No One Killed Meena Khalkho?: Akhil Katyal

Guest post by AKHIL KATYAL

Now that the Anna Hazare Show is over, will the Indian media go back to looking at India as also existing outside Delhi? On 6 July 2011, Meena Khalkho, a sixteen year old tribal girl from Karcha village in the state of Chhattisgarh was raped and murdered by the local police and it barely made a dent on our news universe. A search for her name on most television news websites returns nothing. The police in Chattisgarh 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 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?

17 thoughts on “No One Killed Meena Khalkho?: Akhil Katyal”

  1. Meena’s story is heartbreaking and the guilty must be punished. If the political class is trying to suppress this case, they too should be brought to justice. But one must not forget that this is also a case of corruption. Anna’s movement against corruption has become the favorite whipping boy of all those on the left – little do they realize that most acts of injustices are a result of a corruption of some principle.

    It is also the favorite ploy of the left to put everything under the class/caste/religion lens, even though most cases are simple cases of human exploitation. Unfortunately their tactic of dividing the population based on caste, creed, language, religion has been far too successful for the same reason that the corrupt parties have been able to garner power – uneducated masses. It would be interesting to see how many the backward communities in India support Anna Hazare’s movement. Don’t ask the so-called leaders of these people, ask the people themselves.

    1. Dear Ravi, I am genuinely surprised by your ability to abstract out ‘cases of human exploitation’ from the factors of ‘class/caste/religion’? Seriously, how does this work? Let’s be specific. Explain it to me, in Meena’s case how does this work? Are you suggesting that the facts that she was a minor, a girl, from a tribal community, a citizen of Chhattisgarh, a state caught in the cross-fire of encounters had nothing to do with what happened to her, had nothing to do with how her case has been received in the mainstream media?

      In other words, if we do choose to frame this case as that of corruption, and why not, then, according to you, what *principles* have been corrupted in this case and its media reception? We will have to be very particular about these principles. They are the crux of the matter. Do think about it and let me know. I would love to her your reasoning, seriously. Thank you for your response. Cheers, Akhil

      1. Dear Akhil,

        Fair question and let me try to answer that. You list, age, sex, economic segment, location, media apathy as the factors.

        Here are the principles that have been corrupted:

        – Sexual exploitation of anyone, especially minors, is abhorrent
        – Females are to be respected as much as males
        – Law and order is supreme, no matter where you are located in India
        – Law must be enforced no matter who the actors are
        – Media should report incidents that are of public interest without bias or hidden agendas

        All these principles have been corrupted in this incident. I am not implying that the factors that you listed did not play a factor in this incident. However we need to address the root causes of these incidents, otherwise we will be forever looking in the wrong place for solutions. In my opinion, the root causes are these:

        – Law enforcement agencies are not punished for their wrong doing
        – Lay public does not protest injustice
        – There is no accountability among the police, judiciary and other govt
        agencies
        – Media covers only those incidents which increase their circulation
        – Representatives are corrupt beyond the pale
        – There is rampant interference by the representatives in routine
        administration

        None of these root causes have specific to the factors you mention. They could and do occur in all circumstances. That’s why, in my opinion, focusing exclusively on those factors is counter productive.

      2. akhil i think what ravi is trying to put through is worth considering. though i am myself a staunch feminist and kep raising the gender dimension in each and every forum, i am aware of the fact that i dont want to create hatred towards anyone and the goal is that we live humanly all together. so when we talk about one particular dimension of our analysis we should not forget this. but unfortunately most people the more well read they are the more they practise this dividing people based on class caste race gender etc. etc. that is why i am disgusted at the way many dalit organisations and many minorities groups criticised the anna’s efforts. fortunately the likes of medha as opposed to arundhati roy have joind anna’s movement. i see medha the next female anna hazare/ asha

  2. dear ponni, as an older generation feminist, with app. 40 years of experience on women’s issues, i can only reiterate the fact that we still live in a patriarchal WORLD, not only in India do such things happen. having said that i am not surprised that no comment has yet come on this piece. what i want to add to your just critic about the behaviour of the police and security forces (also in kashmir) is that you have to keep the context in India (kashmir) too. why are the Naxalites going on using so much violence towards not only the security forces, but also towards innocent people and to their own group women and girls, so often one gets to read of rapes within the leftist groups too. can they and are they ready to learn from anna’s non-violent movement? secondly when you talk of the mass unidentified graves, are you also pointing at the role of the militants and pakistan/afghanistan in the whole violent situation in the valley. unless we take the whole scenario into accopunt we will never be able to find sustainable solutions. somehow i find a one-sided analysis from the so-called feminists and secularists in India: per say they take sides, whether with the naxalites or with the separatists and minorities (strangely except in kashmir and few other states). please consider this, asha

    1. Ms.Kachru : This oft-repeated (to the extent that a large majority of our TV-fed population takes it as the gospel truth) argument that justifies such deplorable actions of our security forces in the name of the crimes perpetrated by the separatists, is flawed. And while you so arrogantly invoke your “40 years experience”, your comment betrays an extremely simplistic world-view, no different from the TV-fed population I mentioned earlier.

      The separatists work towards creating unrest in the minds of the general populace through shock & awe tactics, hence their targetting of civilians. Like it or not, that’s their agenda and they’re true to it. The security forces, on the other hand, are institutions established by a sovereign state with the purpose of protecting the citizens from internal and external threats like the separatists & others of their ilk. Are they being true to their agenda as defined by the state when they indulge in rapes, mass killings & suppression of powerless citizens? And is it wise on the part of informed citizens like you or me to compare the actions of the two without weighing them on the crucial factor of accountability?

