A brutal assault

Published : Aug 13, 2004 00:00 IST

The gang rape in Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh, a State that has one of the country's highest crime rates against Dalits, once again points to the community's plight in a caste-ridden society.

in Seoni

"Where a village was deeply factionalised, the overall authority of the elders was weak, and the leaders of each faction settled disputes between members of that faction. The village elders were not then able to enforce their decision on a faction, which refused to submit itself to them. In such a situation village law resembled international law."

- From "The Potter and the Priest" in Indian Society through Personal Writings by M.N. Srinivas.

THE village of Bhomatola in Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh derives its name from the adjoining town of Bhoma. While Bhoma is the name of the town, "Tola" means a neighbourhood. Hence Bhomatola. There is nothing extraordinary about the village in order to make national headlines. In fact, the village might just go unnoticed, as it is half a kilometre away from the main highway. A signboard indicating the distance to the famous Kanha National Park is more likely to attract the eye. But recently Bhomatola made headlines, when three Scheduled Caste women of the same family were gang raped.

On July 4, a dispute arose between the dominant Gowli community - an Other Backward Class (OBC) group - and the largely outnumbered Scheduled Caste community of Mahars when a Gowli girl, Santoshi Chandravanshi, and a Mahar boy, Nitesh Kosre, disappeared from the village. (While 125 households in Bhomatola belong to Gowlis, 13 are occupied by members of other castes, which include a handful of Dalit families and a Brahmin household.) When they did not return it was assumed that the two had eloped, as the young couple knew each other well. Santoshi was apparently a frequent visitor to the Kosre household.

Matters took a difficult turn when the Gowlis demanded that the girl be returned to them by the Kosre family. They also filed a complaint at the Kanhiwada police station, under whose jurisdiction Bhomatola falls. On July 6, a meeting of Gowli caste members told Goverdhan Kosre, the boy's uncle, that the girl had to be returned to them. He was warned that otherwise the consequences would be disastrous. Kosre, who is the Panchayat Samiti secretary and the kotwar (a village-level government official who keeps the records of births and deaths and is responsible for informing the administration of any important developments), informed the Kanhiwada police station about the threat. D. Sreenivasa Rao, the Superintendent of Police (S.P.), Seoni, told Frontline that had the Kanhiwada Station House Officer (SHO) known that Kosre's nephew had also gone missing, they would have assessed the gravity of the situation. "People go missing every now and then. It does not lead to anything serious," said Sreenivasa Rao.

Kosre was given two days to locate the couple. On the night of July 6, he left for Nagpur where his relatives lived, thinking that the couple might have sought refuge there. But the two could not be found. On July 8, he informed the village that he had failed to locate the couple. By then members of the Gowli community had decided to teach a lesson to the Mahars, who had "insulted" them. At 8-30 p.m., they held a meeting and decided to confront the Kosre household. Only the women were present at home at that time, said Goverdhan Kosre. The men, Nitesh Kosre's brother Rakesh and father, had gone looking for the couple in the nearby villages. Gowlis, numbering around 150, according to Radha Bai, wife of Goverdhan Kosre, broke open the door, and despite pleadings by the women that the men were on the lookout for the couple, dragged her, Kaushalya Bai (Nitesh Kosre's mother) and Maya Bai (Rakesh Kosre's wife) through the streets of Bhomatola. "Everyone, big and small, cheered and clapped while we were being dragged," said Maya Bai, who was married into the Kosre household in February. The women were taken behind the Panchayat Bhawan and gang-raped.

Peculiarly, the empty tract of land adjacent to the Kosre dwelling was not the spot where the crime was committed. The Kosres live at one end of the village. The women, Goverdhan Kosre said, were dragged from one end of the village to the other, through the lane, with Gowli homes on both sides. It had to be a public spectacle. The intention was apparently more than just rape. While nine persons sexually assaulted Maya, Radha Bai was raped by five and Kaushalya Bai by two. All the perpetrators were in the age group of 22 to 25 and none of them was stopped by the older folk. The Gowli community participated actively in the operation while the outnumbered Dalit families could do little but watch helplessly. The traditional methods of settling village disputes as described in the case study by the late eminent sociologist M.N. Srinivas in Indian Society through Personal Writings had evidently undergone a major metamorphosis. Faiz Ahmed Kidwai, the Seoni District Magistrate, told Frontline that there was no history of reprisals in the area. The S.P. added that normally it was observed that villagers settled disputes by imposing fines. "The idea is to resolve it among themselves. I think, initially, there was no intention to rape. Perhaps they wanted to humiliate them. We spoke to the accused who have been arrested. They had been egged on by the elders," said Sreenivasa Rao.

Importantly, no strict patterns of caste-based segregation existed in the village. "The girl used to watch television in the boy's house. The SHO should have been more vigilant after the first missing report was lodged in his station," said the S.P. The SHO and a head constable have been suspended. A collective fine has been imposed on the village and a compensation of Rs.50,000 given to each of the victims.

