‘The government is making a monumental blunder’

Pic: Joe Athialy

Vrinda Grover is a feminist-activist, women’s rights advocate, and an eminent human rights lawyer. In a distinguished career she has taken up several public interest cases, including the Maliana-Hashimpura case (the 1987 massacre by the UP Provincial Armed Constabulary —PAC), the Shopian rape and murder case in Kashmir and the Soni Sori case in Chhattisgarh where the tribal woman was brutally tortured and assaulted.

Sadiq Naqvi Delhi 

What has been the role of the women’s rights movement in the making of the JS Verma Committee report?

 I think the process by which the Justice Verma Committee functioned is extremely important and must be highlighted. The fact that Justice Verma imposed on himself a deadline of 30 days, it was not given by the government, is impressive. The other thing I find admirable is the fact that, after they were done with their research, they held a two-day public hearing at Vigyan Bhawan with women’s rights groups from all across the country. These were two days of very important interface that they had with activists who were working on the ground in tribal areas of Chhattisgarh, in the Northeast, in Kashmir; there were women academicians, lawyers and they absorbed our suggestions and also discussed their views with us. The important thing is that they democratised the process. The third very admirable thing is that they held a public press briefing where everyone was invited and they gave the report to the government and to the people of the country simultaneously. We have seen in the past that when the government appoints a committee and if it says something which is uncomfortable for the government, the report disappears. The Justice Jeevan Reddy report on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is yet to see the light of day formally and officially. In fact, they had asked that it be put up on the official website of the Union home ministry. I am told that this has not yet been put up. It is an important indication and it shows us that the government is not serious and that it has not taken the protests and the demands of the women’s rights groups seriously. I think the government is making a monumental blunder. 

Why do you think the government’s response has been so cold?

Because the government never thought that the Verma Committee would deliver. This was the first gamble which has not paid off. Not only has it delivered, but it has done it in a manner which is absolutely extraordinary. They have understood the issue in all its dimensions. The essence of the report is that you are not going to look at violence against women or sexual violence against women within the frame of protection or law and order or look at it in the loop of shame and honour. They have also come down heavily on the failure of the State to protect the rights of sexual minorities. They have said that it is their constitutional right, their right to equality, right to non-discrimination, and it is completely the obligation of the State to allow them to exercise this right not only by creating conditions but even if there are non-State actors; yes, these six men (in the Delhi gangrape case) were private actors, but if you are not able to protect, the fault lies exclusively with the State. They have said that we have to break the loop of shame and honour and instead examine it from the lens of bodily integrity and dignity of women. Now this is a cultural shift that they are demanding. That will not only change the language of the law but also the manner in which you contextualise violence against women as well as respond to it. It is actually striking at the roots of State power and patriarchy. The State is not ready to grant equal rights to women. If you see everything that the State did, they brought out more PCR vans, they said there will be more helplines, and police, they are all gimmicks. Nobody bought them, not one woman.

The other thing that the report does is that they have understood violence which is routine due to patriarchy and inequality and they have also understood that the State is totally complicit in this patriarchy. They have said there is violence due to caste. They have come down very heavily on khap panchayats. And they have stood up for what has never been said in these words in this country by even the judiciary. They have also looked at specific contexts of violence against women and also against sexual minorities – during communal violence, in caste atrocities and under AFSPA, the disturbed areas of Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast, as well as conflict areas of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal.

So every citadel of power has today been challenged by the Justice Verma Committee report. So, except for women’s groups and citizens of this country who believe in liberty and equality, not only for themselves but for their fellow citizens, nobody in power is supporting this report and thus the challenge is clearly upon us. 

What if the government tweaks the law and doesn’t accept the full demands?

We are not accepting any law which is going to talk of outraging modesty and so on. The Bill is with the Rajya Sabha and if the same Bill is passed by the Lok Sabha which talks in the language of outraging modesty and so on, I think they will just have to be thrown out of power. 

  What if most of the demands are met, except for these contentious demands of AFSPA reforms…

These are not contentious demands; we are only demanding reforms in the context of sexual violence. I want to know, is the army going to actually stand up? It would be a scandal if the army says that even for sexual violence you cannot touch us. 

Law Minister Ashwini Kumar gave a statement indicating that AFSPA reforms is a difficult issue…

Ashwini Kumar needs to sit back and think about it a little. It is a very, very limited thing they have recommended in AFSPA, that only in cases of sexual violence, sexual assault and sexual harassment, there should be no provision for prior sanction. Now if it is the case of the law minister or of the defence minister, or any army personnel, that even if sexual violence is committed (and, mind you, they are operating within the country, they are not at war, hopefully, with our own people)...  if we are to be told that the army can therefore be allowed to do it... it will be a big scandal.

‘The women’s movement is standing by Soni Sori, the women of Kashmir and the Northeast. For us, the change in AFSPA is as crucial as anything else. We will not concede these points’ 

They have time and again said that we are at war. On the Naxalite issue, they have said it.

In war, if we commit sexual violence, it is called a war crime under international law. In which case, we have to start proceedings for war crimes against them. The army should seriously think that if they were to insist that even for sexual violence, they will not allow anybody to prosecute them, there is a very dangerous line they would have crossed. One, they would definitely lose the respect they command of half the citizens of this country. Two, it is an admission that sexual violence is being indulged in by the armed forces. And, three, they are telling us very clearly that to maintain the morale of their men, the women of this country and their dignity don’t matter to them. 

When it comes to protesting for Soni Sori or, for example, cases related to sexual violence by the forces in Kashmir or the Northeast, we don’t see such an upsurge. Why?

Well, we don’t. There are two or three reasons for that. One, there is a lot of manipulation through the media, what information people receive, how they understand what is happening. The government misinforms people in a major way, and people get very confused who these people are and if these issues are of national integrity. In the protests what we also saw was that there were a lot of young people who started understanding many more other issues. So, suddenly, the name of Soni Sori today is known to many young people when it was earlier only known to smaller groups of people who were much more active on these issues.

The women’s movement in this country is today making a broad alliance. The women’s movement is standing by Soni Sori, the women of Kashmir and the Northeast. For us, the change in AFSPA is as crucial as anything else. We will not concede these points. 

Do you foresee any religious counter-reactions to some issues like marital rape?

Look at the Hindu shastras, there is no comprehension of a woman’s right to her body. I don’t think it has anything to do with one particular religion. But if you accept a definition of rape which is based on the woman’s right to her bodily integrity and her right to consent…. At present, the reason marital rape is not an offence is because the law makes an exception of it. All you have to do is to stop saying that. And already, under your Domestic Violence Act, which is a civil remedy, sexual abuse by a family member (it can be the husband) is regarded as domestic violence.

Pic: Joe A

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2013