Justice still eludes 11 tribal women who complained of being raped by 13 Greyhounds police constables 10 years ago, at Vakapalli village in Paderu mandal of Visakhapatnam district in Andhra Pradesh. The Supreme Court heard an appeal filed by the women and ordered on 2 September a speedy trial of the rape case within six months by the trial court. However, the ground realities in the age-old customs based tribal hamlet indicate that the victim women who were already “punished” by their husbands and village elders for losing their chastity, are unlikely to cooperate with the re-interrogation, which is required for the re-trial of the case. The women were interrogated twice before the courts and questioned even before the media between 2007 and 2008.
According to some elders of Vakepalli hamlet and representatives of rights activists who spoke to The Sunday Guardian, at least seven of the 11 rape victims were subjected to “cruelty tests” by their own husbands and the entire village more than once. The tests include living away from their family, taking river baths and paying cash penalty to the village.
At the same time, the accused policemen were granted promotions, perks and given postings in their places of choice in the past one decade. The policemen have been arguing throughout that the gang rape charge against them is false and that pro-Maoist elements have foisted the case on them to stop their search operations.
The alleged gang-rape of the tribal women was carried out at the Vakepalli hamlet on 20 August 2007. The Greyhounds were conducting their anti-Maoist combing and search operations in the forest areas at the time, causing much commotion in the tribal belt. The women aged between 20 and 35 were also brutally assaulted by the assailants.
When the women complained of rape by the Greyhounds men, the local police refused to file an FIR, saying that the women had fabricated the crime. The police had to register the FIR a week later due to protests by villagers from Paderu mandal. The higher-ups in the state police ordered a CID probe into the incident and the cops again interrogated the women. The CID submitted its report to the Andhra Pradesh High Court on 6 September 2007, as some people filed cases seeking the prosecution of the Greyhounds men. The single bench High Court, which opened the CID report on 28 September 2007, quashed the case as there was no medical evidence that the women were raped by the policemen.
The petitioners, including some rights groups, argued before the court that the Paderu police had deliberately delayed registering the FIR and sending the victims for medical examination, to erase evidence, and furnished details of the delay before the court. The High Court, on 20 April 2012 ordered registering a rape case against 13 Greyhounds constables and their prosecution by the trial court.
Based on the High Court orders, the local police filed cases against the elite Greyhounds cops under IPC Section 376 (gang rape) and the provisions of SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act 1989. This registering called for another round of interrogation of the women both in Hyderabad and at the Paderu police station.
However, the state police, on behalf of the accused, have gone for an appeal before the Supreme Court and the case took about five years to merit an order last month. After The case came up for hearing before a two-member SC bench on 1 September this year, almost a decade after the crime.
Taking an exception to the enormous delay, the SC bench, comprising Justices Arun Mishra and Shantana Goudar, ordered that the trial of the 11 Greyhounds men should be completed within six months by the Paderu sessions court. The top court ordered a trial on a day-to-day basis and the cops must cooperate without seeking any adjournments.
But the petitioners are in no mood to celebrate. The women who belong to the Kondhi tribe—notified as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) by the tribal welfare departments of the Centre and the state—are have suffered a lot in this past decade. Two of the women were abandoned by their husbands as they, in turn, were ostracized by the tribal community. Another traumatised woman became semi-insane. “These women, who were raped at gunpoint by the policemen, were brought up amid strict traditions. They were made to ‘purify’ themselves more than twice by taking many dips in cold river water, etc,” said Mamda Balaraju, a Vakapalli villager, over phone.
The husbands and the children of some of the victims had forced the women to stay separately for several days as part of their “purification” process. Kondh tribal customs prohibit women who lose their chastity from having normal family lives. Community elders impose on their husbands many penalties, both in cash and kind.
AP Girijana Hakkula Sangham, Mahila Chetana and AP Human Rights Forum (AP HRF) that filed the petitions in the courts are not sure of securing the cooperation of the women. “It will take great efforts now to see that the prosecution of the cops is completed within six months. We are yet to approach the victims and their husbands,” said Gedi Gavarraju, a Sangham representative.
Sources in the AP government had told this newspaper that the trial would be completed by the Paderu sessions court, as per the orders of the Supreme Court. “We will be abiding by the Supreme Court order. The Chief Secretary has issued necessary instructions to the Home Department to ensure that the court ruling is followed,” said an official in the General Administration Department on the condition of anonymity.