Forest Areas in Jharkhand Overshadowed by Fear and Suspicion


  • February 14, 2019
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In June 2018, the news of a gang rape in a school in Kochang village in Jharkhand had gained prominence. The incident of the alleged rape has allowed the police to enter the villages in the forests,  arrest the patthalgadi supporters, and turn the schools into police camps. Even after six months, there is no trace of the victims of the crime, and no one, apart from police or administration, has had any access to them. The people in the villages believe that this rape case has been fabricated by the police with the help of criminal elements. They also believe, this has been undertaken so that they could use it as a pretext to crush the patthalgadi movement completely. Jacinta Kerketta writes about what she has learnt and witnessed, as she travelled along with a Fact Finding Team to Kochang.

[This article represents the opinions of the author. GX is not in a position to verify the claims made in the report.]

 

It was a cold morning on this 5th December, 2018. Very early, around 6:45 a.m., from Jharkhand’s state capital Ranchi, a Fact Finding Team started its visit to Kochang and Karunga villages in Khunti District. The cold had increased. There was a shivering chill in the air. And there was little hope that all could get up so early and be ready to leave. But the team started at the right time as agreed. It was good to witness that.

 

The name of Kochang Village is somehow in everybody’s mind because of a particular incident that has taken place here recently. It was that same village where, in June 2018, a case of alleged gang rape was made public. In the name of arresting the rapists, the police took about one hundred Munda Adivasis into custody who had written parts of the Constitution on stone slabs and put them up at their village borders as patthalgadi memorials in stone. During the altercation between the villagers and the police, there was a firing in which several villagers got wounded and some were killed.

 

From a long time, the Munda Adivasis of the remote villages and jungles, who had been deprived of government programs, had started the patthalgadi movement as a form of protest against the government. They had proclaimed their own rule in their own villages with great force. The peoples’ discontent with the government was real and justified. This movement had disturbed the government’s slumber and the latter had been searching for ways to completely crush it.

Traditional patthalgadi pillars where the adivasis have put up their demands

 

In June, the news of a gang rape in a school in Kochang village had gained prominence, but people are doubtful about the truth of it, and even now, the course of the events is not fully clear to all. But this allowed the police to arrest the patthalgadi supporters, enter their villages, and turn the schools into police camps. Even after six months have passed, there is no trace of the victims of the crime, and no one apart from police or administration has had any access to them. The people in the locality believe that this rape case has been fabricated by the police with the help of criminal elements. They also believe, this has been undertaken so that they could use it as a pretext to crush the patthalgadi movement completely.

 

The Fact Finding Team that went from Ranchi to Khunti wanted to understand certain questions. For example, how do the people affected by all these events perceive them? What is the real truth about the alleged rape case? How have the conditions in the villages changed?

 

On the day the Team decided to visit the villages, in the early morning, a vehicle picked up individually all the members of the Team from different crossroads of Ranchi. When leaving from Ranchi, we were seven persons: Professor Jean Dreze of Ranchi University, from amongst the human rights and social activists there were Sunil Minz, Philip Kujur, Rakesh Roshan Kiro, James Herenj, Bipin Minz and myself. As we came out from Ranchi, the watch said that it is eight o’clock. Inside the vehicle, we divided the newspaper we had purchased at Birsa Chowk in portions. While reading the newspaper, we were discussing the changes after the recent elections of students’ representative’s bodies. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (All India Students Council), which happens to be affiliated to BJP, had won, and the Adivasi Chatra Sangh (Adivasi Students Union) had lost.

 

Human rights activist Rakesh Roshan Kiro spoke at length on the reasons for this development. There was a bit of anger regarding the conditions in the state. The discussion became a little heated, but the windows of the car were open, and in this vehicle moving in the early morning, the cold winds were humming in our ears. In between, some small talk happened, and soon all were smiling. Prof. Jean Dreze was happy that today we all had arrived on time. Having got up and leaving the house before dawn, nobody had any breakfast. I had prepared bread and eggs very early in the morning. As the vehicle kept moving, we all ate breakfast.

