Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Violence Against Women: Issue of women safety needs to be seen from social perspective

Since the murder of a woman journalist Chhabirani in the year 1980 till date, thousands of women in Odisha have fallen victim to the heinous instincts of men. As per claims made by the President of Odisha Congress’ women wing on the basis of a white paper tabled in State Assembly, about 4,100 cases under section 376 (rape) were registered in different police stations of Odisha during last three years. The statistics is not only shocking but is also loud to explain how women have become vulnerable to the unmanly instincts of men in the society.
Even though women are considered to be the descent half of the society, they live a life of vulnerability and fall victim to atrocities and the criminal instincts of people of their own community with whom they grow from a baby girl to a woman.
The recent cases of abuse and atrocities on women in the state of Odisha have made social thinkers and even the common man to look for the reasons behind increasing vulnerability of women in the society.
While the much hyped case of alleged assault and attempt to kill the 19 year old girl from a dalit family of Arjungoda village under Pipili Police Station in Odisha’s Puri district hit the headlines of almost all media and impacted the state politics in the state where a Minister had to quit the cabinet to save the face of the government, a series of cases of attacks and atrocities on women have raised number of questions on the safety of women in her own community or society.
The victim of the Pipili incident is now struggling to come out of a coma stage she entered since the incident that took place between 7 AM and 8.30 AM, time of activities in rural Odisha, when the girl went to attend nature’s call.
The case of Pipili is not the lone case of assault on women in Odisha. Few months back, a girl student in Odisha’s Baliapal also fell victim to the demonic instincts of some men. Another girl who was travelling by a bus was not dropped at the destination and was allegedly raped by the bus driver and other staff. In the month of January 2012 alone, about 10 cases of rape, rape and murder, assault and attempt to murder have been registered of which one of the victim is an 8-year-old girl and another a deaf and dumb dalit girl. “The way such incidents where a part of the society suffers badly in the hands of the other half are increasing, many of us are forced to rethink if we are really living in a civic society”, says a Konark based social activist N A Shah Ansari who feels agitated while remembering the particular day of 2007 November when a young woman was dragged out of a passenger bus and was gang raped by four persons in a deserted spot beside the Konark-Puri marine drive road. “The incident shows how the society, once ruled by morals, is getting detached from the roots of it and how the individual morals are being degraded”, says Ansari.
When moral degradation is one of the primary reasons behind increase in the number of cases, the mechanism that should act strongly to locate the culprits in such cases and book them under law is also failing to deliver what is expected from it. For example, the police didn’t receive the FIR from the family of the victim girl from Pipili who battles for life in a state of coma. Nor did the medical officer attended to the girl who was in a serious condition. The medical officer could have treated the girl immediately and informed the police about the case. In stead, the doctor predicted a quick death of the girl and asked the family to take the unconscious victim back. Finding no other way, the family of the victim went to the State Women Commission and then to the State Human Rights Commission to seek justice and avail required treatment for the victim who struggled for life since more than a month. It was when the Human Right Commission realised the gravity of the case and ordered for immediate treatment in the hospital and immediate inquiry by the police that the victim was admitted to the hospital and police started investigation. However, things started after a month of the incident.