      And let’s not call the Anna movement non-violent. Right from Kiran Bedi’s inspired histrionics on the Ramlila Maidan stage to the rowdies on the street, there was a latent violence in the movement, ready to explode any time. And save for generic platitudes invoking Gandhi & Ahimsa, there was no honest effort from the movement leadership to counter that latent violence. There was an overt What was there to learn from it?

      1. there is nothing arrogant about mentioning the years i have lived it only tell you about my age too. i agree with your remark that we should not compare two evils but there is always an actio-reaction phenomenonto say the least. the role of militants and their quiet supportersin the valley cannot be left unnoticed.
        annas path is the right one i repeat. alo his suggestion that we should not let our country and our masses be taken for granted by the ones with an evil agenda and hang them though it is a sad affair.asha

    2. Dear Asha,

      Thanks a lot for your response.

      How does even begin answering these difficult questions. First, let me be clear, this article had an immediate purpose. There was a very disturbing imbalance in the reception of Meena’s case that had to somehow be rectified. The official police and the State government story was the only one available, till Ashutosh Bhardwaj’s Indian Express piece came out on the 4th of September. My piece was primarily written to correct that imbalance. To bring out findings of the fact finding report done by CBA into some kind of public light. In other words, a longer piece is required to deal with the situation and your questions more thoroughly.

      Having said that, I do not think that it is ‘one-sided’, moreover, I do not think that in the political situation that we inhabit in India and Kashmir the ‘sides’ are so clearly given to us.

      In both the cases, that of Naxals and that of Kashmir, I believe, for lack of a better phrase, the ball is in the State’s court. Let me briefly tell you why. It seems to me, and I think you will agree with me, that in Kashmir, no genuine debate can begin unless there is a massive demilitarization, unless most of the Indian forces recede from there, unless the security law is removed. All sorts of opposing views can be tabled and discussed but only in an atmosphere where daily experience is not marked by checkpoints, deaths of civilians and an Indian nationalism being forced fed from the top. And to this daily experience that prevents debate, and especially in the last decade or so, the Indian forces have contributed much more than the, as you say, ‘militants and pakistan/afghanistan’. Am I too rash to think this? What has been your summary of the situation in Kashmir? Has the militant threat not been overstated by the State and Central government especially in dealing with the more spontaneous young stone-pelters earlier this year? Do discuss.

      In the case of Naxals, although I am still trying to bring my head around lots of issues, it seems to me that first of all we should discard the language of ‘sides’. It is counterproductive and obfuscates any real debate. No sane individual ideally ‘sides’ with violence. And central India has so many kinds of violence underway: the violence of chronic poverty, the violence of mass malnutrition, the violence of displacement, the violence of Naxals, the violence of Operation Green Hunt, the violence of fake encounters by the police, *the violence of framing this whole issue simply in a military equation of ‘State vs. Naxals’, rather than an equation of socio-economic redress by the State*. We should side with none of these violences, we should work towards lessening each one of them. This will never mean a simple side-taking with anyone, let alone, with ‘Naxals’ and ‘militants’. What do you think, specifically, in Meena’s case, and generally? Do let me know.

      Also, I am not Ponni, though I sometimes wish :)

      Cheers,
      Akhil Katyal

      1. akhil my pc has too many viruses i will try to make it short this third time.i had the impression during my visit last year in the valley that the security forces are just doing their job, if the students and the young men even male children are provoking them thay have to be reacted upon by the only means available to the security forces the gun sadly so but the reality. the militants have a strong foothold even amongst the silent muslims you get this feel when you talk to them on islam they say openly they love pakistan and it is the uran connection. i dont like to see the many many sec forces, but having stayed at the airforce guesthouse i did witness the generally peaceful attitude of the people there. it is always the higherups the decision makers up there who create trouble. so let us the public change and take part in the decision making processes and not make one side the culprit and the other not. as you rightly put it towards the end let us end all violence as opposed to some here i feel anna has set a standard which can lead us there. but as he said clearly yesterday in connection with the blast near the high court, we should also be in a position to hang those who are taking us for granted. asha

  3. It makes me sad seeing news of atrocities on villagers especially women 24×7. Is this what we are meant to achieve after all those tyranny and humiliation we bear to have our freedom? Its hightime that media should shed their double standards while reporting.They make news of things that earn TRPs for them and not as a solace .

    And of the general phenomena of delineating every mishappening in rural areas as the work of naxals- these wretched criminals wearing uniform and dhotis have long been using this strategy of creating naxalophobia and still people considered well educated fall prey to this gimmick.

    Now where has CIVIL SOCIETY gone ,where is Arundhati roy and all- may be the frequency of such happenings made them dis interested in anchoring for such a noble cause- pity on us , the great democracy,the economical super power in making- losing hope that these parliamentarians interested only in muddling up will do anything worthy to fill up the lost soil before it is completely eroded

  4. media highlights the issues which raise their trp.that is why exploitation of tribals goes unnoticed.middle class india gives a damn about others.anna hazare could strike a chord becoz he spoke about corruptionhad he taken a stand on gadchirolis tribals or human rights violations in the north east he would not have found any takers even in the mainstream media

  5. hello akhil i m a journalist
    want to know more about that story of meena
    plz contact me
    thx and regards
    sarvesh upadhyay
    09768564182

  6. If I were Ambedkar I’d have given Licensed Pistols to all Dalit for self-defense and to resist oppression;

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