 

At exactly nine o’clock, we were at Pipratoli Chowk in Khunti. There we waited for two people. Within half an hour, Sugiya Munda and Balbir Munda arrived. With them on board, the vehicle proceeded further. In place of Philip Kujur, now Bipin Minz took command of the vehicle. At Murhu, we had tea and then went further via Bandhgaon Bazaar. We were still on the road when reporter and social worker Xavier Hamsay appeared on his motorcycle. We followed him up to Bandhgaon Bazaar and stopped in the open field.

 

Early in the morning, the market of Bandhgaon had prepared itself to be ready. We saw how vehicles fully packed with women, men, children and old people, even before they could reach the market place proper, were stopped by the shop owners walking around. Big loads of bananas, which people had brought from far away villages and wanted to sell in the market, were being looted from them there in the street for a very minimal price. Shop owners were running behind every vehicle arriving from the villages. The villagers coming to the market to sell their goods were made to sell their goods even before they reached the market.

 

Whatever money these villagers would get from handing over their goods, they would buy other things for themselves in the market during the day. And from whom are they buying these goods? From the same people who had looted them in the morning. Now those very people were selling those items to the villagers for a double price. We observed all these things. We came out from the vehicle and waited there in a sunny place when soon after, following Xavier Hamsay, a Scorpio car stopped near us.

 

We understood that this must be a private vehicle. They must be the city people coming for this market. But when Xavier Hamsay went and talked to them and the windows were brought down, and we could see guns, we knew that this was a vehicle of Khunti Police. Had they just got the news of our coming? They asked what we were doing here and where we were going. What is the purpose of our going to villages in the jungle? Xavier introduced us all to them.

 

As I watched all this questioning, a thought came up in my mind: why is the police and the government so afraid when someone in one’s own country, in one’s own state, in one’s own village and home, tries to enter the jungle and meet people. Why are they standing like watchmen in front of the houses of our relatives in the jungle? Every person in the jungle has developed and internalized that habit of identifying oneself, so that even before entering his own house he is waiting to be file searched and identified. What kind of system of slavery is this? How frightening it is to see that even when people are not interrogated, they still have fear even to enter their own house!

 

Suddenly the police people saw Prof. Jean Dreze and knew him. Then after some time they went back. We all told Xavier to come with us in the vehicle and advised him to keep his motorcycle somewhere. We had our suspicion that inside the jungle some new police camps had been made and they would be waiting for us, and at each turn of the road, there would be the same kind of questioning. Therefore, we began to prepare ourselves for this.

 

Sunil Minz joked, we will change our names between us and get new identities. He stated our new names, and inspite of being worried, we tried to smile. The vehicle proceeded slowly towards the jungle. We were passing through the names of the villages one by one. Inside the jungle, there were beautiful small villages matching their Mundari names such as ‘Karwa’ – where the air smells of the earth, ‘Kudadih’ which as a grove of jaamun, Sawraya, Sarda, Marla, etc. On the road were some government schools, which have recently been turned into police camps.

 

After crossing several villages, we arrived at Kochang Village. Up on the hills, a mission school painted in yellow colour could be seen. This was Stockman Memorial Middle School, Burudihi, Kochang. This was the particular school where in June 2018 the alleged rape case had happened. As there was slow progress in the case, many schools in the jungle area, where approximately 70-80 children had been studying, were turned into police camps.

The fact finding team members talking to the Adivasis in Kochang village.

However, as far as that event is concerned, the rape victims never came out in public, and nothing was mentioned by the media. Was that event at all real? Or was it false? Only the victims could reveal the whole course of the events, but they have vanished from sight. And in the name of bringing justice to them, the police forces have entered the villages and have attacked the people connected to the patthalgadi movement. Even now, so many villages are in the grip of fear.

 

Exactly at 10 o’clock, we were in the school yard. The impact of the event in June was still there somehow in the children’s eyes. Probably because of that, their eyes became wide when they saw some new faces in the school yard. They continued with their classes, but through the open doors and windows, their eyes were fixed in our direction. We did not want to draw their attention towards ourselves. Therefore, we moved to the other side of the yard. From this position on the hill top, the valley below and the jungle could be seen. Even the hills at distance were visible. The thick jungle appeared like a beautiful, peaceful, dusky evening. From here, begins the Saranda Forest.

