How Breastfeeding Women Are Abused In Bastar – And Other Horror Stories

Women taking a break from working in the fields, mid-morning in Dantewada district.

Bent backs glisten in the noonday sun, with nothing but a sari wrapped around their waist and over their breasts to shield them from its blazing heat. The women are out, collecting firewood, tending to the fields, or doing the weekly marketing at the local haat (market) that sells everything from fresh vegetables to petrol in bottles- all that can be purchased either for cash or in exchange for grain that they bring from their fields. They spot us, stop and pose for the camera and smile widely. Through the lens though, their faces, each etched with lines of fear, pain and sorrow, belie a different, heartbreakingly bitter truth.

Elsewhere in the country, in the mountains of Kashmir or the rainforests of the North East where the army or paramilitary forces are fighting insurgency or secessionism, the narrative of national security overrides every ideology or political ambition. There is a ready argument for the use of force, one the rest of us in our in our air-conditioned urban comfort zones and consumption-driven lives swallow all too easily. But this is the heart of darkness. Where the “master” wants to tame and civilize those who live in and off the forests and rivers in Chhattisgarh’s bountiful Bastar region. The tribals of India’s heartland – the Gonds, the Dhurvas, the Marias and many others who have lived here for centuries and maintained their cultural and linguistic traditions are caught in the middle of a violent insurgency being fought in their name.

As men stay away from public spaces, it falls on the women to do the weekly marketing.
As men stay away from public spaces, it falls on the women to do the weekly marketing.

Bastar is possibly one of the most beautiful parts of the country, blessed in every way by nature. Its forests are lush, its rivers don’t run dry, and its lands are fertile. Beneath the earth, its mineral richness has enticed present day prospectors – big industrialists, steel magnates and public sector undertakings. That richness, many argue, is the underlying reason for the violence. As armed Naxals (Maoists) carry on an insurgency against the state in the name of tribal rights to land and tradition, the state has responded with equal force.

The two sides have been locked in a brutal conflict that escalated in 2005 after the creation of the Salwa Judum- a state sponsored anti-Naxal movement- that drove tribals out of their homes in an attempt to clear the jungles of Maoists. (The Judum was disbanded after a Supreme Court order in 2011 declared it unconstitutional). The Maoists in turn unleashed their wrath on the people, holding Jan Adalats and killing those they accused of being “government sympathizers” in kangaroo courts and targeting mainstream politicians, paramilitary and police forces with impunity.

Parvathi (left) and Junko (right) at the livelihood college in Adawal block, Jagdalpur district. Police say they surrendered as Naxals and are being given skill training. The girls say they were brought by force and want to go home.
Parvathi (left) and Junko (right) at the livelihood college in Adawal block, Jagdalpur district. Police say they surrendered as Naxals and are being given skill training. The girls say they were brought by force and want to go home.

Without emotion, as though she were talking about the weather, Manju (name changed) tells us how she and six other women in her village (Kunna in Bastar’s Sukma district) were subjected to “inspection” by a police party that came through their hamlet chasing a group of Naxals. Fearing harassment, torture, arrest or death, each time forces approach, boys and men flee into the forests, leaving women to face the brunt of the search. While they all pointedly say they were not raped, their stories of physical abuse are horrific.

Manju tells us how she pleaded with forces not to touch her as she was nursing a baby. But that didn’t stop them from squeezing and milking her breasts. Apparently, the locally deployed forces believe that those who are married and have children don’t become “Naxals” and over the last year, activists say checking to see if women are lactating by squeezing their breasts has virtually become standard operating procedure. While the senior-most police officials in Chhattisgarh outrightly reject this idea, in private, police sources in the state capital of Raipur confirm their concern over the search tactics used by their men on the ground, and worry about the tacit approval they claim is given by the Inspector General of Police in the Bastar region.

Kunna is one of the more accessible villages. To meet Manju, we had to drive along the highway through the Kanger National Park to Sukma district, switch vehicles to something sturdier (jeeps are used for public transport in the interiors), and drive for fifteen kilometres through a small patch of forest and paddy fields. But deeper inside Bastar, the horrific accounts of Kunna pale in comparison to stories of rape and plunder.

Kunna village in Sukma district, where women have accused police forces of mass sexual violence.
Kunna village in Sukma district, where women have accused police forces of mass sexual violence.

Activists and lawyers from the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLag) who have been harassed in the district courts, chased out of the region’s main town, and forced to relocate to Bilaspur are fighting cases for 13 women in the Bijapur district who have accused security forces of gang-rape and mass sexual violence in separate incidents in November 2015 and January 2016. In all these cases, FIRs have been lodged after delays and resistance and only with the help of activists, many of them women who are also now under threat. In fact, the harassment is so blatant that when one of the lawyers stopped to meet us, we were chased out of a public park at 6 am. With the lawyer were two girls from Bijapur who have filed a case of a fake encounter against the Bijapur police. They had received a court order for police protection, and the lawyer was making the journey with them to ensure the Superintendent of Police in Bijapur received the order.

In another instance, an 18-year-old boy who was out on bail for a petty crime he committed when he was a minor and was appearing in court on schedule every month was killed by the police on charges of being a Naxal. His sister and his niece (one is married but doesn’t have children, the other girl is single) have been taken away to what’s called the “Livelihood” college after the police claimed they “surrendered”. They want to go back to their families and their fields, but are being ‘trained’ in a skill against their wishes. They tell us if they try to leave the campus, the police will simply bring them back by force.

Elderly Gond woman in a village where police say two girls 'surrendered'.
Elderly Gond woman in a village where police say two girls ‘surrendered’.

