The Madhya Pradesh government must ensure an independent and impartial investigation into the alleged gang-rape and sexual assault of four Adivasi women by police personnel in Dhar, Madhya Pradesh, in January, said Amnesty International India today. Allegations of looting by police must also be investigated.

On 25 January, over 200 policemen from 13 police stations across Dhar district conducted a raid in the villages of Holibayda and Bhuthiya, purportedly to arrest men suspected of involvement in thefts. Most of the residents of the villages are from the Bhil Adivasi community, officially recognized as a Scheduled Tribe.

Amnesty International India accompanied a team of human rights activists that visited the area on a fact-finding mission in February. The team was told by several villagers that the police had fired live ammunition and tear gas at them, after which the men from the village fled. Besides the allegations of gang-rape and sexual assault, the women also claimed that the police had looted their homes, and taken money, animals, harvested crops and household utensils.

Seethabai (name changed) said, “A policeman came inside and dropped my two-month old son on the ground. We were both crying…He took my silver chain and 20,000 rupees that I had earned from selling soya beans. He pushed me down and raped me. After he finished, the next one came in and raped me. The policemen threatened me, saying that if I talked, they would shoot me. They were drinking. I begged them, crying, saying, please don’t do this. I couldn’t believe that they were police.”

Savithabai (name changed) said, “One of them raped me, and the other one stood outside. I hit them a lot and screamed. But who could have come to help me? ...If he did this, he should be punished. Do you think I feel good about what happened to me?”

“The Adivasi women have clearly alleged the involvement of the police in their complaint, so the government’s priority should be to ensure that the investigation is unbiased,” said Gopika Bashi, women’s rights campaigner at Amnesty India.

Members of the community, along with local leaders, approached the district police on the day of the raid, but an FIR was only registered on 30 January at a special Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes police station in Dhar. It mentioned the rapes of four women and sexual assault and looting by uniformed police. On 3 February, the National Human Rights Commission ordered an inquiry, which was conducted on 15 February, according to news reports.

The state police have constituted a special investigation team, headed by the Additional Superintendent of Police of Indore district, to investigate the allegations. The Superintendent of Police, Dhar District, has denied the allegations.

“The investigation team includes police personnel from Dhar district, which raises questions about their independence. Authorities must also consider the discrimination that the community faces, including from members of the local police. A local police official told us in a conversation that the Bhil tribe are all criminals,” said Gopika Bashi.

The Madhya Pradesh Mahila Manch, a women’s rights group, has released a report detailing the incident and responses from authorities. It states, “The team observed that the women have stood by each other in this episode of extreme violence, but sexual assault is still a shameful thing to speak about in a deeply patriarchal society and they speak in small groups or behind closed doors, and are not able to publicly talk about it. The teams investigating this crime and even otherwise understanding the situation in the village, need to recognize the patriarchal systems in practice within the community.”

“The data from both villages show the vulnerability of this community- there is barely 20 percent literacy and electric cables are yet to be laid here. A majority of the population have members of the family migrating out of the area for various kinds of work,” said Shivani Taneja, a member of Madhya Pradesh Mahila Manch.