The NCST's forthcoming report might be the most severe indictment of the government on sexual assault so far

On peoples side Mass sexual assault present reality in Bastar says NCSTAritra Bhattacharya (File photo)
news Saturday, April 09, 2016 - 14:15

“Now I'm on this side. On the side of the people, the tribals.”

His stand clarified, National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) Chairperson Rameshwar Oraon held forth on recent allegations of sexual assault on tribal women by security forces in Maoist insurgency-hit Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh.

“We have spoken to seven victims of rape and they have all confirmed the incident to me. On the basis of depositions and medical reports, I can say there is ample evidence to prove the same,” NCST Chairperson Oraon told this reporter over the phone.

On 5 April, at a press conference in Raipur following the Commission's visit to Bijapur district to probe the allegations, Oraon had said pretty much the same thing. That prima facie, there was evidence that mass sexual violence did indeed occur in Maoist-insurgency hit Bastar.

Although the Commission's report has not been submitted yet, Oraon did mention repeatedly, at the press conference and to this reporter, that the local police is not conducting a proper investigation and the state CID must begin its own probe.

Background: Experience

When activist and AAP leader Soni Sori was attacked and her face blackened with acid-like substance in Dantewada on 20 February this year, cases of sexual assault in Bastar's Bijapur were among those she was trying to seek justice for. The attackers had warned to keep quiet, threatning further action if she dared to speak out.

There have been a series of allegations of sexual assault by security forces in the area: the first among the recent ones were in Peddagellur, Chinnagelur and Pegdapalli villages in Bijapur district on 19-20 October 2015. In January 2016, people from Bellamlendra village in the same district also complained of rape and sexual assault. There were complaints of sexual assault from Kunna village in Sukma district too during this month, but in each of these cases, the administration turned a blind eye to the tribals' attempts to register an FIR for several days.

Sori also played a crucial part in bringing these stories of rape and assault to the local media. Following the hue and cry, the National Commission for Women and State Commission for Women visited the area to probe the matter. The National Human Rights Council (NHRC) also sent a team following the hounding out of lawyers, academics and journalists from the conflict-torn region, as did the Editors' Guild.

Although all the probe teams barring the Editors' Guild met several victims and listened to their testimonies, the NCST Chairperson's statement and recommendations have been, by far, the strongest indictment of excesses by security forces by any arm of the state. The commission is also the only one that has made public statements about what it saw in Bastar. All other teams connected with various arms of the state have instead chosen to maintain a measured silence, and none of their reports are in the public domain yet.

When I mention this distinction to Oraon, he says he had wished to do more. “I wanted to visit the villages and talk to the people there. But there was a landmine blast a day prior to the commission's scheduled visit and we were dvised against travelling into the area. Having been a police officer myself, I knew that I should not go in such circumstances,” he says.

Oraon was appointed the chairperson of NCST in 2010. An IPS officer of the 1972 cadre, he served in Bihar and Jharkhand (after the separate state was carved out). He resigned in 2004 as ADG to contest the general election and won from Lohardaga on a Congress ticket.

He says given his background as a police officer, he knows exactly how things work in a conflict zone. “I know many things, that is my background. But now, since I am on the side of the tribals, I have forgotten all that.”

The first of the recommendations of the NCST, established through Constitution (89th Amendment) Act, 2003, is a CID inquiry. “The district police is not equipped to do the job. In the district police, Sub Inspectors (SIs) and Assistant Sub Inspectors (ASIs) are appointed investigation officers. In the CID, this role goes to the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP). Automatically, there will be a difference in the investigation,” he reasons.

“Besides,” says the cahirperson, “how do you expect the people to trust officers from the same police force that was part of the assault with investigation into it?”

The commission will also recommened a bar on the practice of security forces staying inside villages during overnight patrols. IN addition, there must be several women police accompanying the patrol party. “These incidents of sexual assalut, rape and loot happen when the the forces stay inside the village. In the cases we heard in Bijapur, the forces had taken over 3-4 houses in the village after beating, berating and ousting the families. They did all that they did because they were staying inside the village. This cannot go on.” Oraon also said the presence of female police would also work as a deterrent against the possibility of such crimes.

“This apart, there is the issue of dietary allowance. While the CRPF personnel get Rs 2400 per month, the state police personnel get a paltry Rs 600. Their allowances must be brought on par, and it must be ensured they don't plunder loot poultry, grains and cattle from villagers, like it happened in Bellamlendra,” said Oraon, adding this point will be included in the final recommendations.

Code: Sensitive

Several people who attended the NCST's hearings in Bijapur and Raipur described the commission's approach as 'sensitive' to the suffering of tribals.

Academic Bela Somari (Bhatia) who lives in Bastar and was present in the commission's Bijapur meeting says in a departure from earlier occasions, this time, it was the local administration and not activists that brought the victims from their village to the district headquarters in Bijapur. Incidentally, the NCST had taken sou motu notice of Bela's report on the rapes in Outlook magazine in March. The commission interacted with Bela twice in Bijapur: once before speaking to the victims to understand what had happened during the time; and later, to take her inputs on recommendations.

There were two sets of people at the hearing in Bijapur—the victims of sexual violence allegedly perpetrated by security forces and those brought there by the Naxal Peedith Sangharsh Samiti. The Samiti works closely with the police against the Maoists, and had brought several victims of violence perpetrated allgedly by the rebels. Members of the Samiti have earlier threatned Bela and Soni Sori and burnt their effigies, calling them Naxals and Naxal supporters, whilst the duo were trying to get word of the rapes out of Bastar. In effect, since they work with the police, the Samiti discredits those alleging rape by security forces as 'propaganda'.

“Although everyone was seated inside the hall in the Circuit House, the survivors of rape were called  into another room in twos for their depositions. This was quite sensitive of them, The commission also spoke to others, including those from the Samiti, in the hall. They heard everybody out,” says Bela.

Oraon says the commission's recommendations will make it amply clear that they are on the side of people irrespective of whihc side in the conflict committed excesses. “It is the responsibility of the state to protect its citizens. This is not happening in Bastar. Those who have fled from villages due to violence by Naxals, security forces or vigilante mobs have lost the connection to their land and their culture. They must be rehabilitated, their rations restored. Importantly, the children must receive the basic minimum education,” he says, adding even this will find place in the final recommendations.

Although the NCST gave a patient hearing to survivors of violence from all sides in Bijapur, it was not so patient with members of the Samiti who were at the Raipur meeting. “They were complaining about violence by the Maoists,” says a source who was present at the meeting in Raipur. “To this, the commission told them, 'If you have a problem with the government, tell us. We can do nothing about your problems with Maoists'.

Authorities in Bhopal have been tasked with the final report, and Oraon says it should be out within a week to ten days. If it does, it will be the fartherest the state machinery has gone to indict excesses by its own actors in Bastar.

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