Reports of the mass molestation in Bengaluru had understandably triggered outrage amongst a vast section of the social-media consuming urban populace, but move into the hinterland of this country, and the horrific accounts of sexual violence against women get scant attention. It’s no surprise that a recent National Human Rights Commission report alleging that 16 women, nearly all of them tribal, were subjected to rape, sexual, and physical assault by security forces in Chhattisgarh in October 2015, did not garner much outrage on social media. In its report released on Saturday, the NHRC said there was prima facie evidence to prove these crimes. The panel, however, is still awaiting statements from around 20 victims. The case will come up for hearing before a Chhattisgarh High Court today, according to certain news outlets. Based on statements and FIRs filed in connection with the cases, the commission asserted that security forces, including the state police personnel, had “grossly violated” the human rights of the alleged victims, and the government was “vicariously liable” for their actions. In an apparent breakdown of the rule of law, the commission’s report stated that even though nearly all the complainants are from tribal communities, the police did not see it fit to invoke the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against the errant personnel. Among its recommendations, the Commission has directed the State government to invoke the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act wherever applicable, ensure financial aid and provide the required legal protection to all the women, as per law. Information regarding these alleged heinous crimes was made public in November 2015, when a series of reports across leading Indian news publications detailed accounts of how more than 40 women from 5 villages alleged that Chhattisgarh Police personnel sexually harassed and assaulted them and gang-raped at least two in the Maoist-hit district of Bijapur. First-hand accounts of conflict-ridden areas in this country are often replete with stories detailing the complete breakdown of the rule of law. Incidents of sexual violence against women are not uncommon, going by the testimonies of the people from Jammu and Kashmir, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and the Northeast. The NHRC directive is only a small step on the long road to justice for these women. “Many women have not yet been able to file complaints and are under pressure to remain silent. Where FIRs have been lodged, investigations are delayed and hampered by the authorities. Efforts to provide legal and social support to women survivors have been met with extreme hostility,” says Kavita Krishnan, a leading women’s rights activist. This is the case across regions where Indian security forces are often involved in operations against armed insurgencies of various kinds, foreign and domestic. These victims are caught in the cross-fire between belligerent security personnel and ruthless insurgent groups, allied with an inept state administration unable to maintain even a semblance of democratic functioning.
Various government-appointed committees have highlighted these facts but to no avail. The famous Justice JS Verma Committee report on sexual violence recommended bringing sexual abuse against women by members of the armed forces or uniformed personnel under the purview of the ordinary criminal law, with a particular note to areas under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. It also highlighted the need to ensure the safety of women who are complainants and witnesses in cases of sexual assault by the armed forces, and the setting up of special commissions in these conflict-ridden areas to oversee the same. Despite the severity of the insurgency, nothing can justify heinous incidents of sexual violence against women committed by state actors, especially on such a scale, and perpetrated with complete impunity. There have been disturbing reports of police officials in the region indulging in dirty scare tactics against human rights activists, lawyers, academics and journalists, seeking to bring the errant personnel to book. These elements contend that the police administration, and by extension, the state government are attempting to hide gross violations of the human rights of tribal citizens in the war against Maoists in conflict-ridden districts. One hopes that these police officials are forced to undergo a fair and open trial, and the judiciary must ensure a quick resolution of these cases. If found guilty, the accused must be subject to the harshest penalties under law The NHRC must also issue clear and unambiguous guidelines for the conduct of such operations, making sure to protect civilians and non-combatants from such vile crimes. The Centre should then take cognizance of these guidelines, and pass legislation through Parliament to ensure greater enforcement. Safeguarding their security and dignity would not only go a long way in providing women in conflict areas their legal entitlements but also restore their confidence in the administration, which for all intents and purposes is representative of our system of government.