Women’s protests against sexual violence continue as institutions bend to power In the past 15 months, women have risen in significant numbers to protest against sexual violence and harassment they have experienced, whether in Manipur, among women wrestlers, students of BHU, or in Sandeshkhali.

09, Mar 2024 | CJP Team

Often, these headlines made news. Yet redressal was rare.

Here’s a look this International Women’s Day:

The year 2023 was marked by visible and substantial protests against sexual violence that were sustained by an active social media and citizenry, with legacy, traditional media also then offering coverage. The absence of sustained “follow-up” or demands for institutional accountability however regrettably meant that real justice was not served. Women continued to protest, however.

In 1997, the Indian Supreme Court introduced the Vishaka guidelines. This provision did not come without the violence inflicted by women of the most marginalised castes. This pivotal movement traces its roots to the resistance of Bhanwari Devi, a Dalit woman employed by Rajasthan government’s Women’s Development Programme. In 2018, Citizens for Justice and Peace did this pivotal interview with her, Bhanwari Devi the pioneer of the women’s movement against sexual harassment at the workplace.

Women in India today continue to struggle for dignity, safety and an end to sexual violence, as one can see in the case of stories that have come up from Sandeshkhali, West Bengal or the unresolved complaints of India’s women wrestlers! July 2023 was marred by the horrific video of women in Manipur being subject to targeted rape and violence (while the video surfaced on July 19, 2023 compelling the Supreme Court to take suo moto cognisance, the incident from way back in May 2023 had not seen robust with the police authorities failing the investigation. Marginalised women continue to bear the brunt of violence, as they face violence on multiple fronts, on the basis of their identity as women, on the basis of their class, and their other intersecting identity such as caste or religion which may make them more susceptible to violence. 

For instance, in Dalit women in India face the triple burden of caste, class and gender. The ghastly case of Hathras in western UP from July 2020, where a young Dalit woman suffered brutal gang-rape and was assaulted to death in field by men from privileged castes. The victim was denied a dignified burial as the police performed the last rites even, as per reports, she was cremated forcibly by the police without any consent of her family. The final blow was dealt when on March 2, 2023, the Sessions Court on March 2, 2023, only partially held one accused guilty, delivering a cruel blow to the quest for substantive justice. Statistics suggest that at a daily level 10 Dalit women are raped everyday in India. Caste rules Indian society and its democratic institutions and hence, justice remains elusive. While all women face discrimination and marginalisation in general, as illustrated in the Sandeshkhali incident below, Dalit women and women of other minorities more so. They have to go to great lengths to even get a registration of an FIR by the police for a crime committed against them. 

A recent case which saw widespread protests across villages in West Bengal’s Sandeshkhali by local women against violence and sexual harassment that had continued against them for decades. The women of Sandeshkhali rose against decades of oppression and horrifying torture by the local leader of West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress, and Sheikh Shahjahan and his associates. 

While, as this incisive article in The Hindu shows, Mallick ran his fiefdom over North 24 Parganas district, he ‘sublet’ the two blocks of Sandeshkhali to his deputy Sheikh, who, in turn, ‘sublet’ Sandeshkhali Block-II to Shibu Hazra. Hazra ‘sublet’ Sandeshkhali Gram Panchayat to Uttam Sardar. A clear chain of profit and power was drawn, which constitutes the lifeblood of the TMC.

Local women rallied for the arrest of the TMC leader, they even set ablaze a hut adjacent to a fish farm purportedly owned by the leader’s brother and also confronted and physically confronted another member of the ruling party – knowing there was no other way that their demands would be heard. Several reports suggest that Shahjahan’s harassment knew no bounds. Even as the protests were breaking on, he and his henchmen continued to instil fear in the minds of the women. Predictably, the ruling TMC, with a poor track record in several cases of sexual harassment, attempted to distance itself from Sheikh, Hazra and Sardar. While equally cynically and predictably, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that was notably silent in the case of the ghastly gang rapes in Manipur, the abdication of justice in Hathras or the brazen sexual harassment in Benaras Hindu University (BHU) remains on an overdrive to paint the episode as “exploitation of Hindu women by Muslim goons. Even the relatively independent non-legacy or non-corporate media have let Hazra and Sardar’s name slip through the cracks even though they are likely to be collaborators in brute sexual crimes. Shahjahan Shaikh was arrested after absconding for 55 days d as the protests raged on, however. 

