Three years ago, a young woman was brutally gang raped and murdered on a Delhi bus. The incident sparked unprecedented outrage – it brought thousands onto the streets, it ‘shocked the collective conscience of the nation’ and even led to an amendment of existing rape laws. It marked an important moment in India’s history, making for a shift in the discourse that surrounds sexual violence. Despite the rabid calls for capital punishment, the multitude of voices that were heard then, allowed for an expanded dialogue on rape – issues of rape within marriage and family, the need to repeal laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and include a special subsection on rapes committed by security forces, and the move away from seeing rape as the fault of the victim – informed and changed the nature of public discourse on sexual violence.
But while laws can be amended within the year, and courts fast-tracked, the everyday lives of most women continue to be informed by violence. Particularly those women who are economically and socially marginalized. As Kalpana Sharma reminds us, it should not take an anniversary or 16 days of activism to be reminded of something that happens everyday.
Despite an expanded dialogue on rape, extreme outrage seems to be directed at those acts of violence that are inflicted upon urban, middle class women, continuing to make rape seem like something of a random act of violence invariably inflicted by socially deviant men belonging to the more oppressed classes. But one wonders, where that outrage and anger is when an adivasi school warden has stones inserted into her private parts under the direction of the police SP, or when a 15 year old girl is gang raped and murdered by security forces in the north of Chhattisgarh. This is not to say that the Delhi gang rape is in anyway less important. On the contrary, it is to point to the heart of sexual violence: that it is woven into the very grammar of the most familiar of institutions.
Within the family, women and children are raped everyday – by uncles, brothers, fathers. The State uses it in a variety of instances to quell dissent. It is used repeatedly against sexual and religious minorities as a tool to assert power. And ever so often, it is used to assert the authority of that most cruel institution – caste. In all of these instances of this very particular form of violence that is sexual, there is one thing that is shared in common: impunity. An impunity that allows for a very crude form of political evil to exist, and as V.Geetha asserts, it is this impunity that serves to maintain inequalities of caste, class and gender.
On 16th December, 2013, exactly a year after the Delhi incident, some media watch groups circulated a list of 180 rapes of Dalit women that had been reported during the year. These cases had all been reported in mainstream English newspapers, but not one of them had captured public attention or generated the rage they deserved. In Haryana alone, 19 cases of sexual violence against Dalit women were reported in just 30 days. WSS investigated these cases and exposed the ways in which institutionalised caste hierarchies work to deny any hope of justice to these women.
The Bhagana case serves to reveal the caste dynamics of sexual violence. Since May 2012, Dalits in Hisar district, Haryana, had been resisting the taking over of common lands by the Jats. They were camped outside the Hisar Sectretariat for two years in protest, but to no avail. Instead, in March 2014, four girls from the community were raped by Jat boys in retaliation to the protests being staged.
When this assertion of power by dominant groups takes on this very particular form of violence, the bodies of women and people of varied genders become the sites on which these cruel acts are played out. Whether it is the numerous dalit women who are raped by upper caste men – from Khairlanji to Bhagana, or the many adivasi women who have been raped by members of the security forces under the guise of anti-naxal operations, the Muslim women in Gujarat and Muzaffarnagar who were raped by Hindu mobs or the trans-women across the country who are repeatedly sexually assaulted by the police – time and again we witness sexual violence being meted out in the name of the religious dominance, the assertion of caste status and the preservation of ‘national security.’
A year before the Delhi incident, the then Bastar Superintendent of Police, Ankit Garg, sat outside a room in which Soni Sori was being held and tortured and told lower officials under his charge to do what they pleased with her. He is reported to have egged them on when they hesitated, questioning their masculinity, asking them if they were not man enough. What does this say of sexual violence as used by the State? Is it just that Ankit Garg is one evil individual in an otherwise clean institution? If this was indeed the case, then how come SP Garg later got a Presidential Gallantry Award, even after the custodial torture of Soni Sori was made public? In 2011, a young girl, Meena Khalko, who was out to graze sheep was gang raped by policemen and murdered. They called it a naxal encounter. Four years later, a reluctant state has admitted the truth, stating that there was no encounter, and that Meena was in fact raped and murdered. No action has been taken on any of the 23 identified officers. Not so far from Chhattisgarh, in Betul District of Madhya Pradesh, Janaki Bai, a 50 year old dalit woman was raped by four policeman in a thana. Janaki Bai had been charged under a complaint of dowry harassment by her daughter in law. While raping her, the policemen said “What is happening is right. If you had given the money, this would not have happened”. Another case of four deviant policeman?