 

After some time, the entire staff of the school came to gather under a tree in the yard. They brought chairs for us. The school children gave us hot water to drink.  Then the school staff and we, the members of the Fact Finding Team, sat face to face. Sitting across us were Sr. Premlata, Vincent Purti, Robert Hassa Purti, Dilbar Soy, Praful Mundu and Br. Anand Dungdung. They asked who we were and what was the purpose of our visit. Xavier Hamsay introduced all of us to them and explained the reasons. He said, we have come to see what effects the incident produced, and to listen to the oral testimonies. We wanted to know, how those who were somehow close by, were perceiving the incident. He also said, we were a group of writers, journalists, social and human rights activists and are involved in social work activities. They need not be afraid of us. They can openly narrate the entire event to us. We wanted to make the truth known to the public. When they were a little reassured, some confidence appeared on their faces, their eyes began to sparkle a little. They swallowed down their suspicion and let out a deep sigh. The school hostel in-charge, Robert Hassa, sitting across us, took up the challenge/responsibility of narrating all the details:

 

It happened at two o’clock on Tuesday, 19th June. The bell had just rung for tiffin at school. One class had just finished, when from the Asha Kiran Center in Phuddi, Khunti, a team came to present the Nukkad drama. The Nukkad drama was to create awareness among children about migration and human trafficking. In this team, there were two sisters, four men and four other women. All together, ten people had arrived in a vehicle. They had asked for the school secretary, and Fr Alphonse Ainds had consented to their performance.

 

The teachers had summoned the children together. When the drama was already on its way for 15 minutes, about five people, on two motorcycles, arrived in the school yard. The drama group was taken to a little distance. Their mobiles were also taken away. The mobile of one young lady wearing a suit was not functioning, so they smashed it to the ground and broke it. Fr Alphonse Aind forbade them to do such things.

 

After that these people made the drama group sit in the group’s vehicle and nobody knows where they took them. The school children and the other staff became very frightened, because those people were armed. It was just the time when the school was to be over. We told the children to go home. At around five o’clock, the drama group came back in the same vehicle. The people who had arrived on the motorcycles, came towards the open space. The drama group was inside the school yard. They were given water to drink. Fr. Alphonse tried to talk them about what had happened, but they did not say much.

 

Thinking that nothing big had happened, the school was opened on the following day, Wednesday, and the children came as usual for the classes. Nothing happened on that day. Nobody came.

 

On Thursday, the third day, at 3:10 before the school was over, journalists from Dainik Bhaskar came and talked to Fr. Alphonse. At the same time, suddenly the police also arrived and encircled all of them from all sides. One man among them came forward and asked all our names. He did not ask anything about the incident.

 

After that the Khunti Deputy Collector, Ashwini Kumar, arrived. He took the Father aside, and began to ask him some questions. While talking, they walked down from the hillock on which the school is located. Along with him, two other staff were also rounded up. After they were gone, the other staff waited for them to come back in the school yard. Two of our staff had said to them, whatever you need to asked, you can ask right here. But they did not listen. They were rounded up and taken to the Khunti Police Station. There they made Fr. Alphonse get down. The SP, DSP, DIG were already there. They began to threaten him.

 

The police were claiming that 5 of the Nukkad team members had been raped by patthalgadi activists, They were not ready to listen to what the Father had been telling them. Together with the Father, we two staff members were kept in the police station for one night. The Sub-Inspector from Arki Police Station, Chandrashekhar Azad, arrived at the police station later at night and asked Father, why did you not inform us? Father said, we people were full of fear. Criminal elements surround the area, therefore we could not tell anything. On the second day we were all interrogated one by one. What we had to say, they were not ready to accept. Repeatedly, they brought in the names of specific patthalgadi activists and kept saying, tell us the full truth! They were not ready to accept what we told them. On 23rd June 2018, we were called to give our report in front of the Women’s Commission. At that time, Father was also arrested.

