The so-called “liberated zones” in Bastar are best understood while travelling on the newly built 42-kilometre road that cuts through forest land between Bijapur, the district headquarters, and Basaguda. The entire stretch is under the constant watch of seven fortified Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camps and three police stations, all located strategically. Platoons of mixed forces on combing operations marching close to anti-landmine vehicles every few kilometres leave no one in doubt that this is a war zone. The villages inside the forests cannot be accessed without the direct supervision of the nearest CRPF camp. Behind one such CRPF camp in Timapura, 5 km inside the forest and connected by a dirt track accessible only on foot or by tractor or motorcycle, is the village of Nendra, officially known as Bellam Lendra.
The people of Nendra recalled with chilling detail the horrific events that lasted four days from January 11. According to them, hundreds of men from paramilitary forces such as CoBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action), CRPF, District Reserve Group (a small but effective counter-insurgency force of handpicked Adivasis and former special police officers who know the terrain and the language well) and the local police stormed into Nendra and fired several rounds of ammunition indiscriminately in the air. This is not unusual. Whenever this happens, the men of the village, in fear of being beaten up, shot dead, or picked up by the forces, run for their lives and hide in the forests. The women, the children and the elderly are left behind. The forces then proceed to devour the entire food ration, consume the chicken and steal goats or anything else that they fancy. In Nendra, a fact-finding team from the Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) and the Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisations (CDRO), which reached the village later, listed the items taken away or consumed by the forces: 200 birds, 40 goats, gold and silver jewellery, oil cans, sacks of rice, dal , vegetables and a music system for the tractor that was bought by several villagers collectively. Anyone who tried to stop them was severely beaten up. They stayed for four days and nights. “They sucked that tree there dry for alcohol,” said a villager, pointing to a tree whose bark releases a local form of liquor. It is not unusual for the forces to heap abuse on the women or threaten them with rape, but this time they crossed all limits.
During the day, they were out in the forests on “combing operations”, but by night and morning converted the village into their private fiefdom, sexually abusing over 15 women. The women were stripped, abused and raped at gunpoint, even when they tried to resist the theft of their livestock, a woman who was raped told Frontline. Two or more men would hold a woman down and cover her face with a cloth while one or more proceeded to rape her, sometimes in front of her children. All rapes were gang rapes. According to the WSS report: “At any given point in time, the women reported, there may have been four people in one house, three in another, and five in the third, so the acts of sexual abuse occurred simultaneously—even perhaps, in synchronicity. This effectively discredits the notion that a specific group of four or five men may be the culprits.” When the women protested, they were threatened with dire consequences.
Residents also complained that they were held accountable for incidents involving naxal violence even when the police had no evidence against them. A testimony in the WSS report states: “One of the men from the security forces even issued a warning: ‘Once we get our orders from Narendra Modi, we will come back and wipe out everything; we will put you and your children inside the houses and burn you all down.’ When she was asked who Narendra Modi is, she said she didn’t know.” When the paramilitary forces left after four days, all the ration had been depleted, the cattle destroyed and the women humiliated and in pain and distress. The “combing” operation was declared a success. Only one house in the entire village was untouched, a resident told Frontline .
Nendra falls in the Hirapur panchayat in Usur block and, like many tribal villages, is an interior village inside a forest area and has less than 100 Muria Adivasi houses. One has to rely on pag dandi s (tracks) and trees which serve as signposts and it can be a challenge for outsiders to reach the village. It is believed that it is one of the villages that falls in the Maoists’ movement patterns and is visited by them. For the state and the armed forces, the entire village, then, becomes suspect, and no proof is required. The forces see every resident as a sangham member (unarmed worker or member of a Maoist front who helps villagers with sundry odd jobs in agriculture like bund building) who is in cahoots with the Maoists and find it difficult to distinguish between a Maoist and a resident. But that does not justify the looting, the harassment and rape of women, or the beating and killing of men in these areas. A resident said: “The Maoists and the security forces demand to be fed at gunpoint. Do we have a choice in either case?”
