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Caught In The Crosshairs: Tales Of Sexual Violence Women Face In Conflict Zones

Across states where insurgencies are rife, women are among the worst victims during security operations as justice elude the victims and errant security personnel are protected by the political machinery to save the government from embarrassment.

Shadow of the gun A Kashmiri woman walks past soldiers in Baramulla district.
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On July 6, 2011, a 16-year-old girl was killed, according to the official version, in police firing in Chhattisgarh’s Karcha village, then a part of Surguja district. Her family alleged that she was raped and murdered by police personnel. Over a decade later, in April this year, a Raipur court acquitted two policemen—while another accused died during the trial—despite noting that there was “ample suspicion of the commission of the offence”, but “improper investigation” had resulted in poor evidence.

While the police had then claimed that she was a Maoist cadre, villagers had refuted the charge. A judicial commission set up to probe the case had submitted its report in 2015 stating that she was not a Maoist. The three policemen—Nikodin Khes, Dharmdutt Dhaniya and Jivan Lal Ratnakar—were charged with murder. Khes died during the trial.

The April ruling drew the curtains on a case that saw a vicious campaign of victim shaming by the then state government and the police. Her post-mortem report recorded that she had “dilated vagina” and was “habitual about sex”, making it a rare autopsy that commented on the alleged sexual behaviour of the deceased. Then state home minister Nanki Ram Kanwar went on to the extent of saying that she had “relations with truck drivers”. Kanwar added, “Her post-mortem report also said she was habitual about it. What was she doing there at midnight?” The accusations had left her poor parents devastated. Belonging to the Oran tribe, among the poorest communities in Chhattisgarh, she lived in a forested village that had no electricity, and was several hours away from the road. “They first raped my daughter, then killed her and now call her charkati (slut). It hurts the most,” her father had said.

The killing of the Adivasi girl is a searing tale of sexual violence women face in conflict zones—from Chhattisgarh to the Northeast to Kashmir—where justice elude the victims and errant security personnel protected by the political machinery to save the government from embarrassment. Even government agencies are seen locked in unsavoury confrontations with each other.

In March, 2011, three Adivasi women were allegedly raped and several houses burnt down by security forces in villages of Sukma district of south Chhattisgarh. In July, the Supreme Court asked the CBI to investigate the cases within six weeks. The agency visited the spot in early 2012 but its officials were attacked by personnel of Chhattisgarh Police. A CBI affidavit in the SC noted that “the SPOs (special police officers) heavily armed with automatic weapons, hand grenades etc., rushed towards the CBI team. Seeing the mood of agitating SPOs, police officers advised the CBI team to go inside the rooms.” The CBI affidavit said that the “SPOs surrounded the room and started banging the doors, even tried to break open the doors”, as the “CBI team was made captive/wrongfully confined for around 3-4 hours and was rescued by the CRPF”.

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Red zone! A tribal woman watches as security personnel search her house in the Maoist hotbed of Dantewada in Chhattisgarh. Photograph: Tribhuvan Tiwari

In June last year, the family of an Adivasi girl in Bijapur district of Bastar alleged that unidentified state police personnel raped and killed their daughter. The allegation came after the police killed a woman, claiming her to be a Maoist. But the family said that she was dragged out of her home by the police personnel, taken to a forest where they took turns to rape her and then kill her. But the police dismissed the claim, with Bastar Inspector General of police, P Sundarraj, saying that “after an encounter, Maoists forced the family to say that their relative was innocent and was killed in a fake encounter”.

In India’s conflict zones, the words of Margot Wallström, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, ring true: “While bullets, bombs and blades make the headlines, women’s bodies remain invisible battlefields.” Until someone decides to tell their story. In big, bold letters.

In conflict zones, the words of UN official Margot Wallström ring true: “While bullets, bombs and blades make the headlines, women’s bodies remain invisible battlefields.”

In July 2004, a naked protest in Manipur by 12 Meira Paibi—women torch-bearers or mother’s front—against the alleged rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama Devi by Assam Rifles became the poster image of sexual violence in Northeast India. She was arrested on suspicion of her involvement with the People’s Liberation Army, a separatist organisation. The next morning, her body marked by bullet wounds and mutilated genitals was found in an open field, bearing evidence of torture and rape.

