Trigger Warning: this article mentions rape and violence.
Violence against women has come to take very nuanced and non-linear forms. Feminists have always argued for “personal is the political,” implying that the way power is shared between men and women in the private sphere determines their behaviour towards each other in other spaces. This validates the need for holding the otherwise unquestioned authority such as the employer, the police and the armed forces personnel accountable for their actions.
The geo-political location increasingly determines the nature of violence women are subjected to. Such are the regions which have a heavy presence of armed forces and draconian laws like the AFSPA are in force. The culture of violence at the hands of personnel of armed forces is called the “frontier culture of violence.” In India, it’s largely prevalent in the regions of Kashmir and some northeastern states.
The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 is an act of the Parliament of India that grants special powers to the Indian Armed Forces the power to maintain public order in “disturbed areas.” Basically, it gives a free card to soldiers to do literally anything for the sake of maintaining order without being held accountable for their deeds. This immunity from trail gives rise to the impunity of armed forces.
Women’s bodies become the political playground and territory for such a culture of violence against women. There is some honour perceived by the rival groups in violating the women of the other group. These actions instil fear in the minds of people forcing women to mind their freedom and liberty and those of others around her too. This impunity is the reason behind several acts of violence at the hands of armed forces, specially targeted at women and children.
On the intervening night of February 23 and 24, 1991, during the height of the militancy, around 300 troops from the 4th Rajputana Rifles had gone to the hamlets of Kunan and Poshpora, near the Line of Control, ostensibly on a cordon-and-search operation. That night, 150 women and young girls were raped and at least 200 men tortured. An FIR had been filed by the women about the violence that had occurred thereafter but it was generally believed the case was “closed as untraced.”
In another incident in Manipur, during the early hours of July 11, 2004, 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama was picked up in the night from her home by members of the 17th Assam Rifles unit (the Indian Army) on suspicion of being an insurgent. Three hours later, she was found lying naked and dead near her house. Her body was punctured with bullet wounds and private parts mutilated. The incident received national attention when 15 women demonstrated naked in front of the Kangla Fort, the HQ of the 17th Assam Rifles.
The Manipur government instituted a Commission of Inquiry to look into Manorama’s death. The commission was headed by a retired judge, Chungkham Upendra Singh. The Assam Rifles refused to send anyone to provide statements or testify before the commission. Eventually, after much avoidance, the Assam Rifles filed a writ petition before the Guwahati High Court challenging the setting up of the commission. It said that as per Section 6 of the AFSPA, no legal enquiry could be instituted against a member of the armed forces where AFSPA was in force without prior permission from the central government. Ultimately, the Guwahati High Court ruled that the Manipur government had no authority to institute this inquiry commission.
The Kunan-Poshpora rapes of the Kashmir valley and the brutal assault of Manorama Thangjam from Nagaland are some landmark cases in the larger fight against bringing armed forces to justice. The chilling details of the inhumane assault in these cases shook the nation but the government couldn’t bother less. The victims in most of these cases are women belonging to minority groups. Muslim and Adivasi women are the most vulnerable.
Today in the northeast, despite Irom Sharmila being on a hunger strike for 16 years, the army presence remains significantly high. In Kashmir, the recent legislative amendment has led to adding of more than thirty thousand soldiers as if the presence wasn’t heavy enough already. According to a report from activists and researchers on the ground, security forces in Kashmir have abducted hundreds of boys in midnight raids and molested women and girls amid the state’s 11-day blackout.
It is important to note that most of the security forces which include police, paramilitary, and army officers in Jammu and Kashmir, work directly under the central government. Reports from Kashmir are taking longer than usual because the communication services are still in the process of restoration and the “mini-connectivity centres” set up by the government are far from efficient, they are not even sustainable, causing an “information blackout” in the region.
The increasing militarization of regions facing social unrest such as Kashmir leads to counter effects like the one we see here. The government must focus on creating a just and accountable structure in disturbed areas so that the people’s faith in the system can be restored. Armed suppression has never resulted in peace and stability in society. It only adds to the fears in the minds of civilians. The office of the Human Rights Commission on several occasions has pointed at abuse by state security forces and armed groups in both Indian and Pakistan-held parts of Kashmir. The Indian government dismissed these reports as a “false and a motivated narrative” that ignored “the core issue of cross-border terrorism.”
This time when Shehla Rashid raised the concern, Congress leader Salman Nizami discarded her claims accusing her of spreading fake news. It didn’t stop here as Twitterati went on to demand her immediately arrested. Hashtags like #ArrestShehlaRashid were trending throughout the day. It’s no news how hard it has become to express dissent in today’s India or “aaj ka Bharat.”
When Article 370 was revoked, people had conflicting views. When a centre-aided institution protects its officers from being tried by law, it encourages them to commit crimes in the facade of ensuring security. Acts like the AFSPA in the northeast and the government justifying the violent behaviour of security personnel in Kashmir institutionalise impunity.
Even though, all and any opposition to the government’s actions were hushed in the name of national interest. I fail to see harassment of civilians and assault on women’s body be a part of a security personnel’s duty. I don’t know what is going to be a wake-up call for the government. Is the BJP waiting for another Kunan-Poshpora to happen in the valley?