The victim girl was targeted because she was the only witness of a case of assault on her friend in the year 2008. While the girl who was raped in 2008 committed suicide a few days later, the surviving witness received repeated threats to withdraw the police case or face dire consequence, said the family members of the victim. Finally the girl had to pay the price for her courage. In stead of respecting her courage and acting promptly, the unwillingness of police to receive the FIR in the Pipili case indicates how callous the police is about the issue of safety of women. It’s only after strong directives issued by the Human Rights Commission that the Puri district police had to start an inquiry and the state government also ordered a probe by Crime Branch (CID) Police. ”Why after directives? What stopped the police from acting promptly against the alleged culprits? Can we expect more women to come forward against such injustice if the police continue to behave in a manner as it did with the Pipili victim? When safety of women is a concern for all and women are more often falling victim to very few of men with inhuman instincts, the police and other law enforcing agencies have to change their attitude and make the face more humane than the current one”, says a veteran journalist Prashanta Patnaik who also happens to be the Convener of civil society body Odisha Gana Samaja.
When the case came to light, political parties, social activists and civil society bodies came on roads to place the ruling party at fault and to build pressure on the government to nab the culprits and take action on all involved in it. This is definitely a good step by the opposition political parties to ensure justice to the specific victim. But, the larger issue of safety of women was again overshadowed.
During last 64 years, issue of women safety has been raised for political purposes and used as a weapon against the government and the ruling party. The game was always played with an agenda, mostly political, and the root issue of safety of women continued to remain a powerful evil in the society.
The first and foremost is that why and how a woman becomes vulnerable to the violent instincts of people with whom she grew from childhood? Why the society that often behaves to be protective fails to protect and uphold the rights of woman and secure her from any kind of vulnerability? ‘The primary reasons are lack of understanding of social relationship and almost no moral education’, says a veteran journalist and social thinker Vivekanand Dash adding that, ‘Such cases are increasing in our society because the current generation doesn’t take any interest in the moral roots and the parents also take least interest in moral teaching till something happens to them or their offspring’.
The police has to have a humane face and behave as responsive to any case of assault on woman. As seen in the case of Pipili and other places, instead of accepting the FIR and initiating quick action the local police officer took a condemnable role by denying to accept the complaint from the victim’s family. The rule of law has to be established. However, the dismissal of the concerned Police Inspector and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s strict instruction to all officers to receive the FIR and take immediate action in such cases bear some hope for sure in ensuring prompt aid to the victims.
What is most important in order to protect women from atrocities and provide justice to the victims of any kind of assault is that the rule of law has to be established with strong conviction. Any case of assault must be treated as violation of law of the land and the constitutional provisions that guarantee the individual rights of citizens and actions must be taken promptly as prescribed in the laws. Some even advocate for a strong law, like the one enforced to deal the acts of terrorism, and provisions of punishment in such cases. “The moral roots of Indian society must be restored to make women a respectable entity of the society and provisions of harsh punishments in such cases must be prescribed in the law to stop men from abusing women”, says Prashant Patnaik.
The recent observations of additional Sessions Judge of Delhi Kamini Lau in the case of rape of a six year old girl by her 30 year old uncle are surely some points to be given a serious thought by the leaders and legislators of India. While giving judgment on February 17, 2012 in the case, Kamini Lau observed, "Castration is the most befitting sentence which can be imposed on any paedophile or serial offender but the hands of this court are tied as the statute does not provide for it” while she urged that, “Indian legislators are yet to explore this as an alternative to conventional sentencing". The recent judgment reminds of legendary personality Biju Patnaik who, while was the Chief Minister of Odisha, openly urged that any person attempting to rape a woman should be castrated. Then Biju Patnaik’s wish was taken as a political fun which now seems more relevant to ensure safety to women from sexual abuse.
Not only the police and law enforcing agencies, but also the administration, judiciary and civil society bodies and the women rights bodies have a greater role in achieving social security and safety of women. The issue has to be seen from a social perspective than just a political agenda.
The article was first published on February 23, 2012, at HotnHitNews.

