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India : Sexual Violence and Impunity

The state is in a renewed drive to « clean » Chhattisgarh of Naxalites. The large-scale combing operations have meant pillaging and looting of settlements, and mass sexual violence perpetrated on inhabitants of Peddagalur, Kunna and Nendra, among others, over the last six months. Victims and human rights groups are fighting an uphill battle to ensure that security forces and vigilante groups be held accountable for their crimes, and another reign of terror with impunity, like Salwa Judum, be stopped in its tracks.

A cloak of silence continues to surround the subject of sexual violence by security troops ; whether in Chhattisgarh, in Kashmir or in Manipur. This is evident, once again, in the silence in the mainstream national media over the recent episodes of mass sexual violence against Adivasis by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and local police in the conflict zone of Bastar, Chhattisgarh.

Three separate incidents occurred in Peddagalur of Bijapur District between 19 and 24 October 2015, in Kunna of Sukma District and almost simultaneously in Nendra of Bijapur District between 11 and 14 January 2016, whilst troops occupied the villages during combing operations.

History was made when, for the first time, a first information report (FIR) was filed on 1 November 2015 under Section 376(2) of the 2013 amendment to rape law. For the Nendra and Kunna cases, despite the police’s reluctance, FIRs were finally filed on 23 and 26 January 2016 respectively. But whether the justice delivery system is robust enough to hold the troops accountable and puncture the impunity is debatable.

Fighting the Blackout

One of the crucial mechanisms required for victims to access justice is to enable them to speak out freely and for the media to be able to report on it. However, as human right advocates know, censorship and the secrecy surround militarised environments along with the rhetoric of “national security,” which effectively throttle freedom of expression.

Chhattisgarh is especially challenging as the flow of information is extremely controlled. Draconian legislation like the Chhattisgarh Public Safety Act and the menacing environment created by the state and police, who can randomly slap charges of being a Naxalite on persons, and implicate them in cases, make it difficult for local journalists to take up cudgels against them. Local newspapers are owned by barons who have interests in mining and who are aligned with the state’s policies. The state controls spaces physically by throwing a cordon and setting up barricades of the elite COBRA battalion of the CRPF, thereby preventing journalists, activists and others from accessing the inner villages of the forested Naxal belt where systematic violence is being unleashed on unarmed civilians.

The recent window of visibility on the incidents of sexual violence over four months was a victory of sorts largely because of the coordinated efforts and active interventions of civil society groups like Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS), Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisations (CDRO), the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG), Adivasi activist Soni Sori, and Communist Party of India (CPI) leader and head of All India Adivasi Mahasabha Manish Kunjum along with intrepid journalists. It is no coincidence that, subsequently, intense pressure and intimidation were brought to bear on members of these groups and on individuals by the police and by the vigilante group, Samaj Ekta Manch. Journalist Malini Subramaniam and the JagLAG team were forced to leave Jagdalpur.

Sexual violence has occurred even as operations against Adivasis living in the inner villages of the Naxal belt have sharply escalated after Inspector General S R P Kalluri was appointed. Kalluri has publicly declared that he will clear the area of Naxalites so that an ultra mega steel plant can be set up. In the first 22 days of November 2015 there were 18 encounters. The figure has now risen to 56. Villagers are also reporting incidents of beatings, looting, pillage, destruction of crops, and razing their homes. Clearly then women’s bodies have become part of the larger battlefield.

Trauma of Salwa Judum

This present shadow of terror evokes terrifying memories of an earlier era—2006 to 2011—when the state-initiated vigilante group, the Salwa Judum, unleashed horrors on its own Adivasi brethren until the Supreme Court ordered its disbanding.

During this reign amidst killings, violence and forced evacuations of villages, the first reports of sexual violence being strategically deployed as repression by the Salwa Judum and special police officers (SPOs), began to trickle in. The Committee against Violence on Women (CAVOW) in 2006 whilst recording narratives came across accounts of rape by SPOs and Salwa Judum members, but said it was unable to personally verify them largely because the situation on the ground was hostile to direct field investigations and people were constantly being displaced from their homes and camps.

The complicity of the state with the perpetrators—the Salwa Judum—created a situation so grim that crimes could only be documented by a team across the Chhattisgarh border. In 2007, the CPI leader, Manish Kunjum, of Bastar, crossed the border into Andhra Pradesh to present petitions from people that included some from women making complaints of rape. These petitions became part of the writ petition filed by Kunjum, Kartam Joga and others and were then later part of the composite petition of Nandini Sundar before the Supreme Court, where rapes were specifically mentioned.

The repercussions of an inadequate justice delivery system were felt when four women of Samsetti village in Dantewada who had made a complaint in 2009 of rape by SPOs in 2006, dropped out of the judicial proceedings because no judge had been appointed to hear the rape case for many months. The arrest of Kopa Kunjum, the man who had helped them file the case, clearly a tactic of state intimidation, may also have played a role.

Filing FIRs amidst Hostility

What are the mechanisms then that can empower women to speak out in a safe and confidential manner in a conflict zone ? In the case of Peddagalur violence in October 2015, activist Bela Bhatia of the WSS, explains how conducive conditions were created to facilitate the filing of the FIRs under the amended rape laws and also one under Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO).

