Rape and more

Print edition : November 17, 2006

The police make a gang-raped tribal woman run from pillar to post to file an FIR and then her community treats the issue as one of its honour.

ANNIE ZAIDI in Guna

The victim, with her face covered.-A.M. FARUQUI

RAMKATHA (name changed) was gang-raped in front of her two-year-old daughter and her husband, Jasmal Bheel, on the night of August 16. Barely 20 years old, she was also about two months pregnant at the time.

The couple are poor and belong to the Bheel tribe from Nahargarh village in Rajgarh district of Madhya Pradesh. Ramkatha had gone to visit her parental village during the saawan festival. To save the bus fare, the couple decided to walk all the way back home. On the way, it began to rain heavily and the couple were forced to take shelter under a tree near Konyakala, which is predominantly a Meena (a sub-caste classified under Other Backward Classes) village.

According to Ramkatha's testimony, the couple were accosted by four drunken men. Two of them kept watch while the other two - Ramesh and Balwant alias Ballu Meena - took turns to rape her. Her husband was first held down at knifepoint and later tied to a tree. The baby was snatched from her arms and thrown into a trench filled with water. Ramkatha was raped and beaten for over two hours, according to the testimony.

The next morning, the couple went to the Chachaura police station, but the station in-charge allegedly refused to file a case since Nahargarh is in Raigarh district, while the police station is in Guna district.

The next day, Ramkatha went to the Suthaliya police station, the one nearest to their village. There she was told that she would have to go back to Chachaura, since the crime took place within the borders of Guna district.

Thus two precious days were lost. By the end of the day, Ramkatha miscarried and lost her unborn child. In the meantime, her daughter, who had been thrown into the trench by the alleged rapists, developed pneumonia. The child died soon after.

Jasmal Bheel, along with some villagers, went back to the Chachaura police station. Yet again, they were made to wait outside, and a first information report (FIR) was not registered.

Here, a trail of fact-fudging emerges with no consensus on the date of the incident, the age of the baby, or the fact of the victim's pregnancy. Additional Superintendent of Police of Guna Avadesh Goswami insists that the rape took place on August 21, and that the victim came to the police only on August 24.

Not only is this contradicted by the victim but it is also not borne out by the chain of events. A local activist, Pragya Misra, who works with the Human Rights Forum in Guna, visited Konyakala village and found that the chowkidaar's notebook had an entry mentioning that on August 19 a group of men from Nahargarh paid the sarpanch a visit to demand that the "rapists" be handed over - the traditional punishment for rapists is to cut off their noses. The sarpanch - a Meena - reportedly asked for a few days' grace time. After four days, the Bheel representatives went back and this time they were driven away. Gangaram of neighbouring Dand village said: "They told us to go to the police and see what happens. Then they set the village dogs on us."

The Chachaura police did pay Konyakala a visit. According to S.N. Mukherjee, the Deputy Superintend of Police (DSP) at the Scheduled Tribes Welfare Station at Guna, the FIR was filed on August 24 and a case registered under Section 326 (2) (g) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and also under Section 31(11) (12) of the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST) (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Another clause, of culpable homicide under Section 304 of the IPC, was later invoked to cover the death of the victim's daughter. Mukherjee said that the police had picked up family members of the accused for questioning and later released them. However, the two men accused of the rape were not arrested.

The Bheels were running out of patience. Caste panchayats were held; Jasmal's family was accused of not doing enough to "avenge their honour". Ramkatha's plight, however, was the last thing on the agenda. Gangaram Bheel told Frontline: "Our tribe traces descent from Shabri, and we look upon these Meenas as low-caste. How dare they destroy our honour in front of our own eyes? We would not have reacted so strongly if the rape had not happened right in front of Ramkatha's husband."

Pamphlets were printed inviting Bheels from all over the State and from bordering districts of Rajasthan to a mahapanchayat (a huge gathering of one caste) on September 10 on the banks of a large pond in Dand, a neighbouring village dominated by Bheels.

It was a Sunday and the whole district was taut with tension. The Meenas expected trouble and asked the police for help. According to most reports, the Bheel mahapanchyat met at 10 a.m. and was attended by about 4,000 people. It was decided that they would march into Konyakala to avenge the affront to the community. However, when they reached the village, the men of the Meena community had fled and the police were waiting.

There is no consensus on how many policemen were present, but officials say that there was a force of about 25 men. Nor is there any consensus about how events unfolded - whether the police opened fire without warning or whether the Bheels launched into an attack, paying no heed to warnings. The upshot, however, was that one Bheel and the station in-charge for Kumra, Vir Singh Sapre, were killed.

Some say that the police first fired into the air and then into the crowd. One man, Nenakram Bheel, was killed, which caused the mob to attack Sapre. Other accounts suggest that seeing themselves outnumbered, the police force fled at once, but Sapre fell down and was unable to escape.

Goswami told Frontline that Sapre's death was unfortunate but, at least, the people of Konyakala were saved. "A great massacre was prevented by the police. But there was a lot of looting, and a case of murder has been registered," he said.

A local politician, who refused to be named, laughed at this assertion. He told Frontline: "Did the Bheels lay a finger on the Meena women? Did they slap even a single child? Then why should there have been a massacre in Konyakala? Yet, the Bheels here have long been oppressed; sooner or later, a backlash was bound to happen. This is only a case of the police protecting a politically dominant caste."