Maoist hostage crisis in India: government indifference makes Maoists give up on mediation

Mediation has been successful at bringing down levels of violence and bringing popular welfare and social justice demands onto the political agenda. These gains are  under threat as the government fails to take the process seriously.
Banned since 2009 as a terrorist organisation Communist Party of India (Maoist) armed cadres now have a presence in more than half of India’s 29 States. Maoists have adopted the tactics of abduction of civil servants and lawmakers since the 1980s. In the last 15 months, Maoists have made three abductions in Odisha and one in Chhattisgarh. However, while the earlier abductions were aimed at a prisoner swap, the recent abductions have raised the possibility of establishing peace by minimising violence and establishing dialogue.
Mediation, an alternative dispute resolution technique widely practiced in India for civil cases, was offered as a means of bringing the recent crises to a peaceful conclusion. While the Chhattisgarh state government has attempted to continue the dialogue process even after the release of the abducted civil servant, for the long-term resolution of issues and establishment of peace in the places of conflict, the Odisha state government has undermined its own initiative.
After twice accepting the offer of mediation made by India’s provincial government in Odisha, the Maoist leaders of Andhra Odisha Border Special Zonal Committee rejected the third offer of mediation made by the Chief Minister of Odisha for release of Jhina Hikaka, a lawmaker and Member of Odisha Legislative Assembly. The successful resolution of two earlier cases had raised hopes over the creation of a forum for political convergence between the left-wing extremists and the democratically elected government, which would help minimise violence committed by the Maoist rebels. However, the rejection of an offer of mediation in the most recent case points at the failure of the government in effectively dealing with the issues that concern communities who have a strong link with the Maoist movement.
In the two previous cases, mediation did not remain confined to the objective of exchanging persons. Rather, through the channels opened up by the mediation, the Maoists have brought public welfare demands onto the political agenda.
Both the mediation that took place in February 2011 for the release of an Indian Administrative Service Officer, then posted to Odisha as Malkangiri District Collector, and the more recent mediation over the release of abducted Italian citizens and one elected legislator, have greater political and philosophical relevance than the simple abduction drama and its follow up.
On 14th March 2012 two Italian citizens were kidnapped while trekking in the forests. The mediation was conducted between two sets of mediators, one representing the Maoist extremists and other the provincial government of Odisha. It lasted from March 22 until April 22, 2012. A month may look a long time to linger in a hostage dispute, but for the long-term gains it may prove to be worth it. During that time the mediation played a role in minimising violence in the area of Maoist conflict concerned, and pushed forward various public welfare demands on a constitutional framework through which the rights of the communities living in the forests and inaccessible pockets of the country are protected. This definitely looked like a process capable of awakening the State and its administration to the laws already existing in the country to empower the indigenous communities and other forest dwellers, while protecting them from social and cultural invasion and injustice from outside. The mediation also brought to the fore the possible applications of these laws and the kind of authority they grant to specific people and communities.

The demands? That India implement its own laws

The discussion seemed to have attained maturity. The mediator was trusted by both sides: Dr Brahma Dev Sharma is a retired civil servant who headed the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe development department of India for quite some time and worked extensively for the rights and welfare of the indigenous communities. In contrast to the mediation process held in 2011 for the release of an abducted civil servant, there was an attempt to validate the demands under specific laws and constitutional provisions meant to safeguard the rights of indigenous communities and forest dwellers. The demands were presented by Dr. Brahma Dev Sharma were lawful according to the norms of the Indian constitution and the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996 (PESA).
The PESA Act was revolutionary. It is the only one of its kind that not only guarantees the rights of the tribal communities living in the areas described in Schedule V of the Indian constitution, but also empowers those communities to participate in their own governance and decide their own development. But, against the spirit of the Act, tribal communities are being exploited and forcefully displaced by the government. The tribal people stand to lose everything – the land, the forest, the very mountain they live on and worship as their god, the water sources – in the mining corporations’ plan for open exploitation of mineral and other natural resources: even water from the streams. Since the local administration is in connivance with these profit maximising corporate miners, the issues raised by the tribal communities via the Panchayats are hardly heeded to. The plight of the tribal communities has lead to the desire to revolt against the system that has only been exploitative to them in the 65 years since Independence, making a space for left-wing extremism to grow in the hilly and forest tracts of India.
The Maoists’ demands included ‘no interference by outsiders in the name of tourism’ and ‘making the tribal domains free from commercial liquor trade’. The former is a reaction to an increase in the exploitation of primitive tribal groups as human safaris, in the expanding tourism industry. The demands referenced the ‘New Tribal Development policy’ and the ‘New Excise Policy of India’, adopted way back in 1974, which should provide protection particularly against the aggressive liquor trade which causes so many problems across rural India.
Terming that promoting the liquor trade in the tribal domains in the name of increasing revenue is nothing but exploitation, Sharma brought various provisions of the PESA Act before the representatives of the Government of Odisha. The Act in para 4 (m) and sub-clause (i) in the composite form declares, ‘while endowing Panchayats in the Scheduled Areas with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as institutions of self-government, a State Legislature shall ensure that the Panchayats at the appropriate level and the Gram Sabha are endowed specifically with the power to enforce prohibition or to regulate or restrict the sale and consumption of any intoxicant’. In fact, this very provision of the special Indian Act is being flouted by the local administration and law enforcers, who favour outside liquor mafias to promote the trade in tribal dominated areas against the will and interests of the community members.

Meaningful politics, or politics by other means?

