It has been one year since the arrest of 36-year old Soni Sori, an adivasi school warden from Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, and her custodial torture at the behest of the then SP of Dantewada, Ankit Garg. Soni Sori’s right to life and dignity have been violated by various jail and police authorities several times over – from foisting false cases against her, sexually torturing and humiliating her in the police station, denying her medical attention, and most recently, humiliating her by publicly stripping her in prison in the name of conducting physical search.
We approached the National Commission for Women on several occasions to take steps against Soni Sori’s custodial torture and continuing ill treatment. Every single instance of illegality by police and jail authorities was brought to the attention of the National Commission for Women (NCW). Soni Sori herself wrote to the NCW seeking their help. But all this has fallen on deaf ears.
It needs to be recalled that the National Commission for Women was set up only after the women’s movement in this country campaigned strongly for an autonomous, empowered body to deal with the violations of women’s rights. This apex body was created by the National Commission of Women Act, 1990, and is vested with the powers of a civil court and with a mandate to “investigate and examine all matters relating to the safeguards provided for women under the Constitution and other laws” and to “take suo motu notice of matters relating to deprivation of women’s rights.”
The NCW has repeatedly failed in this sworn duty – to protect those in whose name it was created. While there is a pressing need for such a body – now more than ever before – it is most distressing that successive National Commissions for Women have become inert, ineffective and incompetent bodies. The Members and Chairpersons are chosen not by virtue of their involvement in and championship of women’s rights and struggles, but by their participation in and patronage by the ruling political parties.
Today we have a chairperson of the NCW who advises victims of sexual assault to “dress carefully” to avoid such violence, and also calls upon women to not get offended at use of the phrase “sexy”, but to accept them graciously! NCW has frequently denied reports of sexual violence by security forces in several parts of the country, instead of seeking to investigate and end impunity granted in such crimes. It’s apathy has been criminal – it refused to get involved in the Shopian case where Nilofer and Aasiya Jan were sexually assaulted and killed; it remained a mute spectator when the Chhattisgarh police whisked away Sodi Shambho, the crucial witness to Gompad massacre, from right under its nose in New Delhi to some place where she still remains untraced three years later; it is still to take any action on a 15-month old petition asking the NCW to investigate the human rights violation of Irom Sharmila, who is being illegally detained by the Government.
The NCW looked the other way as women protesting the Koodankulam nuclear plant were harassed by police, as also when a Dalit mother and daughter in Khairlanji were stripped naked, dragged from their hut and hacked to death by the dominant castes of their village. Indeed, NCW has been spectacularly unsuccessful in addressing any and all situations where the rights of women have been violated – from the Khap Panchayats in Haryana to the sexual assault cases in Guwahati and the so-called “moral policing” in Mangalore, to the destitute widows in Vrindavan. The skewed priorities of the current Commission are evident from the NCW’s website itself, which proudly displays the “news” clipping of its latest achievement — the attendance of its chairperson, Ms. Mamta Sharma, at the release of an album of devotional songs for Lord Ganesha!
National Commission for Women’s inaction in the case of Soni Sori is particularly striking. Even though it is empowered to conduct independent fact-findings, to visit jails and remand homes, to submit their reports in court, to summon witnesses and examine them, and to hold public hearings, the NCW did not utilize any of these extensive powers to look into the serious complaints of Soni Sori and others like her, imprisoned and tortured. It made no attempt to contact her even when she was hospitalized in Delhi for over a month, or help women’s groups trying to reach her in jail.
Such conduct of the Commission over the years has obscured the systemic injustices inflicted on women, trivialized the violations, and reduced the dignity of the institution, all indicating an institutional collapse of this nodal body. We refuse to let the NCW explain away its inactivity by hiding behind the facade of matters being sub-judice. We cannot remain silent any more when a Commission that was brought into existence to tackle atrocities, violence and discrimination against women forgets its duty and responsibility. We demand accountability. We demand action.
• Immediate resignation of present Chairperson and other Members Re-constitution of the Commission in an open and transparent manner.
• Immediate enquiry into the custodial torture of Soni Sori
• Initiate investigations into conditions of women prisoners in Chhattisgarh
• Performance audit of the NCW by an independent panel
All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA), All India Students Association (AISA), Delhi Forum, Delhi Solidarity Group, National Alliance of People’s Movement, People’s Democratic Front of India (PDFI), People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), Right to Water Campaign, SAHELI, Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS)
On behalf of JUSTICE FOR SONI SORI CAMPAIGN
10th October 2012