On January 6, when the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) said it has found prima facie evidence that Chhattisgarh policemen gangraped, molested and assaulted women during three anti-Maoist operations, it marked a rare official acknowledgement of atrocities by security personnel in Bastar’s conflict-ridden landscape.
Though the NHRC order is also the only tangible redress so far in the three cases of mass sexual violence, registered 12 to 14 months ago, the Chhattisgarh police have neither made any arrests nor filed chargesheets in this regard. Contrast this with the fact that non-bailable warrants were issued last October against the women complainants — mostly hardscrabble farmers and labourers from hamlets spread across remote tracts of forest with little or no public infrastructure — for missing some court dates.
The NHRC order is based on statements narrated by multiple survivors to judicial magistrates in district courts, and repeated before rights panel investigators who visited Bastar in March 2016.
The first set of atrocities took place in October 2015, when police and paramilitary personnel were sent on an anti-Maoist operation in the remote villages of Pedagellur, Chinnagellur, Pegdapalli, Gundam and Burgicheru in Bijapur district. Two months later, in January 2016, 13 women in Bijapur’s Nendra village testified to being sexually assaulted by security personnel deployed in their area between January 11 and 14. In Sukhma district’s Kunna village, several women narrated disturbing stories of molestation and rape by security forces on January 12.
“While the NHRC’s order is heartening, it also needs to take a holistic view of the violence – not viewing them as isolated acts of a few guilty men,” said Shalini Gera, a lawyer who has extended legal aid to several assaulted women. “There is a pattern across villages in the kind of graphic language used against the women and violent acts such as squeezing of breasts (see box). They seem to be punitive measures that had received the go-ahead as part of anti-Naxal operations.”
Gera said activists who tried to help the women faced intimidation and false complaints.
TS Singh Deo, leader of the state opposition, said the Congress would demand a detailed statement from the government on these cases in the upcoming assembly session. “It is unfortunate that chief minister Raman Singh is shielding the guilty. He thinks the morale of the force can be boosted by protecting individuals who rape... by suppressing social workers and the media.”
For now, the NHRC order has cited 16 statements of rape survivors from multiple villages, and asked the Chhattisgarh chief secretary to explain why the state should not pay an interim monetary relief of Rs 37 lakh to them. Subsequent NHRC orders are likely to expand in scope as its investigators return to Bijapur and Sukhma this month to record the testimonies of at least 20 other women complainants whose allegations could not be recorded during the March visit.
The NHRC also summoned Chhattisgarh’s chief secretary and director general of police on January 30 for questioning on human rights violations in Bastar.
A senior NHRC official said on the condition of anonymity that the interim order was meant to signal to Chhattisgarh authorities “that all excesses come at a cost”. “Since we are tracking several cases in the state, they will not be cavalier in their approach. The courts will also not be browbeaten since we are passing the orders,” he said.
“Though we cannot reverse past violations, this should create some deterrence,” the official added.
Gera said the survivors have received little support since the attacks. “Lodging the FIRs was a herculean task, given the police reluctance. Since then, the survivors have been made to present their statements multiple times before various authorities, travelling long distances in difficult conditions, and even had non-bailable warrants issued against them,” she said. “But they have not seen any action being taken against the guilty.”