2023 was besmirched by the worst kind of gendered crimes. The gang rapes in Manipur from May 2023 that surfaced only in July 19. After the video surfaced causing countrywide outrage and protests, a massive sit-in protest unfolded in Manipur, India, as thousands of tribal Christian women voiced their demands for the arrest of members of the mob that was seen in the video showing disturbing mob attacks on two Kuki-Zo women. The women’s wing of the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF) organised the protest that drew an estimated 15,000 people in Manipur’s Churachandpur. 

The ethnic conflict in Manipur has been going on since May 2, 2023. It has resulted in 200 dead and over 60, 000 people displaced. Manipur, amidst the violence and upheaval, saw scores of women protesting against sexual violence as instances of sexual crimes against women in the state continued at the conflict refused to stop. 

Amidst the continuing conflict, October 2023 witnessed another brave act of resistance by women as they led a sit-in protest in Manipur and condemned the “unprovoked firing” directed at Kuki women. The two women had reportedly been on night duty when two miscreants came by and fired at the women. Chanting powerful slogans such as ‘No more bullets’ and ‘We are your mothers, show respect’, the protesting women led a peaceful protest demanding action against culprits as well as the redressal to the demands of the Kuki-Zo community. Leaders of women’s organisations spearheading the demonstration called for the removal of Biren Singh, the state’s chief minister. 

Similarly, women in Manipur took to protest on January 18, 2024 and organised a torch rally and marched towards the residence of Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh after violence gripped the region again in Moreh, a border town situated on the India–Myanmar border in Tengnoupal district, where two security personnel from the Kuki-Zo community lost their lives at the bullets of armed militants. The protests were led by a group named Meira Paibi, who are recognised as ‘women torchbearers’, raised slogans as they advanced towards the Chief Minister’s Secretariat where they were soon stopped by the police. On February 20, again women protestors protested against the government. They were met with police brutality and sheer repression. Security forces had even fired tear gas shells at them. A day after the protests and the brutal violence meted out, Manipur lawyers took out a protest against the violence. 

Women continue to rise up amidst times of great unrest and resist structures of power that are harmful to not just them but all of society. 

Similarly, we see the case of a brutal rape in Banaras where university students rallied against the administration and demanded security and action against the accused in November 2023. The incident took place when a young student from IIT-BHU casually taking a walk with a friend was gang raped brutally at gunpoint after which a video of the brutal and horrifying incident went viral online. 

This led to widespread protests which drew nationwide shock and attention at the incident. As per widespread reports, the culprits spread from the area soon after the incident and reached Madhya Pradesh, because students started protesting immediately. 

The alleged perpetrators of the gang rape were reported to be members of the BJP IT Cell, although the BJP has denied links with the people and opposition parties continued to assert that the BJP was shielding the accused even as old social media posts featuring the accused alongside PM Modi, Minister Smriti Irani, and BJP president JP Nadda got widespread attention. One of them, Saksham Pandey, is also, as per reports, the son of a BJP Councillor. The culprits were arrested 60 days after the protests erupted. Maya John, a faculty in gender studies, has talked about the ‘institutional apathy’ against victims, which also helps cultures that are sexist grow, that is consequently challenged by collective mass mobilisation. She asserts that, “you have to fight, because if you don’t fight, you don’t get anything. If you stand up, you keep the collective mobilisation going, you’d be able to challenge the apathy and change the general ambience that people in the administration work with, i.e., the yeh toh chalta hai approach. So, as long as you fight back and you keep that going, and you connect and build the next phase of the movement in a strategic way, you do push for accountability. Whoever’s in powerful offices feels the pressure.

A ’yeh toh chalta hai’ attitude seems to be a defining feature of the attitude of many people towards harassment against women. As seen in the case below, while a woman’s marginalised locations may make her even more and especially vulnerable to violence, a women’s accolades and even the prestigious task of having brought repute to the country does not prevent her from being denied redressal as we see in the wrestlers’ protests from last year. 

It was in January 18 2023, when the wrestlers first, including Olympians Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik, held a sit-in protest as they baldly alleged that the president of Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) Brij Bhushan had been committing sexual harassment against the female wrestlers for years. The protest was called off after the government promised to investigate the allegations. However the wrestlers had sat down later at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar again on April 23 2023 to reassert their demands against Bhushan, a BJP MP and is reported to have the party’s backing privately. As the wrestlers started their protests again and cited the continued lack of action from authorities in April 2023 after the investigation committee reportedly gave a clean chit to the accused. The committee, which was headed by Mary Kom, seemed to disregard the allegations by the wrestlers, one of whom was a minor as well, and painted him as a ‘father figure’, who conducted his actions in ‘innocence’ and were ‘misconstrued’ by the wrestlers. The committee also seemed to put the burden of proof on the victims and demanded they furnish video and audio proof of the incidents, according to a report by Sabrang India. 

