Ajin Thomas reviews BEARING WITNESS, a report on sexual violence in South #Chhattisgarh
Bearing Witness: Sexual Violence in South Chhattisgarh
Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS)
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This text has been written in solidarity with GN Saibaba and others, who have been sent to prison by a district Court in Gadchiroli, under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, allegedly for aiding and abetting Naxal activities.
One village can speak for many villages. One victim can speak for many victims.
—Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost
On December 2016, a Reuters correspondent quoted an official from Aleppo: The idea of law has been killed here. In the accompanying photographs, victims were being taken in wheelchairs, people were being evacuated, children were weeping, and the page was filled with photographs and quotations of agony. There are some statements that strike us as immediate, looking at us with irrefutable evidence, where no justification can be sufficient. We are without words. We see crimes and then there is ample evidence juxtaposed alongside, but justice fails to tie the knot between the two. Scenes of crime occur because there are pores in the walls of law for them to percolate, and these pores exist in almost all frameworks of legal elucidations. But if crimes exist continuously, and more importantly, if we could clearly discern strategic ends that make crimes necessary, and see these ends as the precise causes of the crimes, we could learn that the law has been subject to erasure. In Chhattisgarh, as in Aleppo, the law been killed repeatedly, and the current crisis has to be read as an extension of everything past. The tense is past continuous.
Bearing Witness begins by outlining the undertones of violence, and sexual violence in particular. The argument is clear: the patterns of resource presence, militarisation and violence could seem to be almost identical. In would be irrational to separate the three of them into distinct categories. At one level, the violence seems inevitable since the adivasis refuses adamantly to bow down to the mining juggernaut, and the corporations aren’t gone for long without acquiring land. The violence is inevitable, not for the adivasis, but for the profiteers.
2005 to 2009: the years of the Salwa Judum. Approximate casualties: 644 villages razed, 3 lakh people leaving from their homes to police camps and the neighbouring states, custodial tortures and deaths, other abuses of power. The disarming moment when the two largest parties opposing each other on terms of ideology (the Congress at the centre and the BJP at the state) shake hands vigorously to create a death squad (reminiscent of the Strategic Hamlet Programme employed by the US in Vietnam). The very same year, in 2005, the state signed around 350 Memorandums of Understanding (MoU’s) with large corporations. The first meeting of the Salwa Judum was held on June 2005, days after the state government signed a MoU with Essar group and Tata Steel. The correlation wasn’t arduous to spot, and from then on we saw differing ideologies allying with financial boardrooms to redraw maps and devastate lives of the poorest people of the country.
It’s not the case that the Salwa Judum represents the primordial existence of militarisation in Chhattisgarh. Two years into being a new state, the CRPF was permanently deployed there in 2003. There have been armed forces standing guard to covert industrial operations. There have been corporations funding forces, possibly even the Salwa Judum. Since the latter’s fallout, the security forces incoming to the state has increased in geometric proportions, and in Bastar, for instance, there is one paramilitary soldier for every 40 civilians, putting it in par with some of the most militarised regions of the world. Occurrences of violence including sexual assault should, and this has to be stressed time and again, be seen in tandem to the velocity of militarisation, which is a resultant of corporate demand for the hills and the forests where the indigenous people live. Impunity breeds blood. Blood then leaves marks on the earth—marks of love and courage and resistance.
On the morning of 11 March 2017, as this piece was being written, 12 CRPF soldiers were killed in an alleged Maoist operation in Sukma, quoted by the media as the ‘largest Maoist operation in two years.’ The news of the attack was spread out with macabre details, and I agree—salvos will not bring us towards normalcy; The CPI (Maoist) Party has to be held answerable for their onslaughts, which also include attacks against innocent villagers. But peace is a long journey and this incident cannot be, should not be, isolated into compartments of retribution and peace; the picture we should be aspiring ought to be justice, and here when we scale relative justice, the State has more weight on its shoulders. It has to be highlighted that it was in the district of Sukma that a mass sexual assault occurred in January 2016 (which Bearing Witness records), and even before, reports tell us, villages belonging to the district have been razed, multiple times, during the reign of the Salwa Judum.
