Will Meena Khalkho’s case be picked up by the mainstream media like they did Jessica Lall’s? Or will the difference in her political environment and class position and, above all, her distance from Delhi, be too much to bridge?
3rd Sept, 2011: Now that the curtain’s going down on the Anna theater, can we go back to looking at India as also existing outside Delhi? And while we are at it, can we begin to see the significance of those stories for all of us. A well functioning democracy is really defined by how its hinterlands work, not how its metropolises get by.
On 6th July, 2011, Meena Khalkho, a sixteen year old tribal girl from Karcha village in the state of Chhattisgarh gets raped and murdered by the local police and it barely makes a dent on our news space. A search for her name on most television news websites returns nothing. An incident that reveals the most troubling fault lines in present-day India, that forces us to ask a series of disturbing and self-reflexive questions, happens but barely registers beyond an article or two.
The police in Chattisgarh meanwhile immediately hit upon a strategy that has now long been in circulation. They subsume Meena’s horrible rape and murder within what goes these days as a laudable mission, one that manages to neutralize all rage against police atrocities, by claiming Meena to be a Naxal and by claiming her to be fatally wounded in an encounter that night against a larger party of Naxallite cadres.
A series of cover-ups and destruction of valuable evidence followed soon after the incident, involving the State BJP government in Raipur and the local police. The official story falls apart miserably on the slightest of investigation. A team of local activists from the Chattisgarh Bachao Andolan (Save Chattisgarh Movement) visited the village, questioned most parties involved, and prepared a fact-finding report that rubbishes the official claim that any encounter against the Naxals ever happened that night (a claim which the recent Indian Express report, dated August 31, by Ashutosh Bhardwaj, who needs to be thanked for picking up the story at all, nevertheless takes as a given. His next more detailed and incisive article, dated 4th September, however then brings to question this encounter thesis of the police).
The encounter of Naxals in India these days is a kind of empty vessel in which all atrocity goes, all methods become justified. It is a red-herring that is marked by a calendar of police actions, preventing our debate and interventions to expand onwards to questions of social and economic justice in Naxal-affected regions. Oddly enough then in these circumstances, if the police is hiding something, the encounter is always the safest thing to do.
You have to read the CBA fact finding report to believe it. This is an area in which the metric of police power is unbelievable, where the police can at will put the life of an entire village on hold to perform their cover up. On the morning of Meena’s rape and murder in Longra Tola, Nawadih village, the report states, ‘the police did not allow the people to come out of their houses. The police threatened the people and were heard shouting “jisko surrender karna hai wo apane ghar se bahar nikale” (come out of your house if you want to surrender).
The police had cordoned off the entire area, and was not allowing anybody to go to the Chedra Nala, or to go the forest to pick fruits as per their daily routine’. It is a kind of terror that brings everyone in these areas to a standstill, a kind of terror that is as humiliating as it is quotidian. One of the villager Navel Bhagat’s children wanted to go to the toilet, the report adds, but they felt so threatened that Vimla, his wife, made her children relieve themselves in the household utensils. This is the sort of fear that affluent Indians in the cities will never have to know.
Bhagat’s house was the closest to the site of the supposed encounter. That night, Bhagat, like other villagers, had heard only three gun shots. Next morning, Bhagat told the fact-finding team, the police came and forced him ‘to sign some papers, likely to be seizure memos, in which a gun and other items are said to have been recovered from the site of the incident’ to back their story of the encounter. The police also put pressure on him and others to accept, if anyone else were to enquire, that they had heard several rounds of firing (50-60) on the night of the alleged encounter, not just three shots.
When nothing in the police story added up, the allegations against Meena devolved into the worst sort of ideas about what women should be doing, and at what time. In order to obfuscate the more troubling questions (such as why, if Meena left her home on the 5th in a skirt/blouse, was she in a saree when the police later brought her for treatment, or how one is to resolve the post-mortem report that talks of two bullet wounds at very close range with the police story of a sprawling enounter), the State government has chosen to call Meena’s own behaviour into question. Instead of focusing on police actions, they have turned their eye onto Meena’s body and to questions of propriety as to what that female body should have been doing, where it should have remained, what dangers it was bringing onto itself.
The BJP state Home Minister Nankiram Kanwar asks ‘why was she away from her home at around 2:15 am?’ Further, it is being claimed that she had relations with the passing truck drivers and finally, in order to explain away the the presence of sperm in her body and to protect her rapists in the police department, that she had ‘habitual sexual contact’. The villagers claim that this line about sexual contact was a later addition in the medical report to prevent criminal proceedings against the policemen involved.
This has of course a far more disturbing connotation, one that has been a rallying ground for so much of grassroots feminist struggle in India for decades now, that women of ‘habitual sexual contact’ have somehow called the repercussion onto themselves, and worse, that they somehow deserved it. Above all, the police can not use this line to negate the possibility of rape which is precisely the way they have been using it in Meena’s case .
It is a tragic thing to do when one has to compare one incident of crime against women with another, to sort of pit them against each other, in order to outline what different trajectories of justice they take. Will Meena Khalkho’s rape and murder be picked up and rallied around in the mainstream media in the same way that Jessica Lall’s was?
Will NDTV dare to build a campaign around this as they did in Jessica’s case, or, will CNN-IBN, having already taken an unaccustomed step in approaching Irom Sharmila (after Anna’s fast ended up also highlighting hers), continue to build on such positive steps, and do a larger story on Meena? Or will the difference in her political environment and her class position, and, above all, her fatal distance from Delhi, be too much to bridge?
In India, we live in a society that is cleaved in its core by divisions of class and barriers of caste that inform our smallest habits and biggest concerns. Based on these divisions, we extend or withhold basic degrees of dignity from our own. These divisions are at work as much in our villages as they are in our more ‘developed’ cities. A case in point is the latest Tata Docomo advertisement.
A maid, who resembles countless immigrant female domestic workers, more often from the lower castes or tribal communities, is shown stealing a cell-phone, but before she is able to leave the scene of her crime, surprise surprise, it rings, her posh employer notices the thing hidden under her blouse and she is caught. The advertisement is a shameful exercise in that casual sort of prejudice we hold against domestic workers, against those on whose work the infrastructure of our daily comfort and privileges depends.
While affluent Resident Welfare Associations in Delhi continue to install CCTVs to keep a guard on, among others, their own domestic servants, while employers keep on financially and sexually harassing female domestic workers, and while ads like this habitually criminalize an entire class/caste in a scarily unselfconscious way, it will be more and more difficult to bridge those gaps we have made between a Jessica Lall and a Meena Khalkho.
There is another major difference between these two cases. With Jessica Lall, the case could be framed as a prima facie criminal act and justice could be, with all the difficulties, demanded for it. It was a standalone crime and justice there meant punishing the specific people accused. In Meena Khalkho’s case, the accused are both specific and general. We can not afford to just look at what happened to her without looking at what is happening to the whole of Chattisgarh, in fact, the whole of those regions where AFSPA or similar laws are still in force, including Kashmir and the North East.
Meena’s case cannot simply be judged in isolation because cases like hers have become far too frequent, and more importantly, what happened to her is indicative of the way a heavy-handed governance has been proceeding for a long time in these regions producing a macabre collateral of rapes, murders, disappearances, fake encounters, and lately, mass unidentified graves.
Meena Khalkho’s case is a troubling flash point for all the undemocratic events of our times and nation. Is it for this reason that we choose to sideline it from our headlines, and worse, from our imagination?
The author is a writer based in Delhi.