By Rinchin, Radhika and Puja*
Following up on media reports of the gang rape of 5 adivasi women in Kochang, Araki block, Khunti district while holding street plays on anti-trafficking, Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression and Sexual Repression (WSS) constituted a fact-finding team comprising women’s groups from different states and local activists from Jharkhand to investigate into the incident. The fact-finding was held over 3 days, from 28 June to 30 June, in and around Khunti, Kochang, Ranchi and neighbouring areas, to gather further information on the incident and subsequent developments, as the only narrative available to the public was that of the administration, and the media did not carry information from independent and alternative sources.
During the fact-finding, the team met with several persons and institutions related to the incident and with information on the case. The team also attempted to meet with the 5 survivors, currently under the custody of the Khunti police., but was not granted access. Though we did seek appointments to meet with the district collector and S.P., they did not meet us.
Through the course of the fact-finding, several facts have emerged which throw into question the narrative of the police.
Facts emerging from the fact-finding
The incident of gang rape against the 5 women performing street plays on anti-trafficking occurred on 19 June 2018 in Kochang village, Araki block. The street plays were a collaboration between , a home for rescued women, managed by the RC Mission in Jharkhand, and a troupe belonging to an NGO. Out of the 5 survivors (all adults) , two were those who had been under the care and protection of the organization affiliated with the mission, and 3 belonged to the troupe of the NGO. In the first FIR lodged by the head of the NGO, he alleges that the Sisters accompanying the troupe from the RC Mission pressured the troupe on holding the performance in Kochang.
However, as per information gathered from several other sources, by 19 June, the troupe had already completed their planned 16 performances in the district, and it was on the persistence of the head of the NGO that the others reluctantly agreed to also hold another performance in Kochang, as he said he had already made announcements far and wide.
The incident occurred on 19 June 2018, but two FIRs were filed on the incident, one at the Khunti PS and the other at the Khunti Mahila PS, only on 21 June 2018. As per our inquires, we believe that the police had already received information of the offence at least as early as 20 June. On 20 June itself, the police had called one of the two Sisters who were also a part of the troupe for questioning, and later in the night, had brought 2 of the 5 survivors (those who were in the NGO’s troupe) for their preliminary medical examination, and on 21 June, a board was constituted as per law for the medico-legal examination of all 5 survivors. It is not known how, and from whom, the police first received information of the offence. As per our inquiries, the thana first received information of the offence directly from the SP office.
The FIRs identify Father Alphonse and ‘other unidentified persons/ pathalgarhi supporters’ as the accused. However, there is videographic evidence of the incident. One week after the incident, the police released the photo of one of the accused from the same video, who is well known by the locals and journalists as Baji Samant, who is not a pathalgarhi supporter but a resident of a different village, Sarai-kela. all other sources we spoke to including those form near by villages said that the 4 men who came on bikes (the suspects) were not from the area.
While it is being projected in the media that Father Alphonse was arrested for not doing enough to prevent the incident, and for failing to report the case to the police, in the FIR he is accused of a range of very grave offences, most of which are non-bailable. Offences included in the FIR lodged at Mahila thana by one of the survivors on 21 June include: wrongful restraint, wrongful confinement, voluntarily causing hurt, disrobing, gang rape, kidnapping, kidnapping with intent to wrongfully confine and conspiracy. Offences in the other FIR lodged by the head of the NGO also on 21 June include: wrongful restraint, wrongful confinement, voluntarily causing hurt, causing hurt by means of poison, kidnapping, kidnapping with intent to wrongfully confine, criminal intimidation, hiding evidence and conspiracy.
As per our inquiries, apart from Father Alphonse, two other persons have been arrested by the police. The police claim that these two accused have further identified 3 others as co-accused, who they claim are leaders of the Pathalgarhi movement. On asking whether the identity of all 5 identified accused and their claims have been verified by the 5 survivors, we were told that only the SP office will respond to all queries about the incident.
On 26 June, the police claimed to have raided Ghaghra village in order to arrest these three other named suspects in the gang-rape who are also ‘leaders’ of the pathalgarhi movement. On this day, residents of Ghaghra and some from neighbouring villages were holding a Gram Sabha meeting on the issue of pathalgarhi, and we received no confirmation of the presence of any of these 3 named suspects at the meeting. The police force, initially comprising only adivasi personnel, but later also joined by more force, the DC , SP and others, attempted to stop the Gram Sabha meeting, after which there was an altercation between the people and the police. It was during this process that the women residents chased the police to the house of Karia Munda, and brought back three deployed guards with them.
On 27 June, a 1000-member strong force of CRPF, RAF, JAF and personnel from other units raided Ghaghra (a village with a population of around 300) and neighbouring 7 villages. Out of these 7 villages, pathalgarhi had only been declared in 3 or 4 villages. Out of the 2 villages where pathalgarhi had been initiated, the security forces unleashed brutal violence in the form of beatings and atrocities on men, women and children, lathi-charge, tear-gassing and rubber pellet shootings, and also raided the homes of the residents. One person died in the lathi-charge, a minor girl suffered fracture, and between 150-300 persons, including women in substantial numbers, were arrested.