Nendra has been on the radar of the state and the Maoists for quite some time. In 2007, the entire village was burnt down by Salwa Judum. Not once, but twice. The women of Nendra are not new to sexual violence either, having been subjected to it during the Judum days. Since 2001, 20 men from the village have been illegally detained or arrested, and have spent long terms in jails, sometimes six to seven years, before being acquitted.
The one house that was untouched during the four days of siege belongs to Rahul Madkam. He was a naxallite for 10 years, but he surrendered later and is now with CoBRA. Yogesh, Pandu, Mangesh and Motu are the others accused by the women as perpetrators. They too used to work with the naxalites but later surrendered and now work for the police. Surrendered Maoists are important informants for the state in the fight against naxalites.
The sequence of events in Nendra is chillingly similar to other incidents spread across half a dozen villages over several days. A team from the WSS documented some of these incidents and the local media reported them. In October last year, paramilitary forces stormed into Pedagellur, where they wreaked similar havoc: raping women and looting homes. They did not stop with Pedagellur, but proceeded to nearby Chinagellur, Burgicheru, Gundam and Pegdapalli. A 14-year-old girl and a pregnant woman were gang-raped. The pregnant woman was stripped and repeatedly dunked in a stream and gang-raped. Many women reported being stripped, beaten on their thighs and buttocks, their lower clothing lifted up and being threatened with further sexual violence.
The women travelled several kilometres to the police station to give testimonies and file a first information report (FIR), but the police were unsympathetic, contending that rape was unconscionable but inevitable given the threat of naxalism in the area. The Superintendent of Police finally relented and filed an FIR against unnamed persons after several days because of pressure from civil society groups and the arrival of members of the State Women’s Commission. The FIR charged the perpetrators under Section 376 (2) of the Indian Penal Code, which pertains to rape by a policeman or a public servant. The demand to file cases under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was not heeded to on the grounds that while the victims were S.Ts the community of the perpetrators remained unknown. After news of the operation became widely known, several other organisations, such as the local branch of the Congress Party and the Sarva Adivasi Samaj, the Adivasi Mahasabha, and the National Human Rights Commission took cognisance but nothing came of it. But many more instances of gang rape by the security forces came to light.
A pattern of violence
Around the same time as the Nendra incident, Kunna in Sukma district also witnessed similar sexual and physical violence and looting. A WSS report on the incidents said that breasts were squeezed and nipples pinched, with the assumption that if they were not lactating mothers, they would be naxalites. In Chotegadam, a 21-year-old boy, Lalu Sodi, was beaten up so badly that he succumbed to his injuries. Girls were disrobed, dragged to the school grounds and paraded for long distances while being abused and mocked by members of the security forces. According to the report, the attacks were so timed in these villages that the men of the village could not run away, and many were caught, beaten and arrested.
A systematic pattern of brutal sexual assault and rape by paramilitary forces stationed in the southern districts of Chhattisgarh is emerging as a new weapon of terrorising Adivasis under the guise of fighting naxalites. In the past six months, three incidents of mass gang rapes and sexual assault on entire villages by paramilitary forces have been reported, but activists in the area say there may be more incidents that have not been reported for two reasons: the distance between far-flung villages where word travels slow, and the fear of further terror. What is happening is a conscious process of intimidation by which all men and women are kept in a constant state of fear. The scale and frequency of the human rights violations and the large number of paramilitary forces that have actively participated in them show that they are common knowledge in the State administration. The absence of official reprimands or punishment implies the tacit approval of these attacks.
Such attacks are also openly justified as these interior villages are considered Maoist liberated zones. Construction of roads in these zones has been a problem between the Maoists and the state, which the latter seems to have won for now. Motorable roads going up to Sarkeguja have been built in the past two years, enabling military activity and the capture of erstwhile naxal areas. Most of the villages there do not have any schools or health centres; people have never heard about the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA); they do not have Aadhaar numbers, bank accounts or electricity. The only time they get to see the face of the government is before the elections when politicians arrive to arrange feasts in exchange for votes. Government officials often use the fig leaf of Maoist opposition to justify the lack of implementation of government schemes. The only other face of the government visible to Adivasis is that of the security forces who arrive with guns to threaten, rape, abuse, steal their animals and kill their people. Adivasis exposed only to vote-bank politics or virulent paramilitary force would find it difficult to trust the government to do right by them.