar.
Requesting anonymity, an NHRC investigator said the team, which remains the only statutory agency to travel as far as the villages and sites of the reported assaults, found the women villagers’ narratives to be true, and members of Chhattisgarh police to have carried out the assaults.
Months on, however, the NHRC is still desisting from making its findings public. Sen said, “In view of the deteriorating situation, the NHRC needs to take swift action to hold authorities to account for the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.”
The NHRC has denied Sen, the petitioner, a copy of its report on the grounds that the Chhattisgarh government is yet to respond adequately.