The reported death of a 20-year-old tribal woman – Pande Kawasi being claimed as a “suicide” by the Chhattisgarh Police has triggered widespread anger in the Dantewada region of the state. Pande was a resident of Kankipara village, occupied by the particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG) Gond community, which falls in one of the worst affected Naxal regions.
Pande, along with five others, was reportedly arrested on February 19 and was taken to a guest house on the police line in Karli. The police claims that she was a part of Chetna Natya Mandali, a cultural outfit of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and she surrendered on her own accord. However, reports suggest that except for Pande, the five other were carrying a combined bounty of Rs 15 lakh.
According to the police, Pande killed herself in custody. However, her family members and activists have stated that she was not someone who would have killed herself. Her family reportedly stated that he police detained her from her home and tortured her to surrender. The family added that they were allowed to meet her on February 20, whereby they found her crying and begging them to take her home.
Following the news of her death on February 23, Pande’s family had refused to take her body home.
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Tribal rights activist Soni Sori, who was with the victim’s family throughout, told NewsClick, “The police state that now the issue is over, because the dead body has been taken by the family. But we have not been given the post mortem report yet. No photographs have been taken of the place of the suicide. No details were shared about how she killed herself. The police also stated that they took her clothes off to save her from the rope. Even though we questioned their actions, they are refusing to tell us any details.”
She went to add, “The brutality of the police and other security forces is not new, we have been a daily witness to it. The police tried to convince the family to cremate her. While cases such as Hathras evoke shock and anger, this (custodial torture and death) has become an everyday reality for women surviving state violence in the state.”
As per the police, she had surrendered to the police under the Lon Varratu (meaning Return Home in Gondi language) scheme, which appeals to Maoists to leave the arms and return to normal life. The state administration had launched the campaign in June last year, putting up pamphlets encouraging Maoists to surrender. According to the Indian Express, more than 1,600 Maoists have surrendered in the past eight months, with most moving back to their villages. The police claimed that Pande surrendered through the scheme, however, this version is being questioned by local people and activists alike.
Soni Sori added, “In the name of Naxalism, our girls and women are beaten up, tortured and killed. Moreover, across the media, a narrative of them being anti-state is spread to justify this violence against women. Women are being maimed on the mere suspicion of association with Naxals. How can people be labelled without the court stating so?”
It should noted that recent National Crime Records Bureau data for 2019 suggests that crimes against Scheduled Tribes have increased steeply, with the data recording an increase by 26.5% from the previous year. A total of 8,257 cases were registered for committing crimes against tribal people while 2018 had recorded 6,528 such cases. The data becomes a crucial guiding factor in showing how the bodies of marginalised women have become sites of violence and oppression by those in power, either by the virtue of their caste or through the use of excessive force by the police.
Brinda Karat, politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), while writing on the use of rape as a weapon of the forces in the context of Chhattisgarh, had stated, “The state-led repression has instead targeted ordinary tribals. Every time Maoist presence is suspected in any given area, state forces sweep into the area, dealing out collective punishment, causing fear, alienation and anger.”
Speaking to NewsClick, Chhattisgarh-based rights activist Dikri Chauhan said, “This is the pattern of the forces. The excessive security force camps coming up in the region are for this very purpose, to stigmatise and label people as Maoists and then to inflict violence in the community, specifically targeting women. This has become the pattern of the state, through the medium of the police. This has not changed with the changing of the parties in the state, whether it was the Bharatiya Janata Party earlier or the Congress now.”