The gang rape cannot be seen as a crime against women alone. Its social ramifications are much more. Was this a factionalised village? In all probability, it was. The Kosres are relatively well off and they own land. "None of our women works on the land of the Gowlis," Goverdhan Kosre said. The Kosre children have all attended school at least up to Class VIII. The household has a television as well. Unlike other Dalit families in the village, the Kosres were economically on a par with the Gowlis. A huge portrait of Dr B.R. Ambedkar hung at the entrance of the house. Social interaction in the village barring eating from each other's household was prevalent but dependent on the whims of the Gowlis. Several Gowlis had attended the marriage of Rakesh Kosre and Maya Bai in February.

The Gowlis and the Mahars vote differently. Once supporters of the Congress, the Mahars have gravitated towards the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Gowli votes are divided between the Congress and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The BSP has only a marginal presence in the Mahakaushal region, under which falls the Lok Sabha constituency of Seoni. In this region, it was the Gondwana Republican Party, more than the BSP, that damaged the Congress' prospects in the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections.

According to recent National Crime Records Bureau data, crimes against Dalits and the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) in Madhya Pradesh increased between 1998 and 2002. In fact, the highest number of rape cases and atrocities against the S.Ts has been reported from Madhya Pradesh. As for crimes against Dalits, Uttar Pradesh tops the list, closely followed by Madhya Pradesh.

The profile of the perpetrators of the crimes is not clear - whether they are from the upper rungs of the caste hierarchy or from the more vocal OBCs. But it has been observed that the Gowlis of Bhomatola and the other OBCs in the State have been asserting themselves aggressively vis-a-vis Dalits in the past one and a half decades. They have become the landed gentry in villages as the twice-born castes have largely moved to the cities and sold them their lands. They are the new elite in the village.

Badal Saroj, State secretariat member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said that political patronage enjoyed by these groups had further emboldened them to commit crimes against Dalits. "It is strange that the BSP leaders hardly raise these issues vociferously when it is an attack by the OBCs on Dalits. They say it is a matter to be resolved between the castes concerned. They react more strongly when the oppressors are the twice-born castes," said Badal Saroj.

MEANWHILE, the Uma Bharati-led BJP government has tried to gain political mileage out of the Bhomatola issue. The Chief Minister even hinted that it could be a Congress conspiracy. While Bhomatola comes under the Keolari Assembly segment represented by Thakur Harbans Singh of the Congress, it falls under the Seoni Lok Sabha seat represented by the BJP's Nita Pateria. Both the BJP and the Congress blame each other for the incident. With hardly anyone to speak up for the Dalits, barring the lone Left party representative in the Assembly, it was not surprising that two other incidents of rape involving Dalit women were reported from Damoh district a few days after the Bhomatala incident.

It is baffling that a host of parallel inquiries are taking place even as half of the accused are absconding. While the Seoni police is conducting its own investigation, Uma Bharati has appointed a delegation led by a woman legislator to conduct an independent inquiry. The State Minorities Commission too has entered the picture, for the Kosres are Buddhists. Representatives of the Buddhist Society of India and the Ambedkar Mahila Samiti from Mandla also came to Seoni and gave a memorandum to the District Magistrate. In fact, the woman representatives were heard blaming the handful of Dalit families for having played a passive role. "What could we have done? They were so many and we were a handful. They would have done the same thing to us," said Chaandi Bai. Unlike the Kosres who have land, Chaandi Bai is a bamboo weaver. Kesar Bai, another Dalit and a widow, works on the land owned by Gowlis. "When they call us, we go. If they don't then we try to look for other kinds of work," she said.

Cases have been registered under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) relating to gang rape, kidnapping and breaking in as well as under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Of the 16 people who have been booked for rape, 11 have been apprehended; 35 others, who abetted the act, are absconding. However, a CPI(M) fact-finding committee that visited the village stated that the women had named 65 persons involved in the abetment of the act.

There is little repentance among the Gowlis. Said Bistobai, a Gowli woman: "Who knows if the women went on their own or not. We did not hear them shout." When asked if she justified this form of revenge, she replied that her caste men had not gained anything from all of this. "They are running from the law, aren't they? They are reaping the fruits of revenge." But Bistobai and a Dalit youth Mansa Ram both agreed that the reputation of the village had been damaged. Sixty-year-old Shyama Bai, an ironsmith and Dalit, wondered why such an uproar had been made over two young people running away. "Have not people eloped before?" she wondered.

Bhomatola is not an isolated village. It too is bound to be influenced by social and economic changes. Panchayati raj elections have created new hierarchies, which may be unacceptable to the dominant elite. It is to be noted that Goverdhan Kosre was the Panchayat Samiti secretary.

Social biases are deep-rooted and they take a criminal turn, as witnessed in Bhomatola, when the dominant political parties look the other way, especially when their particular constituencies are not the victims.

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