Two teenaged adivasi girls from Bastar take on the state in their fight against extra-judicial killings. A Public Interest Litigation challenging the spate of encounters in Bijapur was filed last year before the Chhattisgarh High Court in Bilaspur by two young women from Korcholi with extra-ordinary grit and determination –Suneeta Pottam (19 years old).and Munni Pottam (18 years old). A national women’s organization, the WSS (wssnet.org) is the third petitioner in this case. Faced with a dozen affidavits of the villagers whose family members were killed, the High Court of Bilaspur held that the questions of extra judicial executions and government policies which are responsible for these are similar in spirit to the issues raised by the Salwa Judum petition (Nandini Sundar and Ors vs. State of Chhattisgarh), currently being heard by the Supreme Court. Following which, the young Petitioners filed a Transfer Petition in the Supreme Court last year seeking the transfer of their PIL to the Supreme Court. Suneeta and Munni Pottam are in Delhi to attend the hearing of their transfer petition on Wednesday, 10 January 2018.
At the press conference these young women spoke about these cases of encounters along with the details of the very recent physical and sexual assault of the the women of the villages where Suneeta and Munni live. They also spoke about the harrassment and threats that they have been receiving by the Bastar police (as recent as few weeks back) as result of filing this petition, who have threatened them that if they keep raising these issues which show the police in a bad light, they would be arrested for Naxalite offences and thrown into jail. Shaken but not defeated, these young women have come to Delhi to put their continuous harassment on record before the apex court at the coming hearing.
Suneeta asked “How can we be seen as doing something wrong when we are raising the problem of sexual assaults and killings of adivasi women and men by police and armed forces through approaching the courts and using legal means? Isn’t that the best way to seek justice? The police keep threatening me and say the next time I approach the police station they will put a false cases on me of associating with Naxalites. I tell them if I was associating with Naxalites why will I approach the police station for justice?”. Munni said “Adivasi people only experience brutality from the state and police. We are approaching the courts hoping we will get something different”.
Short note on incidents
Initially the petition was filed regarding the extra-judicial executions of 6 people, which took place in the villages of Kadenar, Palnar, Korcholi and Andri in Bijapur district over the course of the last year. As the case wound its way through the High Court, other cases from the area were also added. Accompanying this petition are sworn affidavits of ten villagers who are family members of the deceased or eye witnesses of the incident, who challenge the police versions. In Kadenar, the villagers talk about how a married couple, Tati Pande and Manoj Hapka, were forced out of their home in the evening at gunpoint, on the pretext of getting them “surrendered” in the Gangaloor police station. In Palnar, Seetu Hemla was dragged from the fields which he was ploughing, with his hands tied behind him, in full view of his young wife, mother and other villagers. In Korcholi, the womenfolk witnessed Sukku Kunjam of Itavar being shot point-blank, while he was visiting his relatives house in November 2015.
In the remote village of Andri, which is a day’s walk from the closest, motorable road, the police have not claimed any encounter, nor registered any death. However, the villagers recall that in February of this year, the police party mortally wounded Kudhami Ganga, a young man, by shooting him while he was collecting siyadi leaves for a village wedding. The police team probably never realized that Kuhdami Ganga had succumbed to his injuries some minutes after they shot at him, and never collected his body – hence, this killing probably does not figure in the celebrated “century” of encounters. A few days later, the same patrol team killed or mortally wounded a 9-10 year old boy, Sodi Sannu, who was tending his family’s tomato fields. His death too does not figure in the dubious “century” for the obvious reason that it is diffcult to pass off an obviously young child as a Naxalite. What has been done with Sodi Sannu’s body is a question that still haunts his parents.
As the case progressed through the High Court, other cases from the area were added such as the extra judicial execution of Mangu Korme of Peddakorma village who was captured by the security forces while chasing a monkey attacking the village’s paddy stocks. He was paraded in the villages as a captive, and then killed in cold blood. There was also an attempted extra judicial killing of Mangu Tati of Palnar village who was captured by the forces while in the forest trying to gather some bamboos, but he was rescued by the village women who covered his body with their own and would not let the police shoot him.
But as the Learned judges of the higher judiciary take their time debating, discussing, analyzing and deciding these questions around the killings of villagers in anti-Naxal operations, the atrocities on the ground continue. As recently as 21 December, the security forces physically and sexually assaulted the women of the villages where Suneeta and Munni live. Inebriated jawans beat up women with fat sticks till the sticks broke, tore off women’s clothing, groped at women who were bathing and tried to force themselves on these women. Once again the intrepid duo of Suneeta and Munni helped the angry and humiliated women of their village reach Bijapur, where over a hundred villagers surrounded the Collectorate to register their complaint at the behavior of these forces towards Adivasi women. A few days later, the SP and the ASP of Bijapur summoned the two young women to the SP office and threatened them that if they keep raising these issues which show the police in a bad light, they would be arrested for Naxalite offences and thrown into jail. Shaken but not defeated, these young women have also decided to put their harassment on record before the apex court at the coming hearing.
Suneeta Pottam and Munni Pottam are young women from Korcholi village, the site of one of the “encounters” described above, who came in contact with the women’s organization WSS when a fact-finding team from WSS visited their village in May of this year. Their courage, along with their knowledge of Hindi has propelled them into a role wherein other villagers depend upon them for help in seeking redressals for their grievances and complaints.
As children, Suneeta and Munni had to give up their studies when their school closed down due to the violence of Salwa Judum in 2005. Their village was also attacked by the Salwa Judum mobs, and their houses were burnt down. With their families reduced to penury, the girls began to work in stone quarries as coolies to support them. After all these years and now as adults, they continue to be sensitive to the suffering and turmoil in their own village and in areas around them, which has given them to courage to seek justice before the High Court.
However, this activism comes at a heavy cost. Even as they were helping villagers record their affidavits in the Bijapur courts for the present case, local police mounted a door-to-door search for them, forcing them to flee to Bilaspur, and approach the High Court for interim relief ensuring their own safety. With the High Court order in hand, these young women have now returned to their village, only to find that in the two weeks that they had been gone, the police parties had returned twice to the village, broken 4 homes and beaten up 3 people.
WSS – Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression – the third petitioner, is a nationwide platform of women’s organizations and individual women, working on issues of sexual violence against women, especially in the context of structures of systemic repression since the past seven years.