The protests continued and finally the Delhi Police registered a case against him under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act on April 29, 2023 and other related statutes, accusing him of sexual harassment against numerous female wrestlers, including minors. The FIR did not come easy, it was only after the protesting wrestler’s lawyers approached the Supreme Court that they were finally able to file an FIR in April 2023. However, after the case was filed against him, brazenly Brij Bhushan alleged that the POCSO Act was misused against him. He further stated that he was going to pressurise the government into revising the Act. 

On May 3, 2023, the wrestlers, continuing their peaceful protest, were violently disrupted by the police at midnight as they sought to march in protest to the parliament. They were manhandled, dragged, and pushed by the police officers; tents the protestors had set up were removed as well. The Delhi police even registered an FIR against the protestors under sections 147, 149, 186, 188, 323, 353 of the PDP Act. Several of the protestors received head injuries at this point. There were also reports of drunk police officials manhandling the wrestlers. Later, the protestors, including Vinita Phogat, Bajrang Punia, were also booked for rioting and obstruction. 

Through this protest, the wrestlers also approached the government (please be specific-courts, government, police are all authorities!) to address their complaints. They even had a meeting with the Home Minister, Amit Shah, at his residence on June 7, 2023 but nothing reportedly transpired. Following which, they held a meeting with another union minister, Anurag Thakur, but that too brought no hope to the horizon. One of the wrestlers, Sakshi Malik, stated during these negotiations, that they will not agree to anything that the government offers and asserted that their objective for the protests was that quick action was taken against Brij Bhushan, and until then their protests would continue.  

Following the second round of discussions between the government and the protesting wrestlers, it was reported that the government was open to accept the majority of their demands. However, one demand continued to be a bone of contention that the government did not seem keen to accept: it was the arrest and punitive measures against Brij Bhushan. This appears clearly an attempt to protect men in power within institutions of power. In fact, multiple media reports clearly suggest that the government was aware of serious allegations of sexual harassment against Bhushan for over two years, since 2021. The wrestlers stated that they had reportedly met and informed PM Modi of the case in 2021 and he had reportedly assured them that their serious concerns would be addressed. 

In an anti-climax, December 2023 saw Sanjay Singh was elected as the Wrestling Federation of India’s next president on Thursday. Singh was known as a trusted associate of Brij Bhushan won the votes in the postponed elections which many said meant that Bhushan would have undue and indirect influence on the WFI. 

As a symbol of protest at the news, Sakshi Malik declared her retirement from wrestling, Bajrang Punia went on to return his Padma Shri and Vinesh Phogat, the third prominent wrestler involved in protests now announced her decision to give back both the Khel Ratna and Arjuna Award. Although Singh’s presidency and the governing body was suspended by the centre after his election, Brij Bhushan continues to be out on bail after he was granted bail by a Delhi Court even as the case against him continues. The severity of his crimes continues to be reportedly high. 

In September, 2023 the Delhi police in the court also stated that he ‘harassed the wrestlers’ at ‘every opportunity’ that he got. However, the wrestlers had filed a petition in the High Court urging the court to declare the elections held for the WFI governing body as null and illegal. Despite the accusations of being ‘anti-national’, the brutal and recurrent clampdowns by the police of the protest, intimidation tactics of the powerful who seem to be shielding the perpetrators, the wrestlers continue to stand strong and fight by legal means. 

Long road to freedom

Today, the movement which was wrought by Bhanwari Devi’s struggle for justice brought forth an institute that is implemented nationwide to adopt measures preventing and addressing sexual harassment at workplaces. In 1992, after trying to put off a child marriage of a nine-month-old in Rajasthan, she faced a brutal attack by the higher caste panchayat members. Bhanwari Devi’s fight for justice sparked a nationwide women’s movement, eventually leading to the formulation of guidelines. Today, her story stands as a symbol of resilience against gender-based violence and also exposes the bitter and horrifying role caste hierarchy plays in subjugating lower caste women in the country. 


From deathly silence to violence: The journey of wrestlers struggling for justice

Attempt to Drown out Wrestlers’ Protest with Song and Dance About ‘Temple of Democracy’

Battling the Indian sports industry: the cries for justice by women

Farmers announce nationwide agitation in support of #WomenChampionWrestlers

WFI leadership accused of sexual harassment by Indian women wrestlers, absence of redressal mechanisms the focus

National women’s organisation sends joint letter to the NCW condemning their inaction over sexual violence complaint



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