After the raids, residents of all 8 villages have fled to the forest and nearby areas out of fear and terror. The security forces continue to camp outside the villages even after the so-called abducted guards returned safely on 29 June. The fact-finding team attempted to also enter Ghaghra village for inquiries, but were refused access by the heavy numbers of security personnel deployed outside the village, and the roads were blocked with armed vehicles.
The investigations of the Fact-Finding team raise the following questions:
- How and when did the police first get information of the incident? Why was an FIR not filed immediately but only 2 days later?
- Why were two of the survivors taken for a surreptitious medical examination on the night of 20 June, followed by a full medical examination of all 5 survivors on 21 June?
- When there was video recording of the incident, why was the FIR filed against ‘unidentified’ persons? Why did the police not pursue the accused, Baji Samant, identified in the video, despite being aware of his name and address? While it storms into unconnected villages of the pathalgarhi movement under the pretext of arresting the rapists.
- Why did the police raid the Gram Sabha meeting in Ghaghra where the pathalgari event was ongoing on the pretext of arresting the accused, when they knew that the accused belonged to another area, Sarai-Kela?
- Why have the police not verified the identity of the 2 persons arrested thus far by the survivors? Also, why have the police not verified the identity of three suspects being pursued by the police by the survivors, but instead only by the two suspects who are already in the custody of the police? Also, if Yusuf Purti has not been named by any of the arrested accused or the survivors, then why is the police projecting him and other pathalgarhi leaders/ supporters as the rape accused in their proceedings and the media?
- Why are the girls still under the custody of the police? Why are they not being allowed to meet or speak to anyone (except the NCW team)?
- Who is head of the NGO which was a part of the troupe and who has filed the first FIR? Where has he disappeared after filing the FIR on the incident with the police? Is he also under the custody of the police?
Conclusions of the investigations into the incident by the fact-finding team:
The Jharkhand police and administration are maintaining utmost secrecy in the actions and proceedings subsequent to the incident. As of now all information about the incident, the statement of the survivors and the witnesses is coming form only one source – The SP office. On the pretext of keeping the 5 survivors in the protective custody of the police, they have not been allowed to meet or speak with anyone, including their families and other care-givers, except the NCW team.
The organizations to which they belong have also been not allowed to speak with press or any one else. The staff of that organization has also been ordered to stay within the organization premises and are not allowed to admit visitors or speak to anyone. We also found out that the families of these women have not been informed by the police about the incident. In the whole incident, their voice (who are all adults, some of who are married and have children) is completely missing.
There has been no statement from them, their families or friends. At the same time, the quick escalation of police action in the days after the incident has focused entirely on a campaign to tarnish pathalgarhi movements and leaders, with the result that investigations into the gang-rape and safety of the survivors have assumed secondary importance.
The legal proceedings subsequent to the incident are shrouded in doubt, as these are based entirely on the questionable narrative proposed by the police and Jharkhand administration, without any avenues for independent verification and corroboration. This, combined with the subsequent repression by security forces has created a reign of terror for the residents of Khunti and neighbouring areas, further undermining chances of independent verification.
In the name of pursuing unidentified suspects, the police has artificially linked those associated with the pathalgarhi movement with the gang rape, and has unleashed targeted persecution, harassment and arrests on them. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that the 4 bikers who committed the crime were not localites. One of those from the video has been identified as Baji Samant, resident of neighbouring Sarai-Kela. Yet, instead of pursuing these identifiable accused, the police, with the support of security personnel, is targeting pathalgarhi leaders as the prime suspects in the case.
The targeting of the mission and mission run organization: It has been projected that the Father of the mission in Kochang has been arrested for not doing enough to stop the incident, or for failing to report when he had knowledge of the incident. The NCW is now projecting the whole incident as being pre-planned. The charges against Father Alphonse in the FIR are of a much more serious degree, carrying offences of gang-rape, wrongful restraint, conspiracy, among a range of others.
The role of the media in the entire process has also been suspicious, with local and national newspapers and media channels widely misreporting on the incident, based on false and distorted facts. The media has concertedly cast adivasis, pathalgarhi supporters and the Church/ Mission organisations in a negative light in the absence of verifiable information. The press was also present in large numbers in the security camp prior to and during the raids on 27 June in Ghaghra, and was relaying the police version directly from the frontlines.
For these reasons, the fact-finding team demands:
- The institution of an independent inquiry into the incident, through a high-level committee, comprising retired Judges, lawyers and women’s rights activists.
- The police Investigation of this incident should not be conducted under the influence of the Khunti administration or police , it should be carried out by an independent agency.
- An inquiry should be carried out not only of the incident of the alleged gang rape , but also of the aftermath , in which the police crackdown that caused the death of one person and many sustained grave injuries. We also demand the withdrawl of all security personnel currently camped outside Ghaghra and neighbouring villages.
- All the safety of the women survivors is very important, their own agency too has to be kept in mind. It is not clear whether they have asked for protective custody or was it a decision taken by the police?. To a large extent it seems like the latter. Keeping them cloistered and under the complete control of Khunti police can not allow for a fair inquiry.
- The team also demands that the state government ensure the immediate removal of the 5 survivors from the control of the Khunti police and some alternative safe arrangement be made for them, taking into consideration their own choice. In the present situation it is evident that they have not been given that choice and have been forced into this protective custody by the police. Some of the women have children and it is very possible that they may want to return to their families or the organization that they were living in.
*Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression and Sexual Repression (WSS). Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org