Rapists, Unıformed

When men in uniform rape, they act with impunity. They can get away with it again and again. Perhaps there is no greater cause of the Maoist conflict and insurgency in the Northeast than the injustice of unpunished rapes and killings
Felix Padel  Jaipur

Outrage against rape, and against the stream of sexist comments or semi-justifications coming out of the woodwork of Hindutva and police hierarchies, is eminently justified. To bring about real change, this outrage needs to be sustained. The majority of rapes — despite what some have said — take place in rural Bharat rather than urban India and often, among the worst repeat offenders are some members of the security forces who are supposed to be protecting rural citizens’ security, and who are paid to do so.

It is significant that the comments of the police top brass on the girl’s gangrape have been so wrong-footed, and that moralising from Muslim as well as Hindu hardliners has been so regressive: back to ‘decorum’ and staying at home for girls and sex segregation in schools. There seems an unwillingness to understand that rape is the result, not of freedom, but of repression: a sexism culturally ingrained, compounded by pornography and current patterns of ‘structural violence’.

The key question is, while Anna Hazare and others call for the death penalty for the rapists in the bus, what do they have to say about punishment for rapists in uniforms who have so far escaped the process of justice?

The horror of it is that for adivasis and Dalits who experience rape and other atrocities perpetrated by the police, it is hardly ever possible even to register an FIR, and courageous attempts to do so frequently meet with false cases and more atrocities. When men in uniform rape, they act with impunity and  know they can get away with it again and again. Perhaps there is no greater cause of the Maoist problem and longstanding conflicts in Northeast India than the injustice of unpunished rapes and killings.

This is at the heart of Irom Sharmila’s heroic campaign in Manipur for the repeal of AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act). Yet, in Chhattisgarh, the perpetrators are often protected by police norms of denial rather than by AFSPA. So even its repeal (much needed in Kashmir also, and much resisted on the spurious ground that it would ‘lower morale’)  will not totally solve the problem without a basic shift in attitude among the security forces’ leadership.

This has been eloquently expressed by senior policemen and officials, such as former top cop EN Rammohan, speaking after his investigation into the Maoist ambush that killed 76 CRPF jawans in April 2010 (Tehelka, June 12, 2010): “..There’s a lack of leadership….our boys will go berserk…”

This is why the cases of adivasi women such as Soni Sori and Sodi Sambu in south Chhattisgarh are so important, alongside campaigns for basic justice in the Northeast and Kashmir. These are, beyond a shadow of reasonable doubt, innocent adivasi women who have been brutalised to an unimaginable degree after trying to get justice. What is most vividly revealed in Arundhati Roy’s ground-breaking essay, “Walking with the Comrades” (Outlook, March 29, 2010) is the emotions that draw many young adivasis to join the Maoists: basically, outrage at the relentless injustice, and complete impossibility of obtaining justice.

Allowing perpetrators in uniform to get away with rape and murder is probably the biggest reason for people to join the Maoist cause. If adivasi culture has a ‘shadow side’ perhaps it is the culture of revenge. After the Maikanch firing in Kashipur on December 16, 2000 in Odisha (three tribals killed, 30 injured) and the official inquiry, one of the women who had lost her husband to police bullets asked simply, of the constable who had fired the shots that killed him: “Will you give me his head?”

When American soldier Sgt Robert Bales, went berserk and killed 16 people, including a sleeping family, in Afghanistan, the relatives, to defuse their grief-fuelled fury, demanded that the man should be executed in front of them. One may not believe in capital punishment, but, surely, some form of stringent punishment for security force members who commit rapes and stage ‘false encounters’ is needed, for the sake of justice. Lack of justice promotes terror. 

Throughout the tribal areas, ‘Rape as a Weapon of War’ seems to have become a standard element in the structural violence (Javed Iqbal, June 9, 2010, http://moonchasing.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/rape-as-a-weapon-of-war/). Gangrapes perpetrated on innocent rural populations invaded by men in uniform is one of the most potent fuels of the rage inducing sympathy for Maoist hardliners.

Basically, the Maoist conflict is not fuelled by ideology as much as by the minerals under the ground which big business wants to usurp with the might of the armed Indian State. Injustice is the match that ignites guerrilla struggles. Class war is an element, but it is the impossibility of justice that exacerbates this to boiling point. The ideological polarisation acts as a ‘false flag’, masking what is essentially a war over resources and multiple takeover of land.  

Making it crystal-clear, at the leadership level, that rape and other human rights abuses, including ‘false encounters’, will be severely punished, would go a long way in bringing peace to conflict areas of Central India inflamed by exploitation and injustice 

What demonstrates this eloquently is that mass deployment of the police in large numbers is not so much against Maoists as in support of industrial projects resisted by the majority of rural populations — for instance, at the Posco and Kalinganagar areas in Odisha whenever a new phase of construction begins, or on behalf of Nagarjuna and East Coast Energy power stations in Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh, where police firings killed people on July 15, 2010, and February 28, 2011, or, as in Jaitapur and Kudankulam where people are opposing nuclear projects.

