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Sexual violence against women has been a feature of many riots and conflicts but a culture of impunity prevails.
It was in the August of 2008 that a Catholic nun from the Divyajyoti Pastoral Centre in the Kandhamal district of Orissa was allegedly raped and sexually assaulted by multiple perpetrators before being stripped and paraded. "She was forcibly made to walk in the market by a mob, which jeered at her, made lewd remarks such as "hi, beautiful" and commented on the size of her breasts, " states a report prepared by the National People's Tribunal on Kandhamal in 2010.
The incident occurred in the midst of communal violence and has now been forgotten like many others. Nearly five years later, the nun's only hope for justice lies in a sessions court in Cuttack where the case has been transferred.
At a time when citizens across India have been demanding better safety measures for women in the wake of the brutal gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old in Delhi, it is essential to spare a thought for women who have been targeted in the course of communal clashes or braved abuse in areas under conflict.
It is the quality of empathy that makes us strive for justice in instances like the Delhi gang rape, observes social activist Harsh Mander borrowing the rationale from development economist Amartya Sen's Idea of Justice. "But it is also worrying because there are limits to our justice, " he points out, adding that we need to make our empathy and strivings for justice more universal.
Like him, many believe gender crimes committed during communal violence deserve attention all the more because they are perpetrated in an environment of complete impunity. Justice for such forgotten survivors was the demand of a host of public meetings recently organised under the aegis of the 'Bombay ki kahani, Mumbai ki Zubani' campaign commemorating 20 years of the Hindu-Muslim riots in the financial capital. Several delegations to the Justice J S Verma committee (studying amendments to the criminal law) have also suggested that sexual violence during mass crimes be regarded as aggravated abuse attracting more severe punishment.
After all, the case of the 29-year-old Orissa nun is no aberration. Women have been raped, violated and abused throughout India's history of communal conflict be it the Sikh riots of 1984, the 1992-93 Bombay riots or the more recent Gujarat carnage (2002).
The report of the Srikrishna commission which probed the Bombay riots mentions a gruesome incident in Devipada, Kasturba marg where a Hindu mob surrounded, stripped and assaulted two Muslim women.
The younger of the two was subsequently burnt alive. "Though the miscreants were arrested and tried by the Sessions Court at Bombay...they were all acquitted on the ground that the panchnamas were defective and that the eye-witnesses were not produced, " states the commission report hinting at impunity typical to such gender crimes. In another instance, the commission says the official explanation about the police firing that killed two Muslim women, Noorjehan and Zarina, in their homes was "hardly believable".
Court judgments on the Gujarat riots document similar gender-based violence. Teesta Setalvad of NGO Sabrang cites a judgment in the Naroda Patiya trial which observed that gang rapes and rapes took place and says the judge criticised the Supreme-court appointed SIT for failing to make any attempt to investigate the perpetrators of these offences. "During periods of heightened violence, women become a specific target as a symbol of a community's honour, " observes Setalvad.
The United Nations has acknowledged the accentuated risk of sexual violence in conflict. It floated a separate agency, the UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, in 2007 to ensure that such crimes don't go unpunished.
It also underlined the need to create a knowledge hub about the scale of such sexual violence in conflict, a mandate that needs implementation in India. "One gets the feeling that while riots are written about, sexual violence is not documented, " says Hasina Khan of the Forum Against Oppression of Women recounting how there was no paperwork to explain what happened to a teenaged girl who went missing from Pratiksha Nagar during the Bombay riots.
Saumya Uma, trustee of the Women's Research Action Group, echoes her concerns. She is part of a group which is trying to track down and record the experience of women during the anti-Christian Orissa rampage. "We found from various sources that almost 39 women had faced some form of sexual violence, but only two to three cases were registered. What happened to the others?" questions Uma. She added that even the people's tribunal had observed a large scale invisibility and silence regarding "documenting, reporting, investigating, charging and prosecuting cases" of sexual violence.
Justice for riot survivors is an arduous task because of the state's complicity and shoddy investigations. "Many of us assume it is the failure of justice, but it is the systematic subversion of justice. It is systematically ensured that FIRs don't mention the name of the accused but say anonymous mob, " points out Mander.
Vrinda Grover, a Delhi-based lawyer, says conflict areas are equally problematic. "While there may be silence and erasure in mass violence, we are dealing with actual denial of sexual violence happening in the state of Kashmir and northeast, " she notes. "Many NGOs talk of patriarchy in homes. But no one talks of patriarchy of the state, " she says.
A case in point is the tribal teacher Soni Sori in Chhattisgarh who was arrested on charges of playing courier between Maoist groups and a corporate. Sori has written heart-wrenching accounts of sexual abuse at the hands of police officials. "On the night of Saturday, 8.10.2011 in the new police station in Dantewada...I was tortured... After repeatedly giving me electric shocks, my clothes were taken off. I was made to stand naked.... three boys started molesting me and I fell after they pushed me. Then they put things inside my body in a brutal manner. I couldn't bear the pain, I was almost unconscious, " she wrote in an open letter to the Supreme Court.
What is now needed is a host of measures to crack this visage of impunity. This is essential as riots aren't unfortunately a thing of past. The year 2012 was marked with communal clashes in Assam, pockets of Uttar Pradesh, Pachora in Maharashtra and Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh.
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