When the so-called custodians of the law become the primary violators of the law, it shows that something is seriously wrong.
The stories of Meena Khalkho and Kawasi Hidme from Chhattisgarh made headlines recently, but they have not, unfortunately, incited sufficient outrage from the mainstream media, or the civil society at large. Sometimes, it appears as if all our anger is reserved only for those occasions where brutality comes visiting our middle-class, urban lives, and for the rest, as a nation, we willingly turn a blind eye.
Meena Khalkho, a 16-year-old girl from the Navadih village in Chhattisgarh was picked up by the state police, gang-raped and murdered in July 2011. The police at that time had conveniently painted her as a “Naxalite/Maoist”, who was killed in an encounter and had confessed to being part of a Naxalite party. Further, in order to lend credibility to their thorough fabrication, they also concocted a story about seizure of detonators, country-made guns, and Naxal literature. To add insult to injury, the police force also said Meena was a Maoist who was “habituated to sex”.
The Judicial Enquiry Commission’s report, which was tabled on the floor of the Chhattisgarh assembly last month clearly established the falsity of the police story. The report pointed out that the girl was not a Maoist, nor was she a supporter. It also held that no such encounter had taken place, and, in fact, the teenager had been shot from a close range with police guns. Disturbingly, the report also revealed that the girl had been brutally raped by the police and had suffered injuries from the sexual assault. Four years later, the truth has come to light.
Kawasi Hidme was picked up at a village fair when she was only 15 years old, shuttled between police stations in Chhattisgarh, beaten relentlessly, raped, and after eight years of illegal detention acquitted when the charges of 'naxal activities' against her proved false. Journalist Arun Ferreira has documented the sordid account of the rape and violence she was subjected to, and how it has left her physically broken.
These are not isolated stories that happen to one Meena Khalkho or one Kawasi Hidme or one Soni Sori. So far, only a few of the handful of stories have managed to reach us, travelling beyond the smokescreen of police lies, media self-censorship and self-imposed silence from several victims who may not be able to fight for justice in view of the brutal repercussions that they would have to face from the state machinery. Not only are the police let away with impunity, but, in fact, in the case of Ankit Garg, the primary torturer of Soni Sori, he was awarded the President’s Medal for gallantry. While Adivasi women languish in jail and are raped and killed and harassed for years on end, the trigger-happy police roam around with a license to rape and kill at will.
The criminalisation of the most marginalised sections of society is not a new phenomenon in our country. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) statistics on the prisons in India, it was revealed that Muslims, Dalit and Adivasis constitute 53 per cent of India’s prison inmates, as opposed to them making up only 39 per cent of the general population. Such a skewed statistic shows not only the nature of the state machinery, but also shows that it is the poorest and the most oppressed sections of society who do not have access to legal mechanisms, who are penalised. It goes without saying that in a conflict-ridden terrain like central India, such a situation would be replicated a hundredfold. Moreover, it does not stop with the act of criminalisation and incarceration alone. In a milieu like Chhattisgarh, where Operation Greenhunt has given free rein to the police and paramilitary forces, they have been able to carry on the most heinous rapes and murders of adivasi women and have conveniently covered up their tracks using the false bogey of Naxalism/Maoism. Chhattisgarh’s prisons are also notorious for their overcrowding, a fact pointed out by legal activists like Vrinda Grover, with the prison population standing at 261 per cent above the intended capacity!
At a press conference in Delhi last week, writer Arundhati Roy, in her statement of solidarity pointed out, “Anybody who criticises or impedes the implementation of state policy is called a Maoist.” This “Red Scare” allows the police, paramilitary and army to have a free rein. The unbridled power that has been vested in the police-paramilitary machinery to fight extremism has been transformed into state-sanctioned rape and they have been using rape as a weapon of war in these conflict-ridden areas.
When the so-called custodians of the law become the primary violators of the law, it shows that something is seriously wrong. The stories of Meena Khalkho and Kawasi Hidme and a thousand others show how far the police in India have come to embody rape culture, and it becomes essential to fight against this kind of state-sanctioned sexual violence. Challenging Operation Greenhunt, will enable us to not only take a stand against the rapes and murders of adivasi women, but it will also lead the young people who have happily bought into the “development” myth to ask hard-hitting questions about how the corporate quest for the loot of mineral resources in central India involves a human price that can never be compensated.