Non-violent movements in these areas against the imposition of industrial mega-projects are not inspired by the Maoists. In fact, the term ‘Maoist’ indicates a commitment to the policy of forced industrialisation that Mao himself implemented in his ‘Great Leap Forward’ of 1959, causing the death of thousands of Chinese agriculturalists forced into steel production in famine conditions. Stalin also caused mass famine deaths in the Ukraine by imposing industrialisation and forcing ‘collectivisation’ during the 1920s.

It is clear from evidence collected by human rights investigations in Dantewada and other areas in Chhattisgarh that the overwhelming majority of atrocities against women are perpetrated by the security forces. Maoist recruitment depends on appeal to the people, and injustice over atrocities enhances this appeal exponentially.

These patterns started during colonial times. Madhusree Mukherjee’s book, Churchill’s Secret War (2010), records how rapes of women by police in 1942-3 during repression in famine conditions in West Bengal were officially denied at the highest level, and how this denial fuelled the insurgency. The pattern became endemic in Central India during the Telengana struggle (1946-51), and entrenched in the Northeast from the 1950s onwards.

It is recorded in Violation of Democratic Rights of the Working Class, Rural Poor, Adivasis and Dalits, edited by eminent sociologist AR Desai (1990), that genocidal levels of atrocities committed by Indian security forces in Nagaland and Manipur during the 1950s-70s continued, citing a typical round of repression that followed an attack by Naga militants in Manipur that killed 24 members of the 21st  Sikh regiment on February 18, 1982. Sexual assaults formed a prominent part of the ‘reign of terror’ that took place in nearby villages over the following days. For example, in Nungbi Khullen village on February 25, “terrorised women sought shelter in K Yarsing’s house. The army personnel forcibly entered the house, drove out the owner and began sexually assaulting the women, forcing them to undress... This incident is noted in the tour diary of the Deputy Commissioner, Ukhrul” (p.309).

By definition, most incidents were not officially noted, and even those that were, rarely, if ever, led to punishment for the perpetrators. It seems undeniable that in the Northeast, in Punjab and Kashmir, as in Central India today, many repeat offenders have never been brought to justice, and rape has been used to humiliate and brutalise large populations.

Related to rape is the proliferation of prostitution and trafficking of women, widespread in Chhattisgarh and rapidly increasing in India, following a worldwide pattern courageously reported by Mexican campaigner Lydia Cacho in her book Slavery inc: The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking (2012). Prostitution appears to be an integral layer in the structural violence affecting ‘industrialising’ areas in central India. Kevin Perry reports in Secrets and Lies that 500 sex workers are operating in Nalco’s central factory town of Damanjodi in Koraput district of Odisha (The Guardian, December 7, 2010). The factors forcing many girls into prostitution are closely related to the causes of rape.             

In cities and rural areas, we can witness the fusion of entrenched patterns of sexist behaviour from patriarchal traditions as well as from security forces norms of impunity, with the seamiest side of the ‘free market’ that leads to proliferation of pornography and prostitution.

Madhusree Mukherjee’s book Churchill’s Secret War (2010) records how rapes of women by police in 1942-3 during repression in famine conditions in West Bengal were officially denied at the highest level, and how this denial fuelled the insurgency

When a tribal area suddenly witnesses a dramatic escalation in violence, the behaviour of security forces is often a key factor. Significant aspects of the violence that shook Lalgarh in West Midnapore district of West Bengal in 2009-10 are often forgotten. The Jindal steel factory’s foundation stone was laid by then chief minister, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, when his convoy was struck by a ‘Maoist landmine’. After massive police atrocities on innocent tribals, the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA) was set up. A key demand was that senior cops should apologise to the communities in a way that would respect Santhal custom and heal the wounds by acknowledging misbehaviour by the men in uniform. If this apology had been forthcoming, a lot of violence could have been avoided, including arrest and murder of many PCAPA leaders after it was branded ‘Maoist’ (http://sanhati.com/excerpted/1083/).

Allowing rapists in uniform to go unpunished feeds resentment; this lies at the root of insurgency. Making it crystal-clear, at the leadership level, that rape and other human rights abuses, including ‘false encounters’, will be severely punished would go a long way in bringing peace to conflict areas of Central India inflamed by exploitation and injustice.

Those arguing against repeal of AFSPA say that the security forces need this immunity from prosecution for the sake of their morale. But allowing rapists in uniform to get away allows them to repeat the crime.  

Felix Padel is a sociologist and author of Sacrificing People: Invasions of a Tribal Landscape (Orient BlackSwan 1995/2010) and Out of This Earth: East India Adivasis and the Aluminium Cartel(with Samarendra Das, OBS 2010).

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