And what of Manorama, how can we forget her? In July 2004, Manorama, a young woman from Manipur was dragged out of her home by security forces. They first raped and then murdered her. They then fired shots around her private parts, using bullet wounds to cover evidence that would reveal rape. The brutal crime did in fact bring many out on to the streets, but in Manipur, there is a law that serves to protect the perpetrators rather than grant justice to the victim – the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. An investigation took place, and was wrapped up within five months of the incident, but it took over a decade for the report to be made public. Eleven years on, what court could be fast-tracked enough?
More recently, in September this year, a young naxal woman, Shruthi, 23 years old and a trained engineer, was killed in an alleged encounter. Her elbow was twisted and her arm torn off. Before she was shot by the police – at point blank range – acid was poured on her stomach and she was raped. Can sexual violence be justified by the fact that she was a member of a banned political outfit? Or like Janaki bai, do the police and security forces believe it is what she rightly deserved?
Even more recently, between the 19th and 24th of October, 2015, security forces entered 5 villages in the Basaguda thana area of Bijapur District. They were on a routine combing operation we are told. They looted and plundered, molested and raped. A 14 year old girl was gang raped by the men in uniform. After three, she lost consciousness, so we don’t know how many men in uniform took part in the rape. In another instance, a four month pregnant woman was repeatedly dunked in a stream and gang raped. A breast feeding mother’s breasts were milked to prove that the child she held was in fact hers. Are these acts, too, part of the ethos of a routine operation? The women from these villages made their way to register their complaints and fought to have their voices heard. They braved the callousness of bureaucracy and gave testimony after testimony. The amended rape laws allowed for an FIR to be registered against security forces. But the impunity we spoke of earlier, allowed the SP – who listened to the womens testimonies and saw the scars on their bodies – to say that the allegations were false. The infamous Inspector General of Police, S.R. Kalluri went a step further and said it was only being done to demoralize the forces. Can one even expect a fair police inquiry into the matter in such a situation, leave alone expect a fast-tracked court? Are we to believe that the men who committed these crimes are another few evil misbehaving individuals, or is it that the infliction of sexual violence goes hand in hand with the maintaining of law and order and the preservation of national security?
How many times must we witness the guardians of the State and dominant caste and religious groups inflict sexual violence upon women for the authorities to admit that these are not isolated events carried out by a handful of deviant individuals? How long will it take before the age old pattern will be seen for what it is?
If sexual violence is institutionalized in the way that it is, what should we be protesting? At what and whom should our rage be directed? The demand for capital punishment will certainly not change the fate of so many women who are being raped in custody, by security forces, by fathers, brothers and gurus. As Guneet Kaur reminded us in the open letter she wrote to Shehnaz Treasurywala, a woman who has been raped or molested has nothing to be ashamed of by virtue of the ordeal she has undergone. But perhaps, as citizens, as privileged citizens, we should be ashamed – and enraged – that people like Ankit Garg are given gallantry awards, that the SP and ASP of Bijapur dismiss allegations of rape and brand it as slander while the investigation is still underway, that the police stood by in silence when pregnant Bilkees Bano was gang-raped by Hindu mobs under the watch and direction of a man who is now the prime minister of our country. Where must we put our shame and rage? What must we protest? Must we not ask questions of the State and its military apparatus that continues to assault and rape in the name of protecting the idea of the nation? Must we not demand action against the upper castes who rape to preserve their status and wield their power?
As we remember Nirbhaya, let us also remember Meena Khalko, Nilofer and Asiya, Arti Majhi, Soni Sori, Bilkees Bano, the many women in Haryana and the brave women in Bijapur who fought to be heard. Let us raise our voices against sexual violence that is meted out day after day to hundreds of women – in homes, in thanas, in camps, and by khaps. And say NO! NO to sexual violence against women! Nowhere, Never, Not under any pretext!
Let us demand for the custodians of caste and the state to be held accountable. Let us fight against rampant militarization, the spread of communal forces, the repeated assertion of caste authority and the demonising of religious and sexual minorities. For all of these forces and institutions have everything to do with sexual violence. It is in the very fabric of these institutions that enjoy impunity that this most particular and cruel form of violence is woven. Let us speak out against them.