In Chhattisgarh violence is begetting more violence. Understanding this reality is inevitable, and governments reluctant to take this first step will have no reasonable alibis to put on the table. The Supreme Court banished the Salwa Judum in 2011, slamming the centre and the state. But the brazenness hasn’t dropped: in late 2015, another vigilante group emerged, calling itself the Samjik Ekta Manch, harassing resisting populations and any third party involvement—reporters, lawyers, activists. It was disbanded in April 2016 after reports surfaced alleging its illegality.
The absence of interlocutors in such a condition of conflict is telling, and it adequately reveals the callousness of the governments. The Vanvasi Ashram was demolished in 2009 and its members terrorised; Red Cross was demanded in 2013 to suspend its activities; Medicines Sans Frontiers was repeatedly accused of having treated Maoist rebels (which is in fact permissible under the 1949 Geneva Conventions). The Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group which was aiding the adivasis in legal processes was forcibly evicted from Jagdalpur. Reporters have been threatened in multiple manners and asked time and again to exit sites of conflict—Somaru Nag, Santosh Yadav, Malini Subramaniam, Prabhat Singh, Deepak Jaiswal, Bela Bhatia. No identity card—the blue stripped UN ones or the less glossy ones of the regional media—is valid in Chhattisgarh for the time being.
Bearing Witness places its locus around evidence from four instances of mass sexual assault in South Chhattisgarh, occurred during search and combing operations by security forces, during October to November 2015 and January 2016—in Peddagellur and surrounding villages of Bijapur district (October 19 to 24), Nendra village of Bijapur district (January 11 to 14), Kunna village of the neighbouring Sukma district (at the same time of the operations in Nendra), Korcholi and surrounding villages of Bijapur district (two large scale operations: one in November 2015, a month after the incidents in and around Peddagellur, and another in January 2016, around the same time when operations were conducted in Nendra).
Reading testimonies one is but alarmed, foremost, at the meticulousness employed in each incidents of perpetration; the four separate recordings seem to echo a queerly similar design. A large consort of forces enters a village, numbering between 150 and 500. They travel into the forests and return in the evening. Activities—cooking, looting, assaulting—are fore planned and divided between the forces. Their initial acts include barging into a house and decimating its valuables—spilling grains, killing poultry, tearing blankets, burning school textbooks. Very often the first to resist (mostly the only ones, since the men escape the villages if known that there are approaching forces) are the women. They get themselves into altercations with the invading forces, and then the latter cordon them away and begin assaulting, taking turns. Specific acts of sexual violence—stripping, squeezing of breasts, pinching of buttocks, and injuries to vaginal regions—have been repeated in all the cases mentioned here, alongside other methods of assault. After the most gruelling acts of violence end, before the forces retreat, threats are made aloud to the residents of the village, against reporting anything at all. If they respond and seek answers, they would return, the Salwa Judum would rise up again. The government hand-pumps (the only government provided initiative in many villages) would be destroyed. Homes would be burned. Destinies pulverized. Dreams lost forever. Silence, therefore, would be better for everybody.
The incidents of violence, as it should be obvious, create countless physical and emotional abrasions. The victims go to the nearest police stations, narrate the incidents, and demand filing of FIR’s. Most often, the police refuse to file the Report, and the victims return humiliated. This is a regular feature of police stations in the state. In all the four cases, there were considerable hurdles for having an FIR registered. This is despite the provision of Section 154 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, under which it is mandatory for a police officer to file FIR’s if received information about cognizable offences including rape, assault or disrobing.
The Peddagellur case saw the registration of the first FIR against security forces, under the amended rape laws, on November 1, 2015. After the filing, there have been interventions by various entities—the State Women’s Commission, the Sarva Adivasi Samaj, the Adivasi Mahasabha, the NHRC, the National Commission of Women, political parties—and the case garnered ample public attention. Despite all of this, not a single arrest has been made. Nor have there been serious efforts to identify the perpetrators. This case could be selected as a benchmark for the lengths a police investigation would travel. Irrespective of support, coverage or truth, justice is a famished road, where endless waiting ought to remain. The governments understand their objectives very lucidly. No obstacle should be permitted space, and if they’ve been able to speak up, it deserves either ignorance or the injunction of more terror.
