Waging Wars on Women’s bodies Reflections from the Institutional Murder of Kunduli minor girl

25, Jan 2018 | CJP Team

If indeed the struggle of (wo)man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting, Adivasi, Dalit and Kashmiri women have been waging this battle for a dignified life for a long time. Yet, every time their marginalized identity, located in their socio-political and spatial context accompanied by a sheer absence of institutional support mechanisms, makes it harder to avail justice against their oppressors.

 

On January 22, 2018 a minor girl in Odisha’s Koraput district lost her life to the slow and adverse battle to seek justice in this country. On October 10, 2017, the girl, a student of 9th standard in the government run Sorisapada residential school for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled tribe, was allegedly gang raped at gun-point by a group of four persons in security uniform in a forest area near Lenjiguda village in Potangi Police Station limit under Koraput district. She was on her way home from from Kunduli. She had gone to Kunduli to get a passport sized photograph required for academic purposes. After the incident she was dumped inside the forest. The passersby heard her screams and tried to rescue her. She was taken to the nearest community health centre from there and was later shifted to the District Headquarters Hospital, Koraput. Later, a case under Sections 376 (D) and 377 of IPC and Section 6 of Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act was registered.

A fact finding investigation by People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) during October 24-25 in 2017 reported several discrepancies in the shoddy manner in which the investigation was being conducted. The report had drawn attention to the fact that though the complainant had mentioned in her FIR that those who assaulted her were wearing uniform similar to worn by security forces, the investigation team did not pursue this angle seriously. The investigation did not consider the use of dog squad, nor asked for a sketch of the culprit from the complainant. It did not include in the investigation, information about the security forces coming to the area from Andhra Pradesh for joint combing operation and did not consider verifying mobile telephone records to ascertain the presence of force personnel in the area. Instead, the police picked up four local boys from the same village for interrogation. The same boys were beaten up too. The police had also forcefully taken one of them for a lie detection test to an undisclosed location in Bhubaneswar.

The Human Rights Cell of the government on November 7, ruled out the possibility of gang rape due to supposed “lack of evidence” based on the medical report in their possession. After 17 days of the incident she was kept in the district Child Welfare Committee (CWC).

There was no action taken to identify the culprits from her description or the fact that the accused were in uniform. Though the Chief Minister ordered a Judicial Probe by a District Judge on November 8, 2017, almost a month after the reported incident, the constitution of the Commission took two more months and it was finally formed on January 6, 2018. The girl first attempted suicide on November 18, 2017 when she swallowed an overdose of iron tablets and was rushed to SCB Medical College hospital in Cuttack. Her mother made a complaint of forceful detention and she was finally discharged from the hospital on November 27.

In a statement released on the inordinate delays in the process, Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) members raised an important point saying, “If there has been no gang rape, there was absolutely no need for the police and administration to confine her to the hospital under heavy security.” By December end, the girl went on record again saying that there were attempts at bribing her by senior police officials to withdraw her case.

The blatant denial of gang rape by the police and administration, laxity of enquiry and deliberate delays accompanied by constant media attention worsened her situation and caused a crisis from which she could not emerge unscathed… or even alive.

The Modern Battlefields

In modern times, the nature of battles have changed. Battles are no more fought between armies in designated battlefields but on the bodies of unarmed civilians. In this changed landscape, women’s bodies become the sites of establishing power and control, especially in places where communities wage a resilient battle against state control and exploitation. Koraput is located in those areas of South Odisha which are the most mineral rich, and hence eyed by multinationals for their obvious market value. Though the lands are mineral rich the communities are deprived and do not benefit from the kind of development model that completely ignores a large section of indigenous communities and benefits only a few. And hence these areas are a site of conflict between the armed forces and naxalites, seeing heavy deployment of security personnel. History is witness that in all such sites of conflict, rape is used as a tool of war, to break the morale of communities resisting against the state.

During the Rwandan Genocide approximately half a million Tutsi women were raped by the Hutu militia in an operation of ethnic cleansing. In Serbia the Kardazic leadership ran institutional rape camps in order to cleanse the Muslim and Croat population. The war zone of South Odisha and Chhattisgarh are of course no different.

