– N. VENUGOPAL (Visakhapatnam)
The Grey Hounds, Andhra Pradesh’s anti-Naxal task force, are accused of raping tribal women. But nobody’s been booked
Shocked The men had gone out for work when the village was raided by the Grey Hounds
ANGER AND DESPAIR pervade the otherwise cool and serene setting in this part of the Eastern Ghats. The eyes of the Khond tribals here, particularly of the women, seem to be burning with anguish. They confront a visitor with searching, unsettling questions. What wrong have we done? Why should our humiliation go unpunished? The eyes are not vacant, they demand answers for the savagery and humiliation unleashed upon their community by the State, by the very men tasked with protecting the law and citizens’ dignity. They demand action for bringing the perpetrators of a dastardly crime to book.
The place is Vaakapalli. The women are the 11 victims raped by Andhra Pradesh’s special anti-Naxalite police force, the Grey Hounds. The incident occurred around three months ago but the shock and disbelief at the government’s apathy still linger on. From Visakhapatnam, touted as “the most happening city”, you reach this village after a harsh drive of 150 km. After passing Paderu, the headquarters of the Integrated Tribal Development Authority, G. Madugula, the mandal headquarters, and Nurmati, a relatively larger settlement by tribal standards, you have to trek down the hill to reach Vaakapalli, a nondescript village that burst into news after the gang rape of the tribal women.Pangi Barso (30), Pangi Sittai (26), Korra Harsamma (28), Pangi Ande (30), Vanthaala Rendo (25), Korra Kumari (22), Pangi Lakshmi (22), Korra Janakamma (20), Pangi Sridevi (20), Korra Chilakamma (38), and Vanthaala Chittemma (45) had little idea that the T-shirts-clad members of the Grey Hounds unit would descend on the village in the early hours when the men go out for daily work. “We generally go out to fields around three or four in the morning and come back around 9-10,” says an elderly person of the village explaining their absence at the time of the incident. But he was very clear on who the culprits could be. “Machchala machchala battalu vesukunedi vaallekada (it’s only them who wear that kind of dress). We live peacefully with snakes, tigers and bears, but these hounds came to our village for the first time and did this,” he says.
On the morning of August 20, the Grey Hounds raided the village, which is considered a stronghold of Maoists. But the locals say no search operation was done that day. They claim that the Grey Hounds only wanted to the Maoists. Going by accounts of the villagers, the Grey Hounds team of around 20 men dragged 11 women out of their huts and fields and raped them together.
The subsequent insulation of the culprits from the law makes the crime all the more shameful. The cover-up was facilitated due to the fact that it is immensely difficult to track down Grey Hounds as they don’t wear uniforms or badges. Their vehicles do not have registration numbers and their halts are never recorded. So the onus of their whereabouts rests solely on the officer who sends the team. After the incident, the victims immediately approached the sarpanch of Nurmati, and he along with the elders of both the villages took the women to Paderu for reporting the matter to the police. The police tried to hush up the case but the local BSP MLA, Lake Raja Rao, ensured that the FIR was registered.
Unanswered: The villagers are still gripped by shock and disbelief
THE POLICE then tried to delay the process of medical examination so as to tamper with the tell-tale evidence. Even though the hospital at the nearest tow Anakapalli did not have the facilities, the victims were taken there for the medical examination. Several people’s organisations forced the district authorities to bring the victims to the Visakhapatnam Hospital. As a result, the examination could take place only on August 21, which said there was no conclusive evidence of rape. Also, the report of the state forensic laboratory did not confirm rape, though the unreleased report of the tribal welfare secretary is believed to have done that. Meanwhile, the husband of one of the victims was threatened by the police to withdraw the complaint.
The immediate reaction of District Superintendent of Police Akun Sabharwal was a flat denial. He said that his men did not go to the village at all. Later, he admitted that the policemen did go there but did not rape the women. The state’s director general of police and the home minister gave similar responses. The DGP himself knitted a theory to rebut the rape charge. “The tribal women are raising this bogey of rape to prevent our men from combing operations. They are doing this to help the
Maoists and at their behest,” he said.
As part of the departmental inquiry by the police, the Additional SP tried to silence the victims by offering Rs five lakh each. The women retorted by offering an equal amount to the police if justice was given to them.
After a lot of procrastination, the government then heeded the High Court’s directive to order a CID inquiry. However, the CID officials had not visited the scene of the offence even after seven weeks of the incident. On October 14, District Collector Anil Kumar Singhal and SP Akun Sabharwal visited the village for the first time. “Now the case is being investigated by the CID. They have to submit their report to the High Court and we will act accordingly. It is not our intention to protect any culprit,” said Singhal. “You have every right to protest and fight. I have come here to do justice. But if it is my responsibility to do justice to you, it is also my responsibility that in the process I shouldn’t do injustice to others. As you yourselves say there were 20 policemen and all of them were not culprits, therefore neither you nor I exactly know who the culprits are. We cannot punish those who are innocent. Let the court decide who are responsible, and I will immediately see to it that they are punished,” Singhal told a group of men in the village. He did not speak to the victims, saying, “the women do not know Telugu, so I can’t talk to them.”
However, at least six victims speak Telugu very well and poured out their anguish to TEHELKA. One of the victims, Pangi Sridevi, said, “We want justice. Unless justice is done we are not going.
WITHIN THREE days of the incident, some organisations affiliated to the CPI took the victims to Hyderabad to register complaints with the authorities, but there again despair was all they got. “We met the chief minister but he did not even say three full sentences to us. We went to the home minister and he promised to take action depending upon for – ensic reports and directions of the HRC, the High Court and the tribal welfare department,” said one of the victims. They also met state Human Rights Commission chairman Justice B. Subhashan Reddy.
Unable to find redressal, the victims then went on an indefinite hunger strike camp in Paderu demanding immediate action under the banner of Adivasi Ikya Porata Samithi . The hunger strike was withdrawn after a week when the CID inquiry was ordered.
Civil society’s response to the incident has provided some encouragement. The entire agency area observed an immediate bandh and dozens of human rights organisations and all the opposition political parties visited the village to offer solace to the victims. The common demand was to book and arrest the entire team of the Grey Hounds that went to Vaakapalli on that day on the charge of rape and under the SC/ST Atrocities (Prevention) Act among others. It was also demanded that the Grey Hounds team be paraded in front of the victims to identify the culprits and all the police officials be charged for tampering with the evidence.
The SHRC, the High Court and the SC/ST Commission have also responded immediately and positively. The SC/ST Commission was one of the first to visit the village. The High Court went further and issued a notice to the DGP for denying the crime before the investigations are completed. It also hauled up the government for sending an incomplete report to the SC/ST Commission and directed the government to make the report of the tribal welfare secretary public. The report, known as the Nagi Reddy report, for the first time in three months not only lists names of the 21 accused policemen, including the sub-inspector of Paderu, A. Ravi Kumar, but according to the High Court, also establishes conclusive evidence against them.
“If the victims were not tribal women, would their FIRS have gone uninvestigated even after so many days? Shouldn’t the testimonies of the victims be immediately recorded? Would the High Court and the SHRC turn silent after making some noise?” asks K. Balagopal of Human Rights Forum. “Society has been silent on fake encounters for the last 38 years, and on the unquestionable atrocities by the Grey Hounds for the last 21 years,” says writer Varavara Rao. The humiliation of the Vaakapalli women is as criminal as that of Manorama’s rape by the armed forces in Manipur, and so is the denial of justice in both the cases.
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 4, Issue 45, Dated Nov 24, 2007