On the afternoon of 31st December 2020, while relatives of Sardar, an adivasi from Devda village in Thikri block of Barwani district were gathering to prepare for New Year’s eve celebrations, a mob of 20-25 men barged into his home accusing them of organising religious conversion. They snatched their phones and assaulted family members and relatives gathered, which included women and minor girls. According to the family, in the attack that followed, a pregnant woman, Lilabai, who was eight months pregnant fell to the floor and received blows to her stomach. While being transported to the closest hospital, Lilabai went into labour and gave birth to a stillborn son, before reaching the hospital.
Despite receiving death threats against registering a complaint, the family approached the police on the day of the attack. The Thikri police however refused to register an FIR and made the family wait for two days before finally asking the family to write the complaint themselves. No action has been taken to date.
However, despite the attack on Adivasi men and women and the forcible entry and ransnacking of the home by the mob, the loss of Lilabai’s unborn child, no complaint has been registered against the accused Gaurav Sharma, Shriram Rathod, Ravi Khanna, Raja Rathod, Ramesh Rathod, Mangal Patel, Tilak Patel, Arvind Patidar, Rajesh Dhangar, Nilesh Patel, Vishal Koli, Amar Kamble, Gajendra and others.
Lilabai (from Naydad village) had gone to visit her relatives at Gram Devda, like they used to, every year on New Years’ eve. Here, some goons forced their way into the house and attacked the women and girls present. Lilabai fell, belly first, and received blows on her stomach as well, whereby she lost consciousness. Her relatives called an ambulance for her, and while on the way to the hospital at Thikri, Lilabai, who was 8 months pregnant, suffered a miscarriage, and give birth to a stillborn son. When Lilabai’s family and relatives went to the Police Station to register a complaint against the attack, the police refused and asked them to return the next day instead. Upon returning, they further asked the family to given a handwritten complaint themselves.
On 17th February, over a thousand Adivasi women left their homes and fields to gather in Barwani (MP) to demand the arrest of the accused, who had not only assaulted the family members on the basis of a false rumour but also, molested young girls and attacked a pregnant woman who lost her 8 month old foetus as a result. The attackers were mainly non-adivasi and upper caste men from nearby villagers.
It was only after 400-500 of them surrounded the police station that the police assured them of an investigation. Section 18 of the Atrocities Act directs the police to register an FIR and arrest the accused in the case of an atrocity immediately. The investigation that the police carried out, instead was one where the testimonies of the accused were used to suppress the case itself!
Asserting that this was not just an individual attack on one woman but a direct assault on all Adivasi women and the whole of Adivasi society, protestors in Barwani today demanded that the accused be arrested under the Atrocities Act and relevant sections of the IPC. They also demanded action against the police for protecting the perpetrators and said that no religion permits such violence and religion cannot be used as a pretext for atrocities. They were not defending religion, they were committing an atrocity, the women stated.
Raising slogans of ‘Lilabai ko Nyay Do!‘ (Justice for Lilabai!) ‘Doshi Gundon ko Giraftar karo!’ (Arrest the Hooligans!), women from several Adivasi sangathans including Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan, JAYS (Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti), Adivasi Ekta Parishad, Adivasi Chhatra Sangathan, Shehari Mazdoor Sangathan strongly opposed the protection that the mob had been receiving from the government as well as the police. “The police officers were well aware of the law which requires immediate registration of an FIR and other action. They deliberately and repeatedly violated the law. Police should be prosecuted under Section 4 of the Atrocities Act,” said Laya Bai, adivasi activist from village Pospur.
“I want my child.” Lilabai’s voice cracked as she addressed the crowd. “What right did they have to enter the house? What right did they have to hit women? Why does the police not register an FIR? I want justice!” Lilabai’s older child suffers from an intellectual disability, making the loss of the unborn child even more tragic and poignant for her and her family.
The women demanded that an FIR be registered against the accused under the relevant sections of the IPC and the Prevention of Atrocities Act. They said they would hold the adminstration responsible for the safety of Lilabai and her family, who have been threatened, and were clear that an attack on them was in fact, and would be treated as an attack on the whole Adivasi community.
The women also sharply attacked the State government for liqour related violence and demanded a ban liquor ban. Bilayati Bai, a JADS activist from Limbi (Pati Tehsil, Barwani) blasted the government saying, “We don’t have water, but the liquor is freely flowing.” “What should we do to be able to live a life of dignity? How can we change this state of affairs? Our hospitals are dysfunctional. Our children are not learning in schools. There is no employment for Adivasis. There is just liquor. People are being forced to migrate to Gujarat and Maharashtra. Nobody is talking about this and us women are trying to find a way to survive, to lead a life of dignity and we are being attacked by goons with political support – whether it is the Congress or the BJP. This is not an isolated struggle for regarding one individual act of violence. This is a struggle for a life of dignity,” Bilayati added.
The district police is seeking to justify its inaction saying they are ‘investigating’ the matter. But, it may be noted that the failure to arrest the accused is in blatant violation of the Section 18 (A)(1)(a) of the SC/ST (Prevention of) Atrocities Act which clearly states that “preliminary enquiry shall not be required for registration of a First Information Report against any person.” By violating the act, the officials have invited prosecution and section 4 of the act for wilful neglect of duties.
Further, the Badwani police is in violation of multiple Supreme Court guidelines which state that the police cannot refuse to register an FIR claiming they have to complete a preliminary investigation or finding the claim not-credible (Lalita Kumari case etc). In Arumugam Servai v. State of TN, the Supreme Court ruled “If it is found that they do not promptly apprehend the culprits and others involved and institute criminal proceedings against them,” in cases of atrocities, the District Magistrate/Collector and SSP/SPs of the district as well as other officials concerned should be suspended and charge-sheeted and be subject to departmental inquiry.
The women issued a stern warning to the government and administration, declaring that should they fail to take action on those responsible for this atrocity and those involved in its cover up, they would have no-choice but to launch a wider full-fledged agitation for their rights.
Nasri Bai Ningwal, an activist at Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan, has been tirelessly working to organise people in Barwani and has been instrumental in organising women and men in Khargone, Khandwa and Burhanpur. Nasri Bai has been on the forefront of issues ranging from livelihood, right to food, forest rights, education and women-led liquor prohibition for over a decade.
All images courtesy Nasri Bai Ningwal