Here, Robert Hassa Purti concluded his narrative.

 

The Fact Finding Team asked, had the school invited the theater group? To this they replied, no, the school had not sent them any kind of invitation. In the newspaper, it was stated that the Nukkad Team had come to Kochang Village on the ground of the Mukhiya’s repeated summoning. But even the Mukhiya, Dulari Hembrom, did not know that only one Nukkad Drama Team would come. The FFT asked, where is the Father now? And has he been granted a bail? They replied that he was arrested and put into Khunti Jail. An appeal for bail has been made in the Lower Court, but it was not accepted. The 5 women from the Nukkad team have remained out of anyone’s contact, only the police had access to them. They were not allowed to meet with any journalist, activist, fact finding teams, or anyone else. They have been kept in complete hiding. No one even knows where the person who had taken the team to the school is.

 

I asked, what is the situation now in this area? They said, In Chalkad there is a plan to construct a school. There is a plan to construct a road. After the incident, several schools have been clubbed together. The vacated school buildings have been converted into police camps. In some schools, the schooling continues in one wing, but the other wing is a police camp. This is the situation in Kochang, Saydaba, Sarda and other villages.

 

Robert Hassa Purti continued, the “Jungle Party” has nothing to do with the school. We had seen them earlier too, and we were not afraid of them. But after the incident, a terrible fear has come upon us, we feel that fear inside ourselves. We believe that the Jungle Party (suspected Naxal group) followers themselves have not done this, but they might have been sent to do something similar. In the Nukkad drama, certain things were shown to create awareness about human trafficking. Regarding patthalgadi, nothing was said or shown there. Before this, the play was probably only performed in the main bazaar of Kochang Village, but there, the number of spectators was considerably low, therefore they decided to show their play in the school, and when they came to the school, this was what happened. The FFT asked, has there been any incident like this before that would could be possibly connected to this one?

 

Robert said, before this incident, the police and the government people had come and demanded a place to stay. We had told them, we are not on the side of the Jungle Party and we are not on the side of the police. Your work is to do search operations, so go to the jungles and do your search. Why should you stay in a school? Then the police had said, the police are in a position where they can demand your submission. Then Father said to them, this is what your mentality is like. You often come and demand firewood, cooking vessel etc. Once you had used up all the firewood that we had reserved for the school hostel. You come for search operations and demand a place to stay for the night. When we don’t yield to you, you begin to threaten.

 

Robert started telling us about a second incident, Before the incident in June, there was an incident in March-April. Very early in the morning, a police force had arrived in Totakora Village of Arki Block. They were interrogating a young man. They had asked for the village headman’s name, and then they asked the man to come with them. When they got hold of him and forced him to sit in the police vehicle, he started screaming. Some villagers came together and said, how can you catch someone like this and take him with you? If there is something to be discussed, then discuss it in front of us all.

 

Mariyam Soy, a woman from the village, narrated that not only had the police hit her with a rifle butt, but a police dog had pounced on her and had bitten her on the foot. Then 10 to 20 more villagers came in. When the police force saw these people approaching, they started throwing stones at them. After this, in the evening, the villagers surrounded the police station.

 

Then the DSP Prakash Soey admitted that it was wrong, and that from now on the police force going in for search operations would not act in this manner. If they commit some mistake, then the villagers can quickly contact the police station. The injured lady was sent to the hospital in Chakradharpur, but even there, the police came every day to interrogate her. They troubled her. Therefore, she on her own, sought admission in the hospital in Khunti. With this story, the discussion was concluded.

 

Then, we went to meet the children in the school in their Bal Sabha. We introduced ourselves and gave the required information, then we started on our return journey.

 

It was 12:30. We left from there and proceeded towards another village. Till 1:30 pm, we were in Barutola Village. Before that, when they saw us, a group of 8-10 people came to us from the police camp in the school of that village. In an attempt to stop us from our work, they began to ask questions. But when they saw Prof. Jean Dreze and recognized him, they were a little more moderate. They showed us the road towards the hamlets ahead.

