Freny Manecksha | February 16, 2013, Times Crest
In 2004 an iconic image, hailed as a feminist statement, depicted a dozen Manipuri women who had stripped in front of the headquarters of Assam Rifles, holding banners saying “Indian army rape us.” But as Chitra Ahanthem, editor of Imphal Free Press explains, “These women actually belong to a very patriarchal society. What drove them to such extreme forms of protest? They told me it was an expression of the impotent rage they felt at the way security troops could commit sexual crimes with such impunity.”
The protest occurred after the body of 34-year-old Manorama Thingjam was found near Imphal on July 11, 2004. Manorama was earlier picked up from her home by 17 Assam Rifles on suspicion of being a militant. “The protesting women told me no woman could remain unmoved after seeing what the troops had done to Manorama. Her body bore appalling wounds _ scratch marks, deep gashes on her thighs and her genitals peppered with gunshot wounds,” says Ahanthem.
More than eight years later Manorama and women of Manipur are still denied justice. The army, in 2011, stalled the Manipur government’s probe and call for action by challenging the Guwahati High court decision in the Supreme Court through a Special Leave Petition saying no sanction had been given to the Manipur government to carry out a probe. Manipur comes under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and Sections 6 provides that the state government cannot prosecute law enforcement agencies without sanctions from the federal Home Ministry.
Such high-profile cases of impunity and “the belief that AFSPA because of its overarching powers to security troops virtually provides legal sanction to rape and sexual assault” led the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) to make suggestions to the Verma Commission to bring security troops under the criminal justice system. The commission did so but the recent ordinance on sexual violence is totally silent on this issue. (Ironically in 1997, a bench headed by Justice Verma had upheld the constitutionality of AFSPA).
PUDR observes how powers of search and seizure under AFSPA work as “permissions to enter households and harass, protest and rape women with impunity.”
A most heinous example of such a “permission” is the Kunan-Poshpura mass rapes of 1991 in Kashmir. Men were made to assemble in the fields at night whilst some 23 women of the village, aged between 13-80 years, said they were raped by troops of the Fourth Rajputana Rifles between the night of February 23-24. No police investigations were carried out. A Press Council of India committee headed by B G Verghese, claimed the complaints were fabricated. But in October 2011, the State Human Rights Commission, (SHRC) acknowledging the sexual assaults asked the state to start a fresh probe.
The army which resists all attempts to lift AFSPA, says it has its own justice delivery systems and there is a strong and vigilant court martial process. But as legal activist Vrinda Grover observes, “Whilst they do deliver some sentences it is not commensurate with justice. Also there is no transparency since one has no access to court martial proceedings and no information is shared either with the public or even the victims.” In several cases Right to Information applications are refused under exemptions.
Increasingly, rights activists are now arguing that it is not merely draconian legislation but militarisation and the guise of a security-centric approach that creates “institutional impunity at political, judicial and moral levels.” A report Alleged Perpetrators: Stories of Impunity in Jammu & Kashmir by the International People’s Tribunal for human Rights and Justice in Indian Administered Kashmir and Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons states that in the “name of countering militant violence the Indian state authorises armed forces to carry out operations with or without adherence to law. Significantly in a majority of cases crimes are not noted or investigated at all.”
A team member explains that in Jammu and Kashmir the very act of filing an FIR against the forces becomes a huge struggle.
One of the victims of Kunan-Poshpora in her testimony to another report to the Independent People’s Tribunal on Human Rights Violations in Kashmir speaks of the daunting challenge in filing FIRS because of fear and reprisal by concerned troops. She adds that although an FIR was lodged (RI/1387/83) at Trehgam police station on March 2, 1991 nothing came of it.
Alleged Perpetrators documents the lengthy and almost futile efforts of a particular case of torture and sexual assault in Sipan, Anantnag district. In response to an RTI query the Jammu & Kashmir government in 2009 said sanction for prosecution had been sought from the ministry of defence in 2006 but was still awaited. The ministry of defence claimed sanction had not been received. What is also significant is that it took 12 years for the J&K police to investigate and process the case for prosecution.
An even more alarming feature is that the culture of impunity has permeated to the police who do not come under AFSPA. One notable case in Alleged Perpetrators pertains to rape and torture of a 16-year-old girl from Zachaldara,Kupwara district. She says she was picked up from school and taken to a police station for interrogation. Lady constables tortured her and later DSP Altaf Ahmad Khan kicked her in the abdomen and then raped her. So horrific were the injuries that she was in hospital for 50 days. Her ruptured uterus was removed. Although she filed an application no FIR was registered. She then approached the SHRC who have recommended an inquiry three years after receiving the complaint. No investigations appear to have taken place. Meanwhile the police officer has been promoted and awarded the President’s Police award for gallantry.
Significantly this trend of rewarding policemen who have charges of sexual violence against them have echoes in Chhatisgarh, where there is militarisation but no AFSPA. SRP Kalluri who was awarded a gallantry medal this January has been named by Ledhabai, the wife of a slain Maoist, as an accused for custodial rape and gangrape in a case filed in the Chhatisgarh High Court.
Last year there was outrage over adivasi school teacher Soni Sori’s letter to her lawyer stating that she was sexually assaulted and tortured by police officer Ankit Garg whilst in jail. Garg was given a gallantry award despite the complaints and Sori emerged as a global rallying figure for her vehement stand against atrocities perpetrated on adivasi women. Sori who has been jailed by Dantewada police on various counts won a crucial victory this week as she was acquitted for being a key accused in an incident of opening firing and burning Essar vehicles.
Commenting on this trend of rewarding tainted police officers Vrinda Grover says that by such rewards the state is assuring them that they will be safeguarded. It is telling women, she says, that their bodies are fodder for interests of national security.