By Sreejith Murali
On 31June, 2017, the Balika Aswaas Vidyalaya, a government girls’ residential school in Palnar village, Kuakonda Block of Dantewada district had many visitors, unusual for a school. But, for schools in the Bastar region, especially in districts where there is intensive conflict between the Maoists and the Indian security forces, these visitors were normal[i]. A programme organised by a local television on the occasion of Raksha Bandhan, the Hindu festival where a ‘sister’ ties a rakhi (coloured string) around her ‘brother’s’ wrist, who then vows to protect her. On this day, the ‘brothers’ – 100 paramilitary forces (or jawans as they are known) from CRPF[ii] – entered the girls’ hostel for tying rakhi. During the programme, the female students were made to dance with the jawans. After the programme, some of the jawans followed seventeen girls into the restroom and molested them – the details of which will numb anyone with anger. The lack of public anger in mainstream media and larger public about it is but a telling sign of how a region and its people have only been seen as a source for mineral resource extraction and nothing more. Ironically, the patriarchal Hindu festival, which is alien to the non-Hindu Adivasi communities in Bastar, was meant as a ‘Public Relations’ exercise to showcase the security forces as ‘protectors’ of the girls.
The incident and the apathy that followed
Once there, 5 to 6 CRPF men used the opportunity to follow 3 young school girls while they were in line to use the bathroom. Three of these men entered the toilet when a girl was already inside and stayed there for about 15 minutes. All this while, the men who were outside sexually assaulted the girls who were just outside the bathroom, squeezing their breasts and threatening them.[iii]
While the 17 Adivasi girls of the school, who were sexually harassed by gun welding paramilitary forces, found the courage to tell their parents about it, there were attempts to suppress the matter when they complained to the police. Initially, the Collector and the SP did not allow the report to be registered and tried to hush up the matter. The case was eventually made public by Adivasi activists like Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi. A First Investigation Report (FIR) was registered six days after the incident on 6 August, 2017. Subsequently, only 2 jawans had reportedly been arrested under sections of Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POSCO) Act, 2016. A search in the local newspaper, Dantewada Patrika, revealed that there was no report on the incident from 1st to 7th August, this when news about education and schools are routinely covered and even given front page coverage in the local dailies. Even the national dailies followed up the incident with carefully worded reports “alleging molestation” and carrying only the CRPF or the authority’s version. Later, there were reports that one of the girls who had been molested tried to commit suicide, but was saved by her friends in the nick of time.
The members of CRDO[iv], which conducted a fact-finding mission, were denied entry into the residential school citing rules that outsiders will not be allowed in the hostel premises. One cannot help but think that if the authorities had followed “rules” on that eventful day and denied entry to the security forces, the gruesome incident would never have happened. The report of the fact finding mission raises the following important questions about the incident:
Under the principle of command responsibility, Hostel warden, SP, Collector, CRPF officers and others are also liable and responsible for this incident as they permitted and participated in an illegal programme. It amounted to criminal trespass. Minor girls in the garb of Raksha Bandhan were made to join dancing with CRPF men in uniforms and having arms. The SP and Collector are also responsible under Nirbhya Act for delay in filing the FIR.
The “Bastar Bachao Sanyukt Sangarsh Samiti”, a civil society group which works in the region with members including Soni Sori[v], Congress leader Arvind Netam, and Lingaramram Kodopi, also visited the village for fact finding. With their identities hidden, the victimised girls narrated the incident and also shared that the hostel Adhishikha (Headmistress) used foul language to intimidate them and blamed them for having illicit relations with their elder ‘brothers’. Sexual violence against women and children, who are non-combatants, as means to extract information, avenge Maoist attacks, or exert power, is not uncommon in the districts of Bastar region.[vi]
The multiple violence of schooling in Bastar
Schools and the lives of children in Bastar region have been embroiled within the conflict from the time of Salwa Judum[vii] in 2004-05. Thousands of families were uprooted from their native villages largely by the government-sponsored and trained militia, Salwa Judum, who were local Adivasi youth. Some of the Salwa Judum recruits were themselves children. The families were forced to vacate their homes in forests and made to shift to camps by the side of major roads or flee to neighbourhood states. As the security forces used schools which were the only concrete structures in villages, as their camp, the Maoists targeted them and broke down a number of schools. The civil camps were most often located near security camps, so when large residential schools were constructed for the children in camps, their lives intersected with the security forces. After the 2011 Supreme Court judgement against the Salwa Judum, the local administration has been on its back foot to display a sense of normalcy in the area. Since then, education has got significant attention in terms of intervention from the Collectorate, even though the investment in education and health was overshadowed by investment in other areas like infrastructure development.