These few incidents we came across in one short week point to the most depraved, unconscionable rights violations being committed in the name of national security against the poorest, voiceless and most vulnerable of our citizens. On the one hand, armed dadas, as the Maoists are called, terrorize villagers into giving them food and shelter as they pass through in the dead of night. On the other, security forces terrorize them for being Naxal sympathisers.

From the ground, the columns of newspaper space and endless minutes of television in our living rooms are utterly insufficient in their attempts to explain what is going on in India’s tribal heartland. As spectacular as Bastar’s beauty, as distant, unimaginable and uncomfortable its reality. The people of Bastar are not demanding independence from India. It is up to the rest of us, empowered and aware, to point to the differences between the insurgency here and the secessionist movements in Kashmir and the North East, and to question and seek accountability from the state and indeed ourselves for allowing the level of tragedy and deprivation that unfolds every day in Bastar to continue.

– Maya Mirchandani is Senior Editor, Foreign Affairs – NDTV

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

25 COMMENTS

  1. Me and my family are the one among those mentally tortured by Bastar Police.My husband has been forcefully kidnapped by Chhattisgarh police under the guidance of Bastar SP, in 28th July from Nuagaon (a village approx 40 km away from chattisgarh border towards Odisha).we have a 164 givengiven by locals in front of Kotpad magistrate. But according to Chhattisgarh police they arrested from Dhanpunji Railway Station. Why police is giving fake news to media if their arrests r true? Shame on Bastar police. Killing and arresting innocent peoples in the name of Naxals just for the sake of name and Fame.

  2. Down With State Repression. Only broader democratic struggle will able to end such repression by security forces which is continuing by the support of corporate houses.
    With Regards,
    NARENDRA MOHANTY

  3. This article made my heart silent and think for a moment. But my brain still not convinced to believe on any news on any news broadcasting agency . Still doubtful about the neutrality of journalism.

  4. Tribal issues and people had and have always been neglected by the government. Exploitations, atrocities, sexual tortures, false cases, displacement, and killings in the name of national security by paramilitary forces have been /will be a norm. Reason appears to be quite simple- neglection towards tribals and not treating them as humans. What’s happening in international borders, government is somewhat serious, but central India remains neglected – All due to economists who are not only mining minerals, but the rights of tribal people to live. And being a woman in these place, is actually a curse. I feel sorry and pity for those paramilitary forces (deployed in Maoist belt) personnel’s families who think their sons/fathers/husbands/brothers are doing national service. They (paramilitary force personnel) should also respect the tribal women as they respect their family members. However, the concept of pride and bravery has changed over last couple of years in this country. This is a fact and one can nor deny it.

  5. Was frozen for a moment after reading this…Indian people/politicians understand only movies. A movie need to be made which highlights these atrocities! Why not NDTV make its own documentary/movie on this subject! Visuals can magnify the subject matter many times!

  6. Police of entire India is bad what is the new thing you have told. Sadhvi Pragya was also tortured every one knows which has been ignored by a channel.

  7. This is an excellent article, on a grim situation in Bastar. I do not get your point in your final paragraph, when you say that we as aware and empowered people should distinguish between insurgencies in Bastar and Northeast India and Kashmir. Well, these kind of atrocities have been done by the security forces everywhere, just the differences in meaning of the dissent against the Indian state, secessionist or otherwise, does not justify any of these acts. We know that for long years the AFSPA has given impunity to a section of the security forces, to act on their own whims and fancies, and women are suffering from Post Trauma Stress Disorder, with impact on their children. We also know that the secessionist elements are now no longer there in Northeast India. So this distinction is uncalled for, and such atrocities by security forces should not happen anywhere, period.

  8. This indeed should bring into focus, The Development vs people issue.
    Hope all who have been so vocal against previous govt’s considerations for environment etc, are able to have a close up !

  9. You only highlight the plight of tribal. Try to highlight the benefits of development that they have got. There is no place of violence in the name of protecting tribal rights as done by Maoists. You only know to write from comfort of your room, you are closing your eyes when the Maoists are killing hundreds of our security forces.

    • It is you who is getting the benefits of the development. Those tribals are not getting any thing. In fact they lose their habitat and livelihood which depends on forest.

  10. Tip of an Ice Berg AS @ Ravi says!!!. Just one question to those high profile TV journos – Why Doesn’t India Want to Know THIS?, Mr Arnab Goswami and his Ilk??

  11. Revolution is the only solution. These things don’t happen in China, although they have many similarities with India. The biggest difference is not the economy, but people’s mindset. They’re a civilized nation that is yet to get democracy and we’re a so called democracy, but far from being civilized.

  12. This is just the tip of the iceberg. What the hell are these politicians of India doing. Its show how there is no justice in India. And show how trained are these so called paramilitary force. I can see so many Jabs of soldiers martyrdom and awards by the actors and politicians, saying how they protect them from the enemy. When i see such news i wonder if these so called actors and politicians even bother to read and ponder on these soldiers. These women are some on brothers and some ones wifes, mother etc. I just dont have words to explain more on these loosers.

  13. I don’t see any solution for such problems in India until our politicians start working for the nation instead of looting it. This ERA has to end but how ‘no idea’.

  14. Thank you for writing about such a topic and providing some exposure to such atrocities happening on our own people. It is indeed an unfortunate situation and one that has been in the works for many many decades now.
    What would be interesting and very valuable is if you could make some recommendations in terms of references to local help groups working in these areas that offer self-service and rehabilitation. Some of us who are not physically located in close proximity to these areas but would certainly like to help restore some self respect and independence amongst the affected will truly benefit from such initiatives.

  15. Industrialization will create air pollution. Please save our forests.

    I don’t know how much of this is true.

    If these are necessary, then hire female jawans.

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