In similar incidents in Bastar, Chhattisgarh, during just 2016 many instances of mass rape and sexual assault by security personnel were reported. These included, but were not limited to, more than forty women including minors in the areas of Pedagellur in Bijapur (October 2015), Nendra in Bijapur and Kunna in Sukma (January 2016) and Gangalur (May 2016).  On January 7, 2017, the Adivasi women of Chhattisgarh stood briefly vindicated in public eyes when the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in a press release observed that it had found the allegations of sexual assault by 16 women to be true and were still in the process of recording further evidence and statements of the other victims. While the NHRC directed the State Government to grant the women compensation of Rs. 37 Lakh little has been done to identify and prosecute the perpetrators. This is hardly surprising.

The Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission had validated the claims of sexual assault against forty women in Kunan and Poshpora in Kupwara in Kashmir on the night of February 23, 1991. The women were assaulted by a group of soldiers and officers of the 4th Rajputana Rifles regiment of the Indian army. Though it directed for compensation to be paid to the victims, the perpetrators are yet to be prosecuted.

In 2012, the Justice Verma Committee, formed in the background of the Nirbhaya rape case took a note of these incidents of mass rapes and gang rapes by men in uniform had proposed the following:

 

Offences against women in border areas / conflict zones

We now address a very important, yet often neglected area concerning sexual violence against women – that of legal protections for m women in conflict areas. Our views on this subject are informed by the plight of a large number of restore confidence in the administration in such areas leading to mainstreaming.

12. To this end, we make the following recommendations for immediate implementation:

a) Sexual violence against women by members of the armed forces or uniformed personnel must be brought under the purview of ordinary criminal law;

b) Special care must also be taken to ensure the safety of women who are complainants and witnesses in cases of sexual assault by armed personnel;

c) There should be special commissioners – who are either judicially or legislatively appointed – for women’s safety and security in all areas of conflict in the country. These commissioners must be chosen from those who have experience with women’s issues, preferably in conflict areas. In addition, such commissioners must be vested with adequate powers to monitor and initiate action for redress and criminal prosecution in all cases of sexual violence against women by armed personnel;

d) Care must be taken to ensure the safety and security of women detainees in police stations, and women at army or paramilitary check points, and this should be a subject under the regular monitoring of the special commissioners mentioned earlier; women from areas in Kashmir, the North-East, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh who were heard at length in the course of preparing our report. We are indeed deeply concerned at the growing distrust of the State and its efforts to designate these regions as ‘areas of conflict’ even when civil society is available to engage and inform the lot of the poor. We are convinced that such an attitude on the part of the State only encourages the alienation of our fellow citizens.

11. At the outset, we notice that impunity for systematic or isolated sexual violence in the process of Internal Security duties is being legitimized by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which is in force in large parts of our country. It must be recognized that women in conflict areas are entitled to all the security and dignity that is afforded to citizens in any other part of our country. India has signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance 106, which has to be honoured. We therefore believe that strong measures to ensure such security and dignity willgo a long way not only to provide women in conflict areas their rightful entitlements, but also to

e) The general law relating to detention of women during specified hours of the day must be strictly followed;
f) Training and monitoring of armed personnel must be reoriented to include and emphasize strict observance by the armed personnel of all orders issued in this behalf;
g) There is an imminent need to review the continuance of AFSPA and AFSPA-like legal protocols in internal conflict areas as soon as possible. This is necessary for determining the propriety of resorting to this legislation in the area(s) concerned; and
h) Jurisdictional issues must be resolved immediately and simple procedural protocols put in place to avoid situations where police refuse or refrain from registering cases against paramilitary personnel.

Source: Justice Verma Committee Recommendations

 

In the background of these recommendations the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 introduced Section 376 with Sections recognising rape by person(s) in authority namely police officers, member(s) of armed forces, public servant, jail staff, hospital staff and others.

Despite the enactment of these provisions, the sexual assault of women in conflict zones continues with impunity. The women, showing exceptional resilience against a criminal justice system which has basically stone-walled them at every step of the ‘due-process’ have been fighting even to register FIRs. In the cases of mass rapes in Peddagellur in October 2015 investigated by academic and social scientist Bela Bhatia who had then registered FIR under Sections 376(2)(C), 395,354(B), 323,294, no arrests were made and consequently no chargesheet filed till date.

The death of the girl in Kunduli, Koraput is not simply a case of suicide. It is a case of institutional murder where a victim of rape was driven to suicide due to the apathy of the state. What could be more ironic than the fact that the girl used her own scarf to end the farce of seeking justice in a system that has inherently been unjust to many others like her?

CJP demands a thorough investigation and completion of the investigation from the Odisha government. Those responsible for delaying the process should be held accountable and punished. CJP appeals all democratic forces in the society to strengthen the struggle against any violence against women. Gender justice and equity is not negotiable!

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