The Assam Rifles claimed that she was shot dead while trying to escape. The Manipur government ordered a commission of enquiry, but a month later,  the Assam Rifles filed a writ petition in the Gauhati high court, saying that the Manipur government had no authority to appoint a commission to examine the conduct of armed forces because they had an exemption under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, a controversial law operational only in some parts of the region and Kashmir.

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Anger in Northeast Women protesting against sexual violence, in Assam Photograph: Getty Images

While Manorama Devi’s killing sparked a movement against the AFSPA, an Amnesty International report in 1990s recorded many instances of security forces assaulting women physically and sexually. A report on ‘Torture and Extrajudicial Executions in Manipur’ was published three years after ‘Operation Bluebird’ was launched by the Assam Rifles in Senapati district, home to the Poumai Nagas. It was a combing operation against insurgents of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) after it attacked a camp of the Assam Rifles in July 1987, killed nine security personnel and looted a huge cache of arms and ammunition. The Assam Rifles conducted the counter-insurgency operation in 30 villages for almost three months. However, even after 35 years, the operation is remembered as a case study of human rights violation by security forces. “(Many) women say they were sexually abused. At least three women say they were raped. Those particularly vulnerable to abuses were women whom the security forces said had relatives in the NSCN,” stated the report.

The fact that the three women were either family members of the insurgents or thought to be related to the insurgents shows how women are targeted by militarised violence to teach a lesson to a section of the population deemed as enemies of the State. In 2017, the Supreme Court, while ordering the constitution of a Special Investigation Team to probe into the three cases, one of which involved the alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl, had asked: “Do you have rapists in uniform?”

It is, then, not surprising that women are at the forefront of the protest against AFSPA in Northeast India, including the 16-year-long hunger strike by Irom Sharmila.

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Violence against women takes several forms in a conflict zone, much of which often go unreported. Domestic abuse, for instance. Kashmir often makes headlines for killings by security forces and militant attacks, but the zone also sees an inordinately large number of domestic abuse cases. Last month, a 20-year-old married woman ended her life by consuming poison in North Kashmir’s Baramulla district. In a similar incident, a woman was found hanging at her house in Nowshera area of Rajouri district last month. The police arrested her husband on charges of abetment to suicide.

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Anger in Northeast Women protesting against sexual violence, in Manipur

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“In a situation, where conflict dominates every discourse in Kashmir and rightly so, where encounters take place every day, where arrests are made every day, domestic abuse is seen as a small issue, which it is not,” says Mir Urfi, a lawyer known for fighting cases of people booked under the Unlawful Activities Act (UAPA) and the preventive detention law, Public Safety Act (PSA). While many such cases come up before the family courts and the police, many women end their lives due to intense emotional and psychological trauma. “We live in a traumatic society where everyone has some terrible story to tell. In such a situation domestic abuse adds to the trauma. There are no institutional mechanisms to redress the issue,” she says.

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Data released by the National Crime Record Bureau show that in 2020, Jammu and Kashmir saw 243 rape cases, 149 murder cases, nine cases of dowry deaths, 349 cases of cruelty against women by their husbands or relatives, 1,639 cases of assault on women and 1,744 cases of assault on women with the intention to outrage their modesty. In several cases, women were murdered by immediate family members.

Earlier, aggrieved women would file cases before the state women’s commission that was created in April 1999 to investigate matters relating to safeguards provided for women under the Constitution and other laws. The commission, which received 1,600-1,700 cases of domestic violence every year, in its 2016 report had revealed that “40 per cent of women in Kashmir were physically abused by husbands”.

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On August 5, 2019, the BJP government removed Article 370 of the Constitution and divided Jammu and Kashmir into two Union territories, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. Overnight, the women’s commission, along with six other commissions, including those dealing with human rights, right to information (RTI) and rights of the disabled, were disbanded. “Domestic violence like the rest of the world is rampant in Kashmir as well. Most cases go unreported and the ones that are reported also barely see light at the end of the tunnel. What makes it more complicated is the complete lack of state-based support for victims of domestic abuse,” says Shehryar Khanum, trustee and co-founder of Women’s Cell Kashmir, an NGO that works for victims of domestic violence.

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Khanum underlines that Kashmir is a “rare place where there are no shelter homes for victims of domestic violence”. “While small NGOs and support groups reach out to such women - there is no institutional support and the society is also still largely averse to addressing this rising issue,” Khanum says. 

(This appeared in the print edition as "Caught in the Crosshairs")

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