In Rajura rape case, 17 minor Adivasi girls and their families await a seemingly elusive justice

  • 17 sexually abused minor Adivasi girls in a school in Rajura, Chandrapur await justice for eight months

  • The preliminary chargesheet in the case was filed in June 2019 but the trial has not begun as the supplementary chargesheet is yet to be filed

  • The school involved is run by Congress MLA Subhash and his brother Arun Dhote

While the country is aflame in more ways than one over the issue of sexual violence, a group of Gond Adivasi girls wait for justice in Rajura, in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district. What happened to them is no less heinous than the cases that are dominating the headlines today.

At least 17 minor girls aged 8 to 11 from the Mata Anusuya Residential Hostel, of the privately-run Infant Jesus English Public High School in Rajura, were drugged and raped repeatedly, with the matter coming to light in April this year when two of the girls were admitted to a government hospital. For the mothers of the victims, the journey to getting their daughters’ “illness” identified and treated has been tortuous, to say the least. Three of the mothers had to file a petition in the High Court for speedy investigation after their daughters were admitted to the Rajura rural hospital complaining of stomach pain and giddiness on 6 April 2019.

 In Rajura rape case, 17 minor Adivasi girls and their families await a seemingly elusive justice

Image for representation only. AFP/File Photo

They were later moved to the civil hospital where a medical examination confirmed sexual abuse. On 12 April, the police registered a first information report (FIR) at the Rajura police station against five persons under Sec 376 (A) and (B) of the Indian Penal Code, Section 4 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offence Act (POCSO), 2012, and Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

The police arrested the hostel superintendent Chaban Pandurang Pachare on 13 April, and the assistant superintendent Narendra Virutkar the next day. Two female caretakers — Lata Thakre and Kalpana Kannake — were arrested soon after, as also the hostel security guard Venkataswamy Bondayya Jangam. Some incriminating articles were recovered from Pachare’s office. In July, Dr Maruti Pimpalkar, the medical consultant of the school was also arrested but he is out on bail along with Thakre and Jangam. The High Court constituted a special investigation team (SIT) but the matter was later transferred to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), which has filed a preliminary charge-sheet in June in the Special Court for Protection of Children from Sexual Violence (POCSO) Act, 2012. Jyoti Vajani has been appointed as Special Public Prosecutor. While the authorities have requested a speedy trial, the hearings are yet to begin as the supplementary chargesheet has to be filed.

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Kalyan Kumar, the lawyer for Elgar Pratishthan, which filed a petition in the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court on 14 April, told Firstpost that the district administration was unwilling to even medically examine the three hospitalised girls. They had to wait from 9 am to 1 am, and the doctors performed the examination only the next day. “We were concerned that the collection of evidence was being delayed and so we approached the High Court,” he said.

The parents of the girls were of the opinion that the abuse may have been a long-running problem. “We feel a larger racket was going on as there are complaints from other institutions run by Subhash and his brother Arun Dhote, so we kept the High Court in the loop,” the lawyer added.

Once the case was exposed, it set off a rapid response by the tribal development department (TDD), which not only flew in special counsellors but also met each of the nearly 300 students in the hostel and transferred them to a government school in the area, according to Manisha Verma, the TDD’s principal secretary. To support the police investigations, a special cell was constituted, comprising experienced women members, including the child psychologist Pratibha Gajbhiye, local women officers and a senior consultant of the department. They have been instrumental in achieving a breakthrough in investigations and making the children share what has been transpired through their empathetic and skilful approach, Verma explained.

A counselling workshop was held with the child psychologist for the parents of 292 students for five days from 10 May. They were informed about the services and facilities provided to the students who have been relocated to a new school. Summer camps were held for students where they were not only entertained through fun activities but also motivated through confidence building games.

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The Infant Jesus school is a private institution where the fees of tribal students are reimbursed under the “Namankit Scheme”. (Under the Namankit Yojana, the TDD sponsors education for tribal children studying in any private English medium school approved by the government, from Class 1 to 12. So far, around 54,000 students are studying in 179 such schools under the scheme.) The High Court had said an administrator must be appointed for the school after hearing the management and sought a detailed report from the Chandrapur zilla parishad on its de-recognition. Since 2018-19, no new student has been sponsored for the school and the TDD cancelled its approval under the Namankit Scheme on 16 April. The school was immediately blacklisted as well.

After the incident, the TDD has shifted 288 of the 292 students to the English medium Devada Eklavya Model Residential School, run by the Maharashtra Tribal Public School Society in Rajura tehsil. Their education till Class 12 will be free and the TDD will support their professional and higher education beyond the age of 18 years, government sources said.

On two fronts — post-event action, and compensation — the government intervention has been welcomed. The girls have been sanctioned a total of Rs 17 lakhs each from various funds from the government. However, the parents are not very confident of a speedy trial or justice for their children. One of the mothers, who spoke to Firstpost on condition of anonymity and wished to be identified only as ‘M’, expressed disappointment that two of the accused are currently out on bail.

M’s 11-year-old daughter, a Class 6 student, had been enrolled at the Infant Jesus school since the past three years. “The school authorities called me and said my daughter was ill, she was falling down with dizziness. I took her to the doctor and they said nothing was wrong.  She had fits all night and then in the morning I took her to a private hospital, and later to another big clinic where they gave her injections and took X rays. She only woke up once, remembering that she had a test paper. I was frantic as we didn’t know what was wrong even after four days in hospital. Then I read in the paper about the case of sexual abuse in the school and I complained to the police,” said M, a landless labourer.