Acting on a tip-off by local journalists, WSS members intervened after getting due permission from the District Collector of Bijapur, Yashwant Kumar, to attend the weekly market at Basaguda where some of the women from the affected villages had come. The women confirmed reports of rape and other violence and a small video was made and shown to the collector.

His receptivity and suggestion that the team speak directly with some of the villagers encouraged more action. Accordingly, the team went into the interiors on motorcycles to visit some of the hamlets. It was also at the collector’s suggestion that the team went back to hamlets they had not been able to access and found two more women ready to testify.

On 1 November women testified first in front of the collector, then the superintendent of police (a woman), assistant superintendent of police and sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) with the help of a translator and subsequently the FIRs were filed.

Testimonies revealed that besides rape there were instances of sexual assault with beatings on thighs and buttocks, clothes and blouses being ripped off, breasts grabbed and squeezed violently. Instances of sexual harassment cited were those of troops occupying the homes and asking women to sleep with them. There were also large-scale incidents of looting and of destruction of property.

When Perpetrators Probe

It is the next important stage—the inquiry —though that exposed the loopholes of the justice delivery system. Without informing the WSS, a police team, under a woman deputy superintendent of police (DSP) went into the village and began speaking to the women.

In a conflict zone the sight of security troops—the very agency against whom charges have been made—evokes fear given the huge trust deficit. Although the DSP was in civilian attire, alarmed villagers ran away. It was also evident that pressure from the top had begun affecting these villagers. The cooperation the DSP sought was obviously not forthcoming. The DSP maintained the women’s stories were not consistent with WSS claims. But, it was the same DSP who had been present when the women had made their statements.

All of which begs the question : can the same police and security forces—the perpetrators—be part of the inquiry, if justice is to be done ? Should not an external agency handle the probe ?

Besides, the better implementation of the law is perhaps more crucial to breaking the cycle of impunity than mere enactment of laws. This became clear with the second and third incidents of sexual violence. The hardening and shift in attitude by the administration was manifest in the way the police deliberately delayed filing FIRs even after complaints and lengthy statements were made.

The FIRs for Nendra and Kunna were filed only after sustained pressure. On 18 January 2016, 13 women of Nendra tried to file an FIR. Although statements were recorded, the superintendent of police maintained an FIR could be filed only after the jaanch (investigation), a violation under Section 154 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The FIR was filed on 23 January only after a press conference on 21 January.

The militarised milieu posed a challenge for victims of Kunna. Soni Sori, who sought to bring some women to the Sukma police station, found a cordon and deployment of paramilitary and police on the road. She had to bring the women all the way to the Bastar Commissionerate in Jagdalpur. The divisional commissioner of Bastar had to instruct the inspector general, who reluctantly and after considerable delay, got the superintendent of police of Sukma to file the FIR. Police in adjoining Dantewada had told Sori the case did not come under their jurisdiction.

Traumatic Procedures

How do the victims themselves sustain energy for the long fight for justice ? The difficulties in physically travelling long distances and repeatedly making statements took a toll on the Nendra women. Whilst they provided graphic and detailed accounts of the distressingly similar weapons of war—rapes, beating and loot—to the WSS teams in the hamlets, were less inclined to speak out in Bijapur.

The biting cold and concern for their children—some had been left behind and some brought along with them on the 65 kilometre long journey—had an emotional impact.

The already lengthy procedure of making statements one after the other before the various administrative officials was made more tedious when the police ordered another round of bayans (statements) because they suddenly realised these had to be recorded after the FIRs and not before.

For Adivasi women, in alien surroundings, even directions like lifting up one’s head and speaking up clearly can become very daunting. It unnerved some of them according to JagLAG lawyer Isha Khandelwal.

Chasm of Language and Trust

Whilst the SDM had provided food, shelter and blankets for their stay, the environment remained alien. According to Bhatia, many of the women were still in trauma, sitting and staring vacantly into space or weeping. The language barrier precluded the WSS and others from being as supportive as they would have wished to be.

Language also plays a crucial role in the quality of testimonies recorded. Quite often a translator can echo his/her own biases and colour statements. This occurred once when a translator had echoed the common bias that the Adivasis are Naxal supporters. The women had then complained of intimidation. It was for this reason WSS also provided a translator besides the one provided by the SDM.

State of Duplicity

Such biases are reflective of the general distrust and hostility with which Adivasis and their testimonies are perceived by the state agencies. No attempt has been made to draw the distinction between civilians and combatants. The state continues with its stand that all human right violations are part of Maoist propaganda and actively fosters a climate in which vigilante groups can freely attack those fighting for justice.

This duplicity was evident when in the Nendra case, even as women were trying to record testimonies, an organisation claiming to comprise victims of Naxalite violence could actually raise protests against the raped women in the circuit house complex and burn an effigy of Bhatia. This speaks volumes of the attempts to block avenues for justice.

Senior police officers too made statements to the effect that Maoists were behind the row when questions were raised over the delay of FIRs.

Can a state whose first reaction to human rights violations is that of self-preservation and guarding its repute actually foster a climate in which justice will prevail ?

It is now more than 90 days since the first FIR was filed in Peddagalur, but there has been no charge sheet filed till date. For the women who dared to speak out, it would appear that so long as the state refuses to be accountable and itself indulges in lawless actions, impunity may continue to reign, regardless of the law.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.