 

Soon after, we reached Barutola. On the way, some people were engaged in road construction work. Mud had fallen down, and the people were spreading it on the road. It was this hamlet from where the police had arrested the Adivasi youngsters connected with the patthalgadi movement. The names of the youngsters are — John Jonas Tiru, Balram and Surendra. All of them belong to this village.

 

Just across Balram’s house, a police camp has been made in the school. People from the hamlet said that there were 80 children in this school, who now, are going to another village, Lupungpirhi, that is four kilometres away, to get their regular schooling. Under this village name there are many small hamlets. Because of the distance between them, the villagers do not properly know the other hamlets. In Barutola, road construction is going on with the funds released by the District Collector. People were busy with their work. When Xavier Hamsay and Balbir Munda from the FFT spoke to them in Mundari about our concerns, they put their hoes down and were ready to discuss. Leaning against a tree, one man listened to Xavier and Balbir’s explanations and tried to understand the purpose of our coming. The others put down their pick axes and hoes, sat down on stones nearby and listened to the discussion.

 

When he understood the intention of this discussion, the man leaning against the tree became somewhat confident. He started to talk about the road construction. He said, the road is coming in this hamlet, but it is happening under the supervision of people from Birbanki Village. The people from this hamlet did not want this road, but the government said that even when they don’t want it, the road will come. Then some people of the hamlet met and discussed and got ready for constructing it. There is no information about its budget whatsoever. We feel that the District Collector undertakes these endeavours to keep the people in good spirits.

 

The man said, that electricity has begun to be supplied to this village from a month ago, but often, during the night, there is no electricity. When Xavier Hamsay enquired about the arresting of John Jonas Tiru, Surendra and others, he replied that the people do not have much information about this. Somehow, the understanding is that they have been arrested because of patthalgadi activities.

 

On the question regarding rations, he said that they are getting them, but not at the right time. About the condition of Indira Awas, he said what has come within the last three-four years, has remained incomplete. The reason is that money did not come. The people do not know in whose name Indira Awas has come. Therefore, some now have two Indira Awas houses.

 

When asked about the purpose of the patthalgadi, he said that the people do not know the real intention of patthalgadi. But the village people understand that educated persons (from the village and outside) must have thought about it and started to erect patthalgadis. What they have done, they must have thought about it beforehand, and therefore, this should be right. Therefore, they have joined them, along with the Gram Sabha.

 

Prof. Jean Dreze asked, has the government approached you or has it kept away? The same man, who alone had been replying to all the questions, said, since the police camp has been established here, we feel that the government has not yet given instructions to do anything. Therefore, they are just here — sitting peacefully. However, when they will get the approval from the government, they can do anything to the villagers. Therefore, they do not appear to us as our friends, brothers, relatives or well-wishers. We are always afraid that they can do anything.

 

He refused to say anything about the incident in Kochang. It was 2:30 pm. We felt hungry. We went to the vehicle. Just across the place where we had parked our car,  was John Jonas Tirus’ house. His elder brother came out from the house. His mother was sitting in the frontyard. Balbir Munda and Xavier Hamsay spoke in Mundari and introduced us. Balbir and Xavier told John Jonas’ elder brother about the Fact Finding Team, requesting him to help us to know the truth.

 

He didn’t even let us finish, but said angrily, who will be able to tell the truth? By making that rape incident into a pretext, the police have entered the villages in the jungle. Yet where are the victims? Why have they been kept hidden? The victims would have been able to tell the truth. But they have been kept out of the eyesight because the police does not want the truth to come out in front of us all.

 

Until now, the police has not been harassing people in this village, but when they will begin the arrests, then there is no guarantee. He did not even agree to tell his name. We left that place to return home, and at four o’clock sharp we reached Bandhgaon. At Xavier Hamsay’s house we ate, and then the car started for Ranchi. At Pipratoli point in Khunti, we said goodbye to Sugiya Munda, and the vehicle proceeded towards Ranchi with high speed. In the darkness, the black roads were not clearly visible. Only the red and yellow reflector lights fixed onto the road were galloping alongside the vehicle.

 

Jacinta Kerketta is a young poet and independent writer.

All images are courtesy the author.

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