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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

A Victory for Thangjam Manorama

This first appeared on Daily News and Analysis

The Justice Verma Committee recommendations regarding sexual violence against women in conflict areas by the armed personnel are a victory for its many forgotten victims like Thangjam Manorama and Soni Sori.

Patriotism mixed with mass hysteria of our mainstream media often pushes the silent screams of the countless victims of sexual brutality at the hands of armed personnel, into a dark corner. Punished by those who were tasked with protecting them, these victims' endless cries for justice eventually get lost in the labyrinthine corridors of power. They find themselves repeatedly driven back in the long queue of the aggrieved waiting for redressal of their wrongs; a queue that is conveniently jumped by those with money in their hands and power in their heads. Brutalized by the army, ostracized by the society and regularly denied justice, the lives of these women either become fodder for bleeding hearts like me or are reduced to obscurity. That is, if they come out of the ordeal alive.

Thangjam Manorma was lucky. She didn't survive the ordeal at the hands of the Indian Army Personnel. In the wee hours of 11 July, 2004, the 32 year old was dragged out of her house by the personnel of 17 Assam Rifles on charges of being a PLA agent. No incriminating evidence was found during her arrest as recorded in the memo of the arrest (This was not-so-subtly denied by the official spokesperson of the Assam Rifles who later said that a hand grenade, a wireless radio and plenty of incriminating evidence were "seized" from her house). However, after much searching, her body was found four kilometres away from her house. Although there were barely any clothes on her body, there were plenty of bullets in her vagina.

Not so lucky was Soni Sori. The (now) 38 Year old adivasi primary school teacher and human rights activist was arrested in October 2011 on charges of being a courier between the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and the Essar Group as a part of the Naxalites' extortion scheme. The Essar Group, the Naxalites as well as Soni herself have denied the charges. Despite her protests, she was remanded in the custody of Chhattisgarh state police in Dantewada where she was stripped naked and given electric shocks. When she was finally hospitalized on the orders of the Supreme Court, stones were extracted out of her rectum and her vagina.

What happened to the offenders? The army personnel of 17 Assam Rifles still roam free after a court ruling termed the inquiry against them constituted by the Manipur Government as 'Illegitimate'. Manorma's body still lies in the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal as her family alleged that the post mortem was not carried out according to the guidelines set by National Human Rights Commission. As for Soni Sori, the principal accused in her case, SP Ankit Garg was awarded the Police Medal for Gallantry last year by the President (This same President also pardoned many prisoners who had been sentenced to death for various crimes of rape and murder). Soni Sori still languishes in the Raipur Central Jail.

These are just a representative sample of the cases that have managed to grab the limelight. There are still others who are missing, whose dead body was never found or if they escaped alive, their story was never picked up by any news outlet.

So, it is with a sense of relief that one reads the Justice Verma Committee's report where unlike other various committee's, they have not glossed over this grotesque reality of Indian Armed Forces. Starting from Page 149 of the 631 page report, the committee notes that India is a signatory to the International Convention for the protection of all persons from Enforced Disappearance and also recognizes that like most other countries, our country too flouts the norms laid in this convention with impunity. They go on to recommend that "Sexual violence against women by members of the armed forces or uniformed personnel must be brought under the purview of ordinary criminal law" and that "There is an imminent need to review the continuance of AFSPA and AFSPA-like legal protocols in internal conflict areas as soon as possible."

The Prime Minister has often reiterated his "comittment" to replace AFSPA with a more "humane law". But unfortunately, he lives in a world where everything is "theek hai". For countless victims like Thangjam Manorma and Soni Sori, who have been fighting their lonely battle against the brutalizing machinery of the state for too long, one hopes that the recommendations of these reports finally bring them closer to achieving justice. The ball is in the court of the government now, and despite the banal and robotic monotone of Dr. Singh's address, I would be all ears tomorrow morning to see how his government moves forward in implementing the recommendations of the report.