There is no outrage. No candlelight protest. Not even slightest condemnation by the political leadership in the wake of the National Human Rights Commission’s (NHRC) report on the rape of 16 tribal women in Bastar district of Chhattisgarh.
In its report on January 7, 2017, the National Human Rights Commission has found 16 women to be prima facie victims of rape, sexual and physical assault by the state police personnel in Chhattisgarh. The Commission has observed that prima facie, the human rights of the sufferers have been grossly violated by the security personnel of the government of Chhattisgarh for which the state government is vicariously liable. It has issued a notice to the Chhattisgarh government to pay monetary compensation of ₹37 lakh to the victims.
It is interesting to note that the NHRC has limited capacity to implement its order as it can only ‘recommend’ the government. It lacks any legally-binding power, thus, making it a toothless paper tiger. In the unofficial reports prepared by NGOs, more testimonies of rape and cruelty towards women from tribal communities are emerging. Many women from Chinnagellur, Pedagellur, Gundam, Burgicheru and other villages have recorded their statements against the security forces.
One of these women, however, told the district collector that the sexual violence wasn’t just limited to rape. Several women were beaten on their thighs and buttocks, they alleged. Their lower clothing was lifted, their blouses torn – and the security personnel threatened they would “push chillies up their vaginas”, according to several reports.
At least two women, who were breastfeeding, had their breasts pinched and squeezed for milk to prove that they had breastfeeding infants. These events occurred over the five days between October 19-24, 2017, reported one of the witnesses.
These cases did not shake the nation as much as the Nirbhaya case. The reasons for this could be many. The sufferers, in this case, are helpless women from tribal communities in remote Naxal-affected areas. In these regions, the involvement of security forces and the connivance of government often helps keep these incidents under cover.
Apart from the occasional reports, mainstream media skip these incidences. Most of the Indian intellectuals maintain a stoic silence on these issues as if nothing has happened (except few NGOs and academics who jeopardise their lives to document such cases in Naxal areas).
And as far as the political leadership is concerned, these grave issues (like the frequent rape of women from these communities) matter less. There is no condemnation. No demand to punish the culprits. Also, human rights activists working to highlight these issues are harassed and intimidated by the police. In fact, there is a long history of the police taking retaliatory action against others who have been raising issues of human rights violations (by the police and security forces) in the area of Bastar.
At the core of such incidents is the prevalent culture of impunity, particularly among security forces.
In many of these cases, if the culprit turns out to be a member of the security forces, they are likely to go free. Even in the above cases, FIRs were filed. “But many similar cases of atrocities and sexual assault by the security forces have gone unrecorded and unpunished in the last decade in Bastar,” Bela Bhatia, a human rights activist said.
People from tribal communities are not aware of the human rights they are entitled to. Nor do they have access to file an FIR. The expensive legal fees and hostile police often discourage victims from pursuing their cases against the mighty agents of the state. Tribal areas are isolated and do not have access to modern forms of communication. Consequently, neither are they skilled enough to assert their rights, nor do they know how to fight for justice. With no education and less economic resources, these people are left to suffer in silence.
India has the second largest concentration of tribal people in the world. In India, the Scheduled Tribes are spread across the country mainly in forest and hilly regions. These people are often treated as low, despicable and untouchable because of the adherence to outdated social norms and the caste system. Needless to say, such barbaric incidents of rape will isolate the tribal people who are already living on the margins of the Indian society, as long as timely justice is not rendered. Furthermore, this will boost Naxalite movement.
The Indian Constitution provides safeguards (social, cultural, educational and service) for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (SC/STs), apart from specific and general legislations enacted to safeguard and protect their interests. Also, the Indian government has a legal obligation (under international human rights) to protect the rights and dignity of every person.
In this context, the government of India is answerable to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) that examines the situation of women’s rights nationwide. The CEDAW Committee is a UN body of independent experts in charge of reviewing a country’s implementation of the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, an international human rights treaty containing the responsibilities of states towards ensuring women’s human rights.
The rapes of women in Bastar show that neither the Indian government nor the security forces take their responsibility, to uphold the human rights of its citizens, seriously.
Time and again, the government has failed to protect the human rights of the marginalised groups in India. Unfortunately, neither the mainstream media nor the intellectuals feel outraged over such issues. I believe people should take offence on the grave violations of human rights and pressurise the government to act.
A version of this article was originally published in The Oslo Times.