Women’s voices from Bastar: “Activism comes at a cost”

January 27, 2018

This article recently appeared in the National Herald.

Two adivasi girls narrate incidents of fake encounters and physical and sexual assault of women in their villages. These two girls are harassed and threatened regularly

Two young girls from Bastar, Suneeta Pottam (20) and Munni Pottam (19) are taking on the state in their fight against extrajudicial killings. Faced with intermittent physical and sexual assaults by the police force, they had filed a petition in the High Court of Bilaspur.

Suneeta: I have been called a Maoist. If I were one, why would I be here fighting my case? Fake encounters and killings are not a new phenomenon in our villages. In my village, Korcholi, the police force has come multiple times to beat up men and assault the women. There were many a time when I thought why are they beating us? We don’t have an answer to the question. I have studied only upto Class III, as in 2005 the Salwa Judum had reached our village. They had burnt down our homes, destroyed our schools. When it happened, we ran away to the jungle. It wasn’t safe for us to be there. We had to rebuild our homes; the police force (CRPF and SPOs) have burnt my house thrice. Our village was one of the 300 villages, which were burnt down by Salwa Judum in 2005. After that, I never went to school. As a result, I can speak Hindi and read sparingly.

Munni: I speak only broken Hindi, Suneeta didi speaks it better. I speak Gondi fluently. We live next to each other and our families are related. You may ask us why we are the only two fighting this case. We are not alone; if you come to our village, you will realise that no one is scared to speak the truth. They all will say exactly what we are saying. It was a question of language. We understood Hindi a little more than them; we need it to negotiate with the state. The organisation, Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression, had come to our village as part of a factfinding team in 2015. They had come there to assess and record instances of sexual violence against women. We were always raising our voices, just that we didn’t know how to take the legal route. They helped us to do so in 2016. They are the third petitioners in PIL filed by us questioning the spate of encounters in Bijapur.

Suneeta: The activism comes out a cost. Even after we had filed a case, the police had come to the house asking for me to go to the police station. On that day I was not at home. If I had been taken to the police station, I’m not sure if I would have been alive today. We have come to the Supreme Court to also request for protection. I feel that we are in trouble and we are hoping that the court would direct the state to protect us. The High Court had asked the state police to provide us protection, but that has not happened yet. We are always worried when we step out. Moreover, we are also worried for our families. I have a teenaged brother, who is studying. I help my parents with farming. All the families there cultivate rice; that is how we earn money. Munni: My father died in 2009 and I have four younger siblings. All of them go to a school in Bijapur. Only I help my mother with farming. Now, once we go back, we will go to Telangana for almost 45 days to pluck chillies. We go with our own rice, some dried food stuff and utensils. We can’t leave our utensils here. We are not sure if it will be here when we come back. Once we come back, it will be the mohua-plucking season and then by June, we begin cultivating rice.

Suneeta: Initially, we had filed the petition regarding the encounter killings of six persons, one of which had occurred in our village Korcholi. The others had occurred in Kadenar, Palnar and Andri in Bijapur district. Now, other cases have also been added to it. Our case is strong; we have affidavits of villagers who are family members of the deceased or are eye-witnesses to the incident. Their versions will challenge the police versions. We have been threatened many times. Even recently, on December 21, security forces assaulted the women of our village. Over a hundred villagers had then marched to the Collectorate to register their complaints. Soon, the SP and ASP of Bijapur summoned us and threatened us stating that if we kept raising these issues, they would arrest us in the name of Naxalism. But, we have no option but to raise our voices.