Monday, 4 January 2010

A Mumbai girl in DANTEWADA

(This article first appeared in Sunday Times of India, on January 3, 2010)

In the Naxal belt of central India, the conflict between the State, Maoists and people is playing havoc with the lives of tribal women

I remember my first periods. For seven days I was treated like a princess, saatvik food was prepared especially for me, school was bunked and I slept with a penknife under my pillow. The knife, mom told me, was to protect me from evil, now that I was a woman.

As I sit next to the kiln, sharing personal histories with Lakhimi, on a cold winter night in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, she tells me she too was fed good food during her first periods. But the knife puzzles the tribal woman, and she asks, protection from what? "From any man’s lustful intentions that could strip me of my dignity," I say. She laughs, "I thought women in civilised cities didn’t need to protect their dignity!"

I am left wondering about civilisation in cities where we have specialised NGOs to combat eve-teasing and sexual harassment at the workplace. We have pepper-spray cans. Paedophilia is rampant behind tightly guarded curtains while affluent school kids show off their sexual rendezvous via MMS. Yet, we call ourselves modern; we call tribals uncivilised.

The tall and dusky Lakhimi tells me how men and women are equal in her tribal society, frolicking and even drinking together till late in the night. She does not know what eve-teasing is. Then imagine my surprise at finding victims of rape in her idyllic paradise.

It was in Samsetti village, 100 km south of Dantewada, where I made this discovery on Christmas Day. Entering the picturesque village, I saw 100-odd men in military fatigues, carrying automatic rifles walk out of it. Yes, it was a Naxal-infested zone, but 100 guns in a village of a few hundred was a stretch even for the imagination. By the time we halted, an eerie calm had spread over this village, which had been terrorised again, all because of four women.

These four girls in their early 20s have been victims of a concept foreign to their tribal culture—rape. In 2006, each was reportedly gangraped by SPOs (Special Police Officers) of the Salwa Judum, a vigilante militia set up by the Chhattisgarh government to flush out Naxals. Sadly, this sandwiched the tribals between Naxals and Salwa Judum in a macabre way. Rapes and murders havebecome common in villages of Dantewada, which is at the heart of the Naxal conflict today.

Ironically, these SPOs are young recruits from tribal villages, some even child soldiers, who end up beheading fellow tribals, burning their own villages, and raping their own women in an inhuman, state-sponsored offensive against Naxals. All this for a hefty salary of Rs 1,800 a month.

The women I mention are only four among several such cases of alleged rape. Almost each follows a similar pattern of intimidation and threats to silence them. In this case it took some sustained intervention and counselling by Gandhian activist Himanshu Kumar, currently fasting since December 26 to expose such hushed-up cases.

The rape cases were finally registered in the Bilaspur high court in March 2009, after the cops refused to file FIRs. However, the sessions court, in its last hearing in November 2009, declared the accused as absconding. Absurdly enough, the accused walked into the village in December 2009, beat up the four girls, took their thumb impressions on blank papers and warned them against taking the case further. When Himanshu Kumar tried to make this news public, the accused returned to the village and took the girls to the police station where they were tortured for five days. No wonder that when we finally reached Samsetti the villagers first shielded them from us. Even when we found them, they refused to talk openly about what had happened.

"Forget your rape; save your Muriya tribe from annihilation," is what the villagers had told the scared girls. So a society that was truly independent now faces the scourge of being civilised.

While we have exported our ideas of being civilised to the forests, we haven’t yet lent them our sympathies. While one IPS officer goes home scot-free after causing the suicide of a teenager he molested and then threatened, here too in Samsetti the protectors have become the persecutors. At least the cities are agitated enough to debate and gather support for the wronged Ruchika. But have we even heard of these four brutal rapes in Samsetti? Can we even talk of justice for them and the scores of other tribal women who have shared a similar fate? Or is it convenient to ignore them just because they are bow-and-arrow-carrying tribals? There are no easy answers. All we can do is begin with these easy questions.

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