In Chhattisgarh’s conflict torn Bijapur district, a police team and a magisterial probe are investigating alleged gangrapes, assaults and looting by security forces deployed in an anti-Maoist operation in five villages from October 19 to 24.
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.
Potentially crucial evidence, such as the clothes of the gang rape survivors, remains uncollected. Neither team has visited the affected villages to speak to residents, and assess physical evidence. The paramilitary and police operation was conducted in the villages of Pegdapalli, Chinnagellur, Peddagellur, Burgicheru and Gundam in southern Bijapur, in an area the state is trying to militarily reclaim.
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.
Additional superintendent of police (Operations) IK Elesela, who heads the team, brushed aside concerns that he would not act against the guilty, saying, “I serve the public, not my subordinates.”
Deputy superintendent of police UK Ansari, the investigating officer on the case, said, “My job is to get to the bottom of the truth.” She added, “If these heinous crimes have been committed, it is necessary even for the image of the police that we punish the guilty.”
Bijapur collector Yashwant Kumar has simultaneously asked his deputy, sub-divisional magistrate RK Pandey to conduct a magisterial probe. “It is meant to complement the police investigation,” Kumar said. Neither officer knows Gondi. Kumar said statements of “20-30” women, including of three gang rape survivors, were recorded so far. “Everyone is undergoing a medical examination.” Asked how this probe would investigate the police and paramilitary, Kumar said, “We will call them all. Their statements will also be taken.”
Despite official assurances, concerns remain. Police say the five-day operation was conducted by 200 men, from CRPF personnel from various states to local Adivasi officers, and even former Maoists, inducted into the police force. Investigators were tight-lipped about how they are investigating the operation and questioning these men, saying it was premature to speak.
An officer familiar with the probe said, “In the statements police have so far, women had provided the names of two people, saying they witnessed the crimes. These are police constables, formerly Naxals. Both, when questioned, said nothing had happened.”
Former Maoists and Special Police Officers, mostly Adivasis, are indispensable to the state’s anti-Maoist military operations, due to their knowledge of local geographies, villages and languages. “If they are not with us, we just cannot operate in interior areas,” said a senior police officer, hinting at why the state might be reluctant to act against them.
Investigators also wouldn’t comment on a fact-finding report by the civil society group Sarva Adivasi Samaj given to chief minister Raman Singh on December 2, and district officials last week. It quotes two gang rape survivors as naming the men who assaulted them as including Irpa Ganesh, Punem Mangu, Hariram Irpa, Joga Deva and others whom they did not know.
Neither probe has visited the five villages so far, which lie miles from the nearest road, and consist of farflung hamlets strewn across forested area, with no public services or state presence. Officials say the area is home to Maoist commander Pappa Rao, and probe members fear they may come under rebel fire.
“But it is essential we go there if the investigation has to be fair. I am working to ensure our security when we visit,” Ansari said.
Prakash Thakur, lawyer and president of the Sarva Adivasi Samaj said they would launch protests, if action did not come soon. “The police must arrest the guilty, if we have to ensure security forces do not repeat such inhuman acts.”
‘Suspend the unit, create oversight’
Supreme Court advocate Vrinda Grover had long pushed for the 2013 amendment in India’s rape laws, which introduced the provision to prosecute armed forces who commit rape. She said this case demanded special measures:
“The delay in arrests is only helping the guilty. The entire unit, which had conducted the military operation, should be suspended. Precautions should be taken to ensure they do not have access to the complainants and witnesses. Given how differently the complainants and accused are located in terms of power and status, and that the complainants might have little knowledge about investigation procedures or their rights under the law, the state needs to take immediate steps. It should put the survivors in touch with women rights groups, and appoint independent and credible oversight for the investigation.
The National Human Right Commission or the Commission for Scheduled Tribes should step in, and appoint a Special Rapporteur, maybe an eminent woman, to ensure the investigation is fair. Let the state take civil society into confidence if investigators are having problems in accessing the villages. It cannot plead helplessness.”