Police suspect Pathalgarhi movement supporters, said to be linked to Naxals. Activists say police cooking up theory to malign movement for autonomy.

Khunti: Investigations into the alleged gang rape of five activists in Jharkhand’s tribal belt have got sidetracked by local politics, with the conflict between police and a tribal revolt in the Naxal-hit region taking centrestage.

The alleged incident took place on 19 June in Khunti district’s Kochang village — part of the Left Wing Extremist (LWE) corridor in police records — when a group of activists from Asha Kiran, a local NGO working against human trafficking and rehabilitation of victims, were called to perform a street play at a missionary school to create awareness on migration.

Armed men abducted the activists, took them to dense forests nearby and allegedly raped them. Questions over who called the activists remain unanswered.

Although little is known about the women who were raped — they are now in police custody to ensure their safety — theories claiming Naxal and local tribal involvement and police conspiracy are gaining ground.

“We can’t talk to the media…some of what is being said is untrue but we can’t say anything right now, please respect that,” said a social worker from the NGO on condition of anonymity.

The NGO in Khunti district has been locked from the inside, with no visitors being allowed to enter. “We’ve got strict instructions to not let anyone in,” said the guard at the entrance.

The Pathalgarhi theory

The state police has hinted at the involvement of supporters of the Pathalgarhi movement — a tribal movement in parts of Jharkhand declaring autonomy from the central and state governments — but local activists suspect the police may be conjuring up this theory to malign the indigenous movement.

“The police and the government keep looking for reasons to target the Pathalgarhi movement…so this could be another ploy,” said Sushma, a local activist in Khunti. “Why is nothing coming out about the identities of the victims otherwise? Why is everything being so tightly guarded?”

The Pathalgarhi movement, which has come up in the tribal pockets of Jharkhand in recent months and has been a constant headache for authorities, regards the village gram sabha as an autonomous administrative unit, independent from the central and state governments.

After the Jharkhand Police arrested two of the six accused from a Pathalgarhi-dominated village Saturday, supporters of the movement retaliated Tuesday by abducting three policemen guarding the house of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP in Khunti.

“We are locked in a tussle with the Pathalgarhi supporters right now…we are mobilising our forces across the area,” Ashwini Kumar, Khunti district’s superintendent of police, told ThePrint.

Local cops admitted to incidents of lathi charge by the police.

“The Pathalgarhis have connections to the local Naxal groups as well…why else would they reject the Constitution?” said a local government official who did not wish to be named.

“That entire area is Pathalgarhi. Obviously, someone called these girls to the remote village and informed the criminals, at least one of whom is from Peoples Liberation Front of India (PLFI) about when and where the girls were performing,” the official added.

The local police is in the process of tracing the call logs of the suspects to determine how the criminals were allegedly tipped off.

Activists suspicious 

However, activists remain suspicious of the police version. As the NGO worker told ThePrint, they too believe the police is not divulging crucial information.

“This area has strong Naxal presence, why would an NGO go so far in a secluded spot to perform,” asked Dayamani Barla, a tribal journalist in Jharkhand.

More than a week after the incident, when ThePrint visited the village, it wore a deserted look, with locals wary of the bad press it has got over the alleged gang rape.

Across pockets of the expansive village, Pathalgarhi supporters armed with bows and arrows have been “protecting” Kochang, where the alleged incident took place from “outsiders”.

The Pathalgarhi supporters | Sanya Dhingra/ThePrint

The R.C. Mission School, where the girls were performing, has been shut all week.

“There are no teachers since that day, so we aren’t going to school,” said one student of class 5, adding she watched the street play but didn’t witness what happened afterwards.

Father Alfonso, the head of the missionary school, and two other teachers were arrested by the police for not reporting the alleged incident. Alfonso had asked the girls to not report the matter at all, the police alleged.

“We do not know if they did that out of fear or collusion, the police will investigate. But prima facie there is evidence of suppressing facts,” claimed the local official.

However, for villagers whose children are unable to go to school now remain indifferent to the many police theories.

“The police always look for a reason to attack locals in the name of Naxals. This is what they are doing now,” said another villager in Kochang.

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