On Torture and Testimonies
I was going to write out a reply to the comments on Shuddha’s post, Kashmir’s Abu Gharaiab, but thought I would expand it into a larger post.
I’d like to make clear that I have been to Kashmir only once – and that too for a few hours in the aftermath of the earthquake, so if anyone writes back saying, “I should see the ground reality in Kashmir”; I concede that point straight off the bat. I should see the ground reality in Kashmir; we all should.
However, over the last eight months, I have had the opportunity to interact very closely with central paramilitary forces like the BSF and CRPF in the course of their deployment in Chhattisgarh, where I work. Many of the men conducting anti-Maoist operations in Chhattisgarh have served in Kashmir and the North-East theatres.
Over the last three days, I and a reporter from the Times of India have been working on a story in which a group of adivasis from two villages in Chhattisgarh’s Kanker district have accused the BSF of torturing a number of young men and women from their respective villages by beating them and also administering electric shocks.
While you can read Supriya’s stories here and here , I’ll use this post to try to address the issue of authenticity and verification. I would to point out that an inquiry is underway to assess the veracity of the allegations against the BSF, but I feel this might help put a few things in context for our readers – namely that the central paramilitaries have been accused of torture before. I am not saying commonplace, as I do not have any evidence to support that, but my recent reporting suggests it is not outside the realm of the possible.
To quickly give readers a sense of what happened, On Sept 11, we filed the following story:
On September 8, Kanker police arrested seven alleged Maoists, including six girls aged between 15 and 19 years, from the Pachangi and Aloor villages in connection with an August 29 ambush in Kanker in which three BSF soldiers and two policemen were killed.
Adivasis from these villages told The Hindu that the girls were picked up in a two-day search-and-comb operation on September 5 and 6 in which, residents allege, the BSF and the district police brutally assaulted over 40 men, molested two teenaged girls and picked up 17 villagers in all: 10 from Aloor and seven from Pachangi….
On nudity and sexual violence:
“They threw me on the ground, pushed my knees up and pushed a stick into my private parts,” Narsingh said.
Narsingh and four other men from Pachangi are currently admitted in Kanker Hospital, recuperating. His account was corroborated by fellow patients Sukram Netam, 45, Premsingh Potayi, 32, Rajju Ram, 30, and Bidde Ram Potayi, 31, who said that they too were sodomised with sticks.
While the men were gathered at the base of the hill, a 20-year-old woman of Panchangi (name withheld) said that a BSF soldier tore open her blouse and skirt and molested her.
When we went back to Alnoor a day later, we were offered the following testimonies by a Government School teacher, his wife who is a government anganvadi worker, and their daughter:
A resident of Aloor village, Sunita said she was illegally detained, blindfolded and electrocuted in the BSF camp at Durgkondal, Kanker, on September 5 and released four days later….
“Once we reached the camp, it was evening,” said Sunita, Punnim Tulavi’s elder daughter. “I was taken to a closed room where three or four uniformed men loosened my blindfold and started questioning me.” Sunita said the soldiers kept saying, “You are a terrorist, you attend Maoist meetings in the jungle and take part in the fighting.”
During the interrogation, Sunita alleged, soldiers wrapped wires around her throat, feet and stomach and administered electric shocks for about 15 minutes. “I started crying and perspiring and felt weak,” she said. After the interrogation ended, she was returned to the tent, but was not allowed to speak to anyone. On September 7, Sunita was moved to the police station next door as she was suffering from malaria….
…. those remaining in the BSF camp were subjected to electric shocks until they confessed to being Maoists, Punnim said. They were then taken to the police station next door. “The police made the villagers pose with guns they had seized in a prior raid,” Tulavi alleged. “A local reporter took photographs.”
Now how do we know that the villagers aren’t lying? Or that they weren’t beaten? Or that they were beaten by the Maoists and instructed to malign the forces? As a matter of fact, we don’t; and the BSF certainly doesn’t. As I mentioned, they have asked for an inquiry, but to quote a BSF commander:
The officer said the villagers’ claims could be part of a Maoist propaganda effort, and that all the suspects had been arrested on the basis of specific information provided by Kanker police informants.
Medical examinations have shown that the five villagers in hospital were in fact beaten quite badly. At least one of them has bruises around his anus – suggesting that he had been sexually assaulted with a stick.
It is important to note that the force does not deny visiting the village, nor does it deny detaining alleged Maoists – the question is the degree of force used in the interrogation process and of course the charges of sexual molestation.
I think one of the points that Shuddha is driving at, and where I agree with him, that – apart from the deeply unsettling nature of the video – the knee-jerk reaction of the State has been to de-legitimize the footage, rather than act on the evidence and attempt to find the perpetrators. I anticipate people writing back saying “all inquiries are rubbish” – and they may have a point, but an inquiry is an act of acknowledgement, that violence has been perpetrated.
In the comments thread, I have noticed a significant amount of flag-waving and the usual attempt to use the dead to hold the living to ransom. I would urge you all to read this post by Allissa Torres, who lost her husband on 9/11.
Torres is writing on an unrelated issue (that of the Park 51 Mosque), but she makes an important issue of how the grief of those who lose their loved ones is often used to push political argument by others. Torres is piece is important also because she points to the media’s obsessive hunt for testimonies that fit into pre-defined slots. So don’t use Saurabh Kalia as a shield for views that are entirely your own.