The girl is M’s only daughter. “I wanted to educate my daughter. I visited her once a month and she seemed all right. But it was difficult for her to speak about the whole thing. We sent our daughters to Dhote’s [Subhash Dhote, the president of the Infant Jesus school] institution, isn’t he responsible for them? It can happen to any child anywhere. The thing is that Adivasis shouldn’t be allowed to get ahead… Sometimes I get very angry about what has happened and how the people who run the school have gone scot free. People say we did this for money. What if my girl had died? Who is responsible?” she asked.

Another parent said her daughter, 11, complained of white discharge for some months but she was treated for it. “We didn’t know it was a deep infection. My daughter was healthy and it was difficult to believe she was unwell. My son called me to say she kept fainting and in January, when I when to the school and asked her teachers about it, they said she had been practising for the Republic Day programme and was exhausted and had not eaten. They lied to me. I finally brought her home. By the time the case was exposed, she was in the ICU in an unconscious state. Doctors said she had a mental problem. There were other girls too — how can all of them have mental problems? The girls were threatened, they were told not to tell their parents about the abuse, or they would be killed. The girls were drugged through oral rehydration solution (ORS) and didn’t know what was happening, only that they were taken away in the night,” she said.

Once when the mother asked the school authorities why the girl was ill, they said a “ghost in white” had been scaring the students. “I visited my children often but didn’t know that the matter was so serious. Who is responsible for this criminal state of affairs? They have ruined our children,” she said.

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In a meeting on 24 April, government sources said the chief secretary had directed the school education department to initiate legal proceedings against the school. However, the school is still running. Subhash Dhote approached the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court, which gave him relief in June and allowed him to continue running the school. The hostel has been sealed by the CID and the court refused Dhote’s pleas to take over the hostel as also recall two High Court orders on a petition filed by the mothers of the abused children. The court had asked the Dhote brothers to be added as respondents to the matter.

As soon as the case was exposed, Subhash Dhote; Vinay Wadettiwar, Congress MLA; and Suresh Dhanorkar, now Congress MP from Chandrapur, called a press conference where they are reported to have said that the parents of the girls were “filing complaints to claim monetary aid”. While they apologised later, this triggered a backlash and the Maharashtra State Women’s Commission issued them notices, though only Dhote was booked under the Atrocity Act. While he resigned as the Chandrapur unit Congress chief, the party gave him a ticket for the Rajura seat in the assembly polls, which he won. This was despite many representations from the girls’ parents and women leaders from Chandrapur and organisations which approached the Congress high command and even state leaders not to give Dhote a ticket.

Now three-time MLA Wamanrao Chatap of the Swatantra Bharat Paksh who narrowly lost to Dhote, has filed an election petition in the Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court pointing out that Dhote had suppressed the fact that there were criminal cases against him in his affidavit. One case is under the Atrocity Act(where he managed to get anticipatory bail) and he is also mentioned in the CID chargesheet in the POCSO case as an abettor, since he ran the school, according to the petition. Under section 33A of the Representation of the People act 1951, the candidate has to disclose information about criminal cases.

In May, Dhote and his brother Arun, secretary of the Rajura Municipal Council, were arrested after a student at another of his institutions — Kalyan Institute of Nursing Education — filed a complaint of attempted rape and criminal intimidation against six persons, including the principal. Others arrested included the hostel warden and security guard, already booked in the hostel rape case.

Subhash Dhote told Firstpost that this case was withdrawn within a month by the student, and he would soon be discharged from the case along with the others. When asked about the case/s of abuse at the Infant Jesus School, he said the accused in the matter have all denied the charge, and that he himself was unaware of how it could have happened. He noted that the school was inspected once a month by the TDD and nothing untoward had been reported. He said he had responded to the CID’s summons and answered all their questions, and it was now up to the court to provide justice.

When asked why the school had appointed as their medical consultant Dr Pimpalkar, whose licence was revoked in 1974, Dhote replied that he was a renowned doctor in Chandrapur. He was treating the girls and did not report anything adverse.

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It was difficult for the girls to speak out; the police interviewed 21 of them and the investigation is ongoing. Official sources said the gathering of evidence was still underway to make the case watertight and the CID wanted to file a supplementary chargesheet. Not all parents agreed to submit their children to medical examinations. Bapurao Madavi, a local social worker and head of the Gondwana Adivasi Shikshan Sanstha, said it was very difficult enough to get the Adivasis to educate their children, and an incident such as this would be a setback to the cause. “How can something like have happened over months without the management having an inkling?” he asked.

Accountability is a major issue even though in this case, the government was only funding the residential hostel. A recent report by the international NGO Survival International focuses on factory schooling, the isolation of such schooling and the dangers of sexual abuse. Jo Woodman, one of the investigators from Survival, told Firstpost that inspection and supervision of residential school was a must. This is not a minor issue. In India alone there are over one million tribal children in residential schools. In other states too, tribal children were vulnerable to sexual exploitation as revealed from time to time in reports.

Maharashtra has the second largest tribal population (9.35 percent) in the country and while the literacy rate increased to 65 percent in 2011, there are many complaints about the quality of Adivasi ashram shalas or tribal residential schools. However, the TDD has introduced various schemes to improve the life of tribal children and upgrade the quality of education. Adivasi children have climbed Mount Everest under the Mission Shaurya 1 and 2 initiative. Maharashtra is the first state to introduce English medium education in tribal schools, there is emphasis on tribal languages by translating textbooks into local dialects, science education and many other programmes.

What is needed is a push for accountability of institutions under private management who get state funds. A speedy trial in the Rajura case is not only essential because it involves young children, but also because it sends out a strong message that no one is above the law.

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Updated Date: Dec 12, 2019 09:41:52 IST