In Nendra, an FIR was filled after 12 complainants (including 8 rape survivors) travelled to Bijapur and negotiated for four full days, and their visit (along with the WSS fact finding team) intersected with a National Commission for Women delegation visiting Bijapur to investigate the Peddagellur case the same day. The delegation met with nine of the women complainants, and this period was overpowered with local mobs forcing the fact finding team and the delegation to exit Bijapur.
The villagers from Kunna sought help from Soni Sori and an FIR was filed, after numerous difficulties, only when the Adivasi Mahasabha staged a protest with several thousand people at Sukma of January 23. But the Report excluded rape and limited the citations to ‘outraging modesty’ and ‘disrobing’ of women. And in cases regarding Korcholi and the surrounding villages, an FIR wasn’t launched, despite the submission of statements by victims.
The development status in each of these villages, not seen anywhere in our growth figures and profit indices, is abysmal. The dialogue—when the State proclaims that the adivasis should abandon their homes and livelihoods for the greater common good, when they’ve received not even minimal attention from policy-makers—reads absurd to me. Some statistics extracted from the book: Peddagellur has no school or electricity and all the villages have the absence of the former as a common factor. The nearest anganwadi, school, health centre and public distribution shop are all around 20 kilometres from the village. The literacy rate in Nendra is zero percentage (2011 Census). The villagers have to travel considerable distance to avail healthcare or the bazaar. Nendra, I read with shock, has been burnt to ground twice during the reign of the Salwa Judum. Korcholi has no electricity, and the locations of a primary health centre, a public distribution shop and a primary school are at least 10 kilometres afar. In Kunna, 95 percentage of the population comprises of Muria Gonds and the human development records are pathetic. The income earned in these villages is through primary activities and subsistence farming, and one police raid, involving the pilfering and destruction of goods, thus, decimates economies beyond repair.
The Indian State has been continuously pleading innocence from violence committed by the forces. The excuse given is that acts of unforeseen violence are only sporadic or erratic events in the grand arena of war. Clearly, the testimonies garnered dispel this excuse adequately, when we see how methodological each act has been committed. The design is as sinister it can get.
Alongside, murders and unprovoked killings aren’t completely new to the state, and even their occurring display a sense of fore-planning. Innocent people, having no part in the conflict, have had bodies perforated with lead. The investigations, as expected, are pending, and the message send across isn’t opaque: either you bend down and leave your land (don’t ask us where to), or you stand upright and then have your backs broken.
2012 (Sarkeguda, near Peddagellur; CRPF kills 17 people including seven minors).
2013 (Edesmetta, away from Korcholi; eights villagers including four minors killed by the security forces).
November 2015 (a young man from Itavar killed in a fictitious encounter neighbouring village of Korcholi).
January 2016 (A 13 year old girl, Oyam Tulsi, killed on her way to the market). This murder was publicised as a Naxalite encounter.
January 2017 (two villagers from Gampur, one of them a minor, encountered).
Subcomandante Marcos, in a letter from the jungle of Chiapas, Mexico, writes to John Berger in the French countryside about neoliberalism:
… this doctrine (neoliberalism) … does not allow for inclusion other than that of subjection to genocide. ‘Die as a social group, as a culture, and above all as a resistance. Then you can be part of modernity,’ say the great capitalists, from the seats of government …
Two pages later, he looks at a photograph of Alvaro, one of the dead combatants in Ocosingo in January 1994:
He (Alvaro) says, he writes, he shows: ‘I’m Alvaro, I am an indigenous, I am a soldier, I took up arms against being forgotten. Look. Listen. Something is happening in the closing of the twentieth century that is forcing us to die in order to have a voice, to be seen, to live.
It makes all of us criminals in the face of the earth, if there are people, whom we can see in this country of ours, who have to die in order to have a voice, to be seen, to live. All of us are responsible for this carnage. The onus is on us, all of us. We only need to look at the marks on the earth left by blood to begin. If one looks close enough, one might see Sukku Kunjam from Korcholi, who was killed in the encounter in November 2015. Or it could be Alvaro. It could also be two people together, two people we already know—Sukku and Alvaro—holding hands, returning to tell the tales separated by time and distance, united by solidarity and by the gentle touches of their arms.