Although Balwant and Ramesh Meena were arrested within a week of the mahapanchayat - one of them was found as far as off as Nagpur - the mood of the Bheels is sombre. They have been charged with murder and dacoity (under sections 302, 395 and 397 of the IPC). At least 20 Bheel men have been named. No arrests have been made yet, but the villagers are being pressured to name more names.

In Dand, none of the Bheels was willing to speak to Frontline. They denied having attended the mahapanchayat, although it was held practically in their backyard. However, some of the women and the children admitted that they were scared and that they had spent at least a week hiding in the hills, hungry and terrified but determined not to be caught.

In the meantime, Sapre's family feels bewildered and betrayed. Of his five children, aged between nine and 21, the eldest, Ashish Sapre, has been attempting to join the police force. But first he wants a proper inquiry into the circumstances of his father's death. "Witnesses have told me that Papa was negotiating with the crowd, but the others began to retreat, and while fleeing, one policeman opened fire, killing a Bheel. That maddened the crowd and Papa was their victim. The police force also claims that Papa was wounded but alive and was taken to hospital immediately. But witnesses tell me that his body was lying there until 7 p.m. His shoes, mobile phone, finger ring and gold chain are also missing. I was running about from one block to another until 11 p.m."

He told Frontline that he did not blame the Bheels. "It is the police's fault; if they had handled the rape case properly, none of this would have happened."

Meanwhile, women's rights groups working with Action Aid, Bhopal, have documented the victim's statement and pointed out the gaps between the dates and the events as they happened and as recorded by the police. In a letter to the State Human Rights Commission, they pointed out that the couple had to run from pillar to post to register an FIR. "When there is a law which states that whenever a woman in distress approaches a police station to file a complaint or FIR, it should be accepted irrespective of the fact as to whether the place of occurrence comes under its jurisdiction or not, why have they been hassled so much?" the letter asks.

The letter goes on to question the delays, discrepancies and biases in the handling of the case; for instance, no case has been registered against the police for the killing of the Bheel, Nenakram. It also alleges caste-based favouritism on the government's part, as is evident from "distributing relief materials to the Meena villages and completely ignoring the Bheel villages".

The police's role is under investigation. Deputy Inspector-General of Police Adarsh Katiyar, Gwalior, told Frontline that the issue of the delay in the filing of the FIR and the role of the police was being discussed and that a departmental inquiry had been initiated.

Whatever the outcome of the inquiry into the police action, justice has been delayed for Ramkatha. She was examined only on the August 24 - eight days after the assault. Police officials continue to deny that she was pregnant; they insist that she was bleeding because of her menstrual cycle, not due to a miscarriage. They refused to show Frontline a copy of the FIR or the medical report. They claimed that the report did not even certify that rape had taken place, saying that the woman was married and no definite opinion could be reached.

When Frontline asked Mukherjee why the alleged rapists should not be held responsible for the death of the unborn child, he said that a second opinion had been sought from a panel of doctors who had certified that the victim's "uterus was within normal limits". When Frontline asked if the victim had been sent for a second examination, he admitted that this was not done. The panel of doctors was only shown a copy of the medical report based on the first examination.

It was more than a month later, on September 29, that a proper medical examination was conducted, on the insistence of the State Human Rights Commission. This report confirms that the victim was gang-raped.

It is rather telling that neither the police nor the media took note of the case until the events of September 10. Sapre's death and the overwhelming numbers at the mahapanchayat forced people to pay attention and led to a flurry of political activity. There was a stream of high-profile visitors, including former Chief Minister Digvijay Singh (known as Raja Sahib in the region, since the district is his ancestral stronghold) of the Congress and his brother Lakshman Singh (known as Chote Raja) of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Jamuna Devi, Congress member from the Bheel tribe, spirited the rape victim away with her to hold a press conference in Bhopal.

Adding insult to injury, the promised compensation has not materialised. When Frontline visited the victim's home, her mother-in-law Kamla Bai said that Ramkatha, along with her husband and her father-in-law, had gone to the nearest bank, for the third time, to claim the compensation amount. "A sum of Rs.25,000 had been promised when the Raja came. The bank sent a letter to collect the cheque. Now, so many trips have been made and they don't have any money."

Ghanshyam Sharma, who heads the Madhya Pradesh Adivasi Sangram Parishad and who has been assisting the tribal people in this case, said that the district administration had promised an interim relief of Rs.25,000, which finally arrived. However, "Jamuna Devi's promise of Rs.25,000 has not been kept. Also, Rustom Singh of the BJP had declared a Rs.2,00,000 compensation; that has not materialised either."

He told Frontline that the fight is far from over. A meeting of tribal people was held on October 18. "The district administration did not give permission for a mahapanchayat, so we organised an Akhand Ramayan lasting 24 hours, which allowed tribal people to meet and make plans. On December 20, we will organise a big rally in Guna. This is not just about one rape. The tribal people have been harassed for years. They depend on the Meenas for employment, which they've lost now. Taking on the Meenas means confronting starvation. Along with justice in the Konyakala case, what the tribal people need is permanent landholdings and forest rights."

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