THE UNTOLD STORY – Perils of Protest


From cops flashing their private parts to bystanders taking advantage of the crowd and confusion to grope them, women protesters often go through hell on India’s rough streets. Sunday Times finds out shocking tales of sexual harassment, abuse and molestation

Maitreyee Boruah , TOI, April 29, 2012

A31, Minoti Saikia has been to jail thrice. Her crime? Participating in a protest. In cities across India, protests are a regular affair. What is not so regular is the treatment meted out to protesters, especially the women. “I always thought it’s easier to get heard if you are a woman, until I hit the streets with placards and banners in my hand. Police lathicharge was something I was expecting but the groping and abuses hit me like a bolt from the blue,” says the Guwahati-based activist.
Minoti was arrested recently while staging a peaceful protest against the construction of a hydro-electric project. She remembers the details vividly. “We were holding a demonstration that was completely non-violent. The police suddenly came and started dragging women by the hair. It was almost 2.30 in the night. We didn’t know how to react. I was numbed when I felt somebody running his hands down my back and waist. It was horrible.”
What is even more horrible is how bystanders also take advantage of the situation. “There have been many instances when people in the crowd have joined the commotion and started groping women protesters. That, too, in broad daylight,” says Minoti. However, it is tales of policemen molesting women protesters that are shockingly — and increasingly — becoming common. Besides physical assault, there is a lot of verbal abuse hurled at women. “The kind of expletives that the cops use can leave years of mental trauma on any woman,” says Mridula Kalita, secretary of Nari Mukti Sangram Samiti, which takes up causes like eviction of farmers and anti-dam protests.
Incidentally, it’s not just women in the lower socioeconomic group that are targeted. In March this year, female advocates in
Bangalore who were protesting in the civil court premises came back with horror stories about the police. “Some of them unzipped their pants and flashed at us. They pulled our sarees and groped us. We had seen in films such incidents about the police. We saw in reality also what they are capable of doing,” one of them said.
Kamayani Bali Mahabal, a lawyer and human rights activist testifies to the extreme vulnerability of women protesters. She recalls her own experience with the Mumbai police when she was protesting against the Chhattisgarh High Court’s decision of prolonging the incarceration of Binayak Sen. “I was brutally assaulted by the police and dragged to the Colaba police station,” she says. “My ‘crime’ was standing silently with a poster proclaiming peace and justice! The cops came and attacked me and even tore my T-shirt. I had to cover myself when they took me to the police station but I did not care at all — it was for them to be ashamed.”
Sameera Khan, co-author of Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai’s Streets, says that women are at risk of sexual harassment in any large crowd or mob — not just during protests but even while entering crowded railway stations. “What makes it worse is that in large groups, it is often impossible to identify the perpetrator.”
In the rare scenario when the perpetrators are caught, they are seldom punished. In 2006, for instance, a Punjab police personnel was clicked on camera molesting a girl during a peaceful protest by a group of veterinary doctors and students in Amritsar. Even though the Punjab and Haryana High Court took suo motu notice after the picture appeared in a leading English daily, the police personnel were given a clean chit by the court later.
Madhu Kishwar, founder of Manushi, a forum for democratic reforms, says that the problem lies in the way the police are trained in India. “This is a result of bad training and poor recruitment policies. Police in our country neither know how to handle large numbers, nor have they been trained on how to behave in a democracy.”
It’s not as if police brutality towards women protesters is limited to India. In December last year, shocking images surfaced of riot police in Egypt brutally beating a woman with metal bars. The woman’s hijab was ripped off and she was kicked repeatedly on the chest till she became unconscious.
Activists say that such blatant violence is slowly affecting women protesters. “There are so many instances when our fellow women protesters have given up joining protests because of cases of molestation,” says Kalita. Adds Nandita Shah, co-founder of Akshara, an organisation that aims at empowering women, “There needs to be an urgent change in the way society treats women during protests. The only other option for women is not to protest at all.”
Not a great thing that for democracy.
With inputs from Anahita Mukherji

ROUGH ROAD A Tibetan woman activist is hauled away by policemen in Delhi, March 2012; (left) Egyptian riot police personnel brutally attack a woman, December 2011, and (right) Arpita Majumdar, a final-year medical student, became the face of defiant women protesters in 2006 by taking the onslaught of a water cannon, chin up

Immediate Release-Citizens appeal to PM, CM: Save Soni Sori from death in jail


Sunday 29th April 2012
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Press Contacts:
Kamayani Mahabal:             +91 9820749204       (India)
Vinay Bhat:             +1 412-527-7985       (US)

Citizens appeal to PM, CM: Save Soni Sori from death in jail

In an open letter addressed to the Prime Minister of India and other officials, about 250 concerned activists, academics, intellectuals, students, professionals and democratic organisations have demanded immediate medical attention for the Adivasi school teacher, Soni Sori, 35, currently in custody in Raipur Central Jail, Chhattisgarh. Sori’s condition is believed to be rapidly deteriorating as a result of torture and sexual abuse at the hands of the Chhattisgarh police. She is the mother of three young children. Signatories to the letter include members of the National Advisory Council Harsh Mander and Aruna Roy, writers Arundhati Roy and Meena Kandasamy, respected economist Jean Dreze, Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan and renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky.

