The National Human Rights Commission is to be congratulated for taking the first step, even though much delayed, to bring justice to tribal women in the Bastar region of Chattisgarh. Its interim report confirms, through its independent investigation carried out in March 2016, the horrific gang-rapes, rapes, sexual assault and separately, physical assault, by security forces on 16 tribal women in different incidents in the Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh. The incidents occurred between October 19 and 24, 2015, in the villages of Pegdapalli, Chinnagelur, Peddagelur, Gundam and Burgicheru. According to the NHRC report, eight women were raped, six women were sexually assaulted and two women were physically assaulted by men in uniform. The NHRC has found the Chhattisgarh government “vicariously liable” and issued notice to it. It has also criticized the government for not adding the relevant clauses of the Prevention of Atrocities on SC and ST Act in the case. The NHRC has said that its investigation is ongoing into 20 more complaints.

Reported cases include the gang-rape of 13 tribal women in Bellam Lendra in Bijapur district and six women in Kunna village in Sukma in January 2016, bringing such cases of sexual crimes by security forces to 46 in just three months; and these, it must be remembered are only the reported cases. Hopefully the final report of the NHRC will include a strong recommendation to take action, prosecute and imprison the personnel responsible, including the police chief of the area, SRP Kalluri. He had termed the women as liars and said their allegations were all part of a Maoist plot to defame the security forces. Soon after the NHRC report was made public, he held a press conference where he threatened those who have been exposing the role of security forces in Bastar. It is he who should be behind bars instead of being given the Presidential medal for “good practices.” The only good practice as far as he is concerned will be when the arm of the law throws him into jail where he belongs.

Soon after the occurrence of these mass crimes against tribal women, the group Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) had in its fact-finding report brought out the horrors that the tribal women had faced.Their complaint to the Collector said while a 14-year-old girl, who was grazing her cattle, was allegedly blindfolded and gang-raped, another victim, four months pregnant, was “repeatedly dunked in a stream and gang-raped”. The complaint reported wide-scale loot and that the women were chased out of their homes. It alleged that the personnel later stripped and taunted the women.

It was on the WSS’ intervention that police were forced to file FIRs, though no arrests were made. The report was published in the Indian Express of November 2. The NHRC took suo moto notice and held its own investigation. Further reports were filed following the January assaults. It has taken over a year, during which the victims have been harassed, intimidated and threatened by the police, for at least this initial effort, the first by an official organisation, to bring justice to the women survivors.

In this period of over a year, many more complaints of cases of rape and sexual assault on tribal women by security forces have been reported. Fact-finding teams have documented the most horrendous cases. The All India People’s Forum recorded that on 8 June 2016, a girl aged 14 years from Podum village, thana Dantewada, was shutting her kirana shop when a CRPF jawan came and raped her throughout the night in the shop. She told her brother-in-law, who complained in the thana and was sent for a medical examination three days later. However, no arrest has been made. In March, the AIDWA and Adivasi Adhikar Manch team which visited villages in Sukma village also recorded cases of assault and loot. In January and then again in May, in their second visit, Professors Nandini Sundar and Archana Prasad along with Left party leaders and workers, had given details to the authorities of the cases of violence, including sexual violence by security forces.

But the BJP government of Chhattisgarh has refused to take action. Not a single personnel has been arrested; on the contrary, often the police refuse to name the men in the FIRs, even when the victims recognize them and name them as in the Bellam Nendra case. The BJP government ensures that the security forces enjoy unconditional impunity which has resulted in these gross violations of minimum and basic democratic and human rights of the tribal citizens of Bastar region. In the name of fighting the Maoists, there is an open war by the State against the tribals of the region, with the use of rape and sexual assault as one of its most used weapons. In the seven districts of the Bastar region, where the tribal population is over 70 per cent, there are reportedly 100,000 security forces. These include the local police, the CRPF and other central para military forces, the infamous Special force called the Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (COBRA), and also, on some occasions, the Army. Given the area and the size of the population, this is probably one of the most militarized zones in the country.

The fight against the Maoists also provides a pretext of using state forces to secure the area for corporate interests. The Bastar area, which has one of the poorest populations, is also one of the richest in minerals. It contains valuable deposits of Bauxite, Dolomite, Iron Ore, Limestone, Garnet and Marble, Granite, Tin, corundum, coal. Companies like Tatas and Essar have high stakes in the area for their greenfield steel plants and mines. Over 2,000 hectares of land, including 105 hectares of forest land, have been provided to Tata. The Essar plant in Dantewada was also provided land. This was done in violation of the Fifth Schedule, of the constitution and also the Forest Rights Act. The Gram Sabhas were not consulted. Tribals have resisted the takeover of their land and forests by these powerful companies, but the BJP government under Raman Singh has unleashed repression against the tribals and secured their land for the companies.