During my visit to the region as part of a UNICEF evaluation team in 2015, local NGOs and educational bureaucracy were referring to the residential schools as a “safe space” for children, especially girls. There has been large scale construction of what is called “Porta Cabins” (PC), which are 500 seat residential schools, in many districts of the region. Educational and civil bureaucrats stated that these schools were for the safety of the children and to keep them away from the influence of Naxals. This entailed thousands of children leaving their homes to live in large residential schools, away from their parents and community in an alien environment. Instruction is carried out in Hindi in these schools. Their languages – Gondi, Halbi, Dorla, Dhurvi – were almost nearly absent from the state curriculum. Only time will reveal the real impact of subjecting children to such epistemic and pedagogic violence. Images and stories of the stolen generation, indigenous children in Australia, Canada, and the United States of America, come to mind. The stolen generation in India are also removed from their families, made to live in residential schools in an environment where their own culture and languages are absent, and made to learn a “foreign” language – Hindi, in this case. With the national and international attention focused on Bastar since the scale of violence of Salwa Judum was exposed to outside world through civil society and NGO reports, the state went on an overdrive to enumerate and re-enrol children who were out of school. Porta Cabins were posed as a solution to the problem for out of school children in this situation. Technically, the state government did not have an educational policy for dealing with the situation of conflict. From the narratives of the ex-collector and the senior officials in Rajiv Gandhi Shiksha Mission in Raipur and Dantewada, PCs emerged as a solution to the anxieties of administration that young out of school children would be influenced by the Naxalite ideology in their villages or camps if not presented with an alternate educational future. The narrative[viii] of political activists like Soni Sori, Manish Kunjam[ix] and Lingram Kodopi presented a contrasting picture to the official discourse on residential schools. They criticised the policy of keeping children in residential schools for most part of year. Manish Kunjam saw the residential schools as a part of the security and surveillance mechanism of the state through which children are to be monitored so that they do not join Naxalites. The structural issues of exploitation of Adivasis meanwhile continued with the highhandedness of security operations and resource extraction. There was also an interrelationship between roads which signified development, security, and schooling, as many PCs also came up close to security camps. The first of the PCs was built near the internally displaced people’s camps on the sides of major roads during the Salwa Judum and then the camps were surrounded by the security forces. Now roads in Bastar region are a means of ushering in mineral resource extraction, thus enabling ‘development’ and security forces to commute. The larger residential schools are also constructed by the side of these major roads, again for the administration’s ease.
The elusive justice…
Education is a not an innocent activity but a political one, the multiple violence of schooling in Bastar is a testament to the marginalisation of a region and its people within the national psyche. What happened in Palnar would have shaken the core of any nation; that it did not is testament to the caste-based, feudal Brahmanical mentality of those in power and also many of us citizens of the Union. That the seventeen girls had to go through such pain on that day and the subsequent humiliation they and their parents faced when they went to the authorities and the silence of the rest of ‘us’ speaks loudly about the marginalisation of Adivasi communities and of Bastar within mainstream narratives. It is not as if the Adivasi communities are not resisting and “speaking” back; there are multiple resistances in Bastar. But the one that gets the media’s attention is the violent struggle led by the Maoists. Historically, the Adivasi communities have resisted oppression from outside – the most prominent is 1910 Bhumkal rebellion. Colonial reports suggest that the Adivasi resistance forces during Bhumkkal burnt government schools and chased away the schoolmasters. This was because of the forceful enrolment of children in schools and punishments like tying guardians upside down with smoked chilli being burnt over them. Perhaps a vicious cycle, but schools have returned as sites of violence for the community in Bastar. The resistance will continue till justice prevails. The onus is on the state for restoring constitutional principles, but foremost, they must listen to the multiple voices of pain and assertion.
[i] In the Bastar region of South Chhattisgarh, in central India the Indian security forces have been engaging in a protracted battle over territory with the Maoist or Naxal armed guerilla fighters. The conflict intensified since the state supported Salwa Jadum in early 2000s. The conflict situation still continues.
[ii] CRPF or Central Reserve Police force is a paramilitary force under the central government in India deployed in areas of ‘internal’ conflict like Kashmir, Manipur, Bastar etc.
[iii] Statement from Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression titled “WSS Statement on the Assault on Adivasi Schoolgirls By CRPF Cadre During Imposed Raksha Bandhan Function”. While this report mentions 3-4 girls the local activist group “Bastar Bachao Samyukt Sangarh Samiti” mentions that 17 girls were subjected to molestation. Retrieved from here and here.
[v] Soni Sori is an Adivasi political leader currently a member of the Aam Aadmi Party. She was a headmistress in a residential school during the infamous Salwa Jadun violence, when she was arrested and went through a long period of custodial torture.
[vii] The Salwa Judum literally translates into “purification hunt” in Gondi Its origins are contested with state narrative calling it a spontaneous movement while others claiming it was planned by local politicians with the State government. The ‘movement’ took off with state patronage and resulted in thousands of armed militia threatening villagers to move from villages in Naxalite stronghold areas to camps by the side of the main roads. The 2011 Supreme Court judgement (Nandini Sundar and Others vs The State of Chhattisgarh) came heavily down on arming citizens in Salwa Jadum and the violence perpetuated.
[viii] Based on my interviews with them for my MPhil thesis.
[ix] Mr. Manish Kunjam is a leader of Communist Party of India (CPI) and an ex- MLA who has a large mass support in the area since 1990s, currently based in Sukma town.
Sreejith Murali is a PhD (Sociology) student at Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay, Mumbai. He writes from the positionality of an outsider to Bastar, having a privileged location of urban, upper caste male.
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