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INITIATING FOCUS ON CRIMES AGAINST WOMEN

INITIATING FOCUS ON CRIMES AGAINST WOMEN IN GUJARAT
The International Initiative for Justice1
Newsletter Jan - Apr 2003
 

What do you do when as a nation you are witness to the worst kind of communal violence against a muslim minority for months in Gujarat since 27th February, 2002? When the ‘Sangh Parivar’ brazenly carries out its planned, orchestrated pogrom through widespread killings and mutilation, mass rapes and sexual assaults on women, brutal attacks on children, destruction of property, lives and livelihoods.2 When such destruction comes with absolute state complicity. When survivors continue to be under attack from an aggressive majority and the state. When any efforts to seek justice or redressal or even ‘compensation’ (often less than 10% of a family’s total material losses) are met with humiliation. When survivors finally attempting to get on with their lives are brazenly forced to “compromise”, or threatened with renewed attacks... The spiral of violence in Gujarat has challenged us as never before. Relief, legal aid, rehabilitation and support to the survivors... almost anything we have extended has been too little, the scale and nature of the violence too overwhelming.

As women’s groups we have been horrified by the violence unleashed on people in general and on women in particular. The patriarchal wars being fought directly and indirectly over women’s bodies have thrown up challenges for the women's movement as never before.

Today, it is apparent that present legal frameworks, both national and international, are inadequate to deal with situations like Gujarat. Among the strategies that emerged from collective discussions among women’s groups from all over the country was the conviction that voicing strong international concern for what has taken place is a vital strategy for working toward holding local instruments of democracy accountable to its citizens. Hence, women’s groups from all over India in conjunction with several others3 came together to initiate and mobilise the international women’s human rights constituency as an ‘International Initiative for Justice (IIJ): Redressing violence against women, committed by State and non-State actors in Gujarat’ with a view to:
  • To articulate the visible and invisible effects of the sexual violence against women and children as an integral part of the continuing violence on Muslims in Gujarat.
  • To explore existing mechanisms to impact justice and reparation from the State and society.
  • To analyse such sexual assault and violence against women in the context of other situations of conflict, war, genocide and instances of state complicity.
  • To assess established legal frameworks and precedents on sexual violence in situations of conflict, and recommend ways to make such laws more effective.
The IIJ comprised a panel women jurists, activists, lawyers, writers and academics from various parts of the world - Sri Lanka, Algeria/France, India, Israel/UK, Germany, USA and India - who drew extensively on their work on ethnic violence, armed conflicts, war and sexual violence against women in Bosnia, Algeria, Sri Lanka, Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