The mediation also tried to convince the State that a war-like situation prevails in the places of conflict because of the government’s excessive use of armed police and paramilitary forces, and their encouragement of retaliatory violence. Pointing at ‘Operation Green Hunt’ – a term used for the armed operations started by the Indian Government to curb left-wing extremism – the mediators elaborated that ‘Operation Green Hunt’ came into usage in the tribal areas of India without any idea of its real meaning. Some claim its scope is limited to a combing operation, while others call it a clearing operation. Just as the operation for the capture of territories from the Native American Indians by the Americans was eulogized as a ‘Hunting Expedition’, so the same is being attempted now in the tribal tracts of India under the name ‘Operation Green Hunt’.
While the Prime Minister of India has stated several times since 2006 that left-wing extremism has been the biggest threat to India’s internal security and the Indian government has made massive deployment of armed forces to curb the Maoist insurgency in the resource rich forest areas of the country, the referred mediation brought to fore some of the points that explained how the government grossly failed in implementing various policies and achieving in public welfare front and, also, how it lacked in enforcing laws of the land in their true spirit. The mediation attempted to influence policies and build pressure on the government to strictly follow Acts like PESA that are crucial in addressing the issues which underlie the growth of left-wing extremism.
For the first time, during these two mediations held in Odisha, the Maoist extremists brought welfare into their list of demands. Earlier, abductions by the left-wing extremists were limited to the exchange of persons against the abducted. But from the change in the trend in these two cases, with the constitutional basis of various demands particularly clear, it seems that the CPI (Maoist) party is slowly including various public welfare policies into its political agenda.
But quite contrasting to these two earlier cases in the province of Odisha, the left-wing extremists refused mediation in the third case: the abduction of elected tribal Legislator Jhina Hikaka. Why? One of the interlocutors in both previous mediations, Dandapani Mohanty, explains: ‘That is because the government didn’t act as it promised to get the civil servant released over a year back! Instead of fulfilling its promises, the government rather tried to blame the Maoists through engineered campaigns.  It’s because the government didn’t work to keep its promises, the Maoists this time didn’t offer any choice for mediation’. Because there was no mediation, the legislator had to remain in Maoist camps for almost a month before he was released.

Chhattisgarh, a different story

However in the next case, when a civil servant posted as a District Magistrate in the neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh was abducted, the Maoists agreed to mediation with the government and offered names of interlocutors for its own side.
The Chhattisgarh government’s agreement to set a panel to consider the demands of the Maoists and review the cases of under trial prisoners who were allegedly jailed under fabricated charges is surely an initiative to move in the direction of resolving the issues which lead to the growth of left-wing extremism. The same can and should be replicated in all the left-wing extremism affected provinces.
Mediation is important because, apart from pushing public welfare demands and policy issues before the government, it brings down violence to an almost negligible level: a state of peace prevails in the left-wing extremism affected area while the talks are on. During the period of negotiations in all three instances described above there was conditional peace in the places where the left-wing extremists were engaged in talks with government. Except a few stray incidents during the talks for the release of the Italian citizens, there was no violence in the Maoist affected pockets of Odisha and Chhattisgarh. This particular observation raises some hope for restoring peace in the places of conflict where left-wing extremism is deepening its roots.
The Rural Development Minister of India, Jairam Ramesh, has said that the Maoists are fighting an ideological battle. To win the battle, the benefits of development must reach the target communities and their issues must be heeded to. Admitting to the fact that the indigenous communities are sandwiched between left-wing extremism and retaliatory action by the government through its armed forces, the Minister emphasised during a tour to a district that is largely affected by Maoist extremism that the benefits of development must reach the tribal people and their issues must be taken seriously and sympathetically. The minister also insisted upon the execution of PESA Act in its true spirit. So the issues raised through mediation have started reaching the ministerial corridors of India, and started to influence the lawmakers of the land. In such a situation, continuous talks and an approach from the government for the long term resolution of issues would slowly make extremism irrelevant in the areas that are severely affected by Maoist insurgency. As different groups are operating in different parts and each group has substantial operational autonomy, involving CPI (Maoist) central committee members in the process of talk would fetch better result as no group of Maoist extremists can disobey the appeals and instructions of the central committee.
As the Indian Rural Development Minister said, if it is an ideological war, an ideology can’t be dealt with using guns and bullets, but through sincere and continuous dialogue. The Indian government must give serious thought to this, as a means to resolve the conflicts in the places of left-wing extremism.
The article was first published on 28 June, 2012, at the openDemocracy.