Soni Sori was arrested in Delhi on 4th October, 2011, where she had gone to seek legal assistance, fearing for her life after repeated harassment by the Chhattisgarh state police. Despite her pleas in the courts that she be held in Delhi, she was sent back to Chhattisgarh. After seeing preliminary indications that she had been tortured in police custody, the Supreme Court ordered an independent medical examination at NRS Medical College, Kolkata, where doctors found stones lodged in her vagina and rectum. In a series of letters written to the Supreme Court Advocate from jail, Sorirecounted how she was stripped, electrocuted, and physically and sexually tortured by the police.

More than six months after she was tortured, Sori continues to be imprisoned in Chhattisgarh and has received virtually no follow up medical treatment for the injuries she sustained in police custody and the infections that have developed as a consequence. According to two people (one of whom is her lawyer) who were allowed to meet Sori in prison last week, her face was visibly swollen and her hands and feet appeared abnormally thin, indicating severe weight loss. Sori complained of a severe burning sensation while passing urine and of blisters on her thighs and her private parts. The magistrate in the Dantewada court, where Sori was produced earlier in the week, is reported to have remarked that she appeared unwell. According to the jail doctor in Raipur, Sori suffers from fluctuating and high blood pressure and from anaemia. Yet, on those occasions when she has been taken to the Raipur Medical College, she met with ridicule, indifference and inadequate care from the doctors and other hospital personnel. Police interference with the doctors is also suspected.

No investigation or action has been initiated against the police officers responsible for her torture. On the contrary, Superintendent of Police Ankit Garg, named in Sori’s letters, was awarded a Gallantry Medal on Republic Day, 2012. Sori’s petition before the Supreme Court asking to be transferred out of Chhattisgarh has been subjected to repeated delays and is still pending. Her health continues to deteriorate in the meantime.

Sori is just one of many women subject to torture and sexual violence in custody. In a recent report, the Asian Centre for Human Rights documented that four custodial deaths had occurred daily in India over the past decade. Those demanding medical attention for Sori fear the worst by the time she is granted a final hearing.

Open Letter:

To,
Shri Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India
Shri P. Chidambaram, Home Minister
Shri Shekhar Dutt, Governor of Chhattisgarh
Shri Raman Singh, Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh

We, the undersigned, are deeply concerned by the rapidly worsening health of Soni Sori in Raipur Central Jail. She has been passing blood with her urine, is having difficulty to sit or get up, and has lost considerable weight. Despite doctors from NRS Medical Hospital having confirmed that stones had been inserted into her vagina and rectum, Soni Sori has received no proper medical attention. We fear for Soni’s life and are outraged and ashamed at this inhuman treatment of a woman in India.

Soni Sori, 35, is an adivasi school teacher from Dantewada who was arrested in New Delhi on Oct 4 2011. Six months have passed since Soni was tortured physically and sexually but neither the state nor the central government has investigated the abuse. Her case has been repeatedly listed up in the Supreme Court but has been postponed every time. Throughout the duration of Soni Sori’s imprisonment, the state has also tried to stifle her communications with the civil society. In January this year, a team from various women’s groups across the country went to Raipur Jail to meet Soni, but they were prevented from doing so by the administration.

The brutal treatment meted out to Soni Sori, and the prevailing situation of conflict and repression in Chhattisgarh, cause us grave concern about Soniin particular, and the situation of women prisoners, in general. We demand immediate access for fact-finding groups to meet with Soni Sori and others to assess their condition in jail, particularly their medical situation. We fear that Soni Sori’s condition is rapidly deteriorating, and demand that she receive immediate medical attention.

Signed,

Harsh Mander
Meena Kandaswamy, Poet, Writer, Activist
Prof. Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor Emeritus, MIT
Prashant Bhushan, Advocate, Supreme Court of India
Anand Patwardhan, Filmmaker
Aruna Roy, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS)
Nikhil Dey, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS)
Shankar Singh, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS)
Dr. Deepankar Basu, Prof of Economic, UMass Amherst
Dr. Prithvi R Sharma, MD
Jean Dreze, Allahabad University
Uma Chakravarti, Retd Professor, Delhi University
Anand Chakravarti, Retd Professor, Delhi University
Arundhati Roy, Writer & Social Activist
Mohan Rao, Professor, JNU, Delhi
Dr. Abha Sur, Women Studies, MIT
Hiren Gandhi, Darshan, Amhedabad
Dr. Saroop Dhruv, Darshan, Amhedabad
Dr. Suvrat Raju, Harish-Chandra Research Institute, Allahabad
Manasi Pingle, Film Maker
Admiral L Ramdas, Former Chief of Naval Staff, Alibag
Lalita Ramdas, Alibag
Prof. K.N. Panikkar
Dr. KS Sripada Raju

and more than 200 others.
(Complete list of signatories at http://iadhri.wordpress.com/