This region with a shared border with Andhra Pradesh, now Telengana, was claimed by the Maoists as one of their liberated areas. The Maoist presence and activities in this area over the last decade have provided cover for the worst kind of State repression which has decimated the lives of tribals in this entire area caught between the Maoists and the security forces. Maoists have ruthlessly killed those tribals identified by them as police informers who are put through kangaroo courts. In her report after her May 2016 fact-finding visit, Professor Nandini Sundar wrote: “In Soutnar panchayat, the villagers have resolved to keep the Maoists out and have been patrolling the villages with bows and arrows…In the past, Maoists have beaten and killed people on charges of being informers..the villagers say the police have refused to set up a camp, telling them that the Maoists will go away if they patrol, thus making them more vulnerable in the first place and then leaving them to their own devices…such developments will lead to large scale divisions and displacement as happened during Salwa Judum.”

Those were the notorious so-called anti-Maoist vigilante groups, backed by State power, which led to mass displacement of tribals, groups and organisations.The Salwa Judum, Koya Commandos and such like organisations were later banned by the Supreme Court. However, as part of its “mission” to get the Maoists, the Chhattisgarh state government is once again resurrecting these private armies.

The approach to Maoists of the BJP government at the centre and prior to that, the Congress-led Government, has utterly failed. The state-led repression has instead targeted ordinary tribals. Every time Maoist presence is suspected in any given area, state forces sweep into the area, dealing out collective punishment, causing fear, alienation and anger. Although the previous UPA Government had a similar approach, under the BJP government, the license to security forces is more open-handed, resulting in a huge increase in rapes of tribal women, looting, plunder, encounter killings of innocents. What the NHRC has brought out is just the tip of the iceberg.

Any and every effort to represent the interests of tribals caught in the relentless crossfire is met with intimidation, false cases and arrests. No one daring to speak out about what is happening in Bastar is spared. The constitution and all laws stop at the borders of Chhattisgarh. In a scathing indictment in its celebrated 2011 ban on outfits like the Salwa Judum the Supreme Court had said “We must state that we were aghast at the blindness to constitutional limitations of the State of Chhattisgarh and some of its advocates in claiming that anyone who questions the conditions of inhumanity that are rampant in many parts of that State ought necessarily be treated as Maoists or their sympathisers, and yet, in the same breath also claim that it needs the constitutional sanction under our constitution to perpetrate its policies of ruthless violence against the people of Chhattisgarh to establish a constitutional order.” The “ruthless action” by the Government today includes encounter killings of innocent tribals, false arrests, false surrenders. The statistics quoted in a recent press report are chilling. Encounters 202, Maoists killed 133, civilians killed 55, security persons killed 47. In fact a large number of the so-called Maoists killed are innocent tribals.

Today, the Chhattisgarh government is filing false cases against lawyers, journalists, activists, researchers. The Jagdalpur Legal Aid group providing free legal help to tribals has been a special target for vicious state-led intimidation. Malini Subramanium, Bela Bhatia, Shalini Gera, journalists Somaru Nag, Santosh Yadav, Prabhat Singh, Deepak Jaiswal, the brave activist and tribal leader Soni Sori, Professors Nandini Sundar and Archana Prasad, Left leaders like Sanjay Parate and Manish Kunjam, and numerous others who have fought for tribal rights or been part of fact-finding teams have felt the authoritarian sword of the BJP government.

The campaign against the activists, leaders and professionals for helping the tribals has been vicious.They have been branded anti-national and clauses of the utterly undemocratic Unlawful Activities Prevention Act have been invoked. All this has been directly planned and enforced by the police chief of the area, SRP Kalluri. This man responsible for the worst violations of human rights of legal and constitutional provisions was awarded the Presidential medal for his “good work.” As mentioned earlier, he should prosecuted.

The tribal women of Bastar have shown the utmost courage in speaking out against the uniformed perpetrators of violence against them. There is an ongoing case in the Supreme Court asking for a court monitored committee to to ensure the decisions of the top court in the earlier case banning private armies and related issues is implemented. This is all the more necessary given the present framework of glorification of the most repressive and repressive steps in the name of nationalism. A Supreme Court-monitored mechanism may act as a brake and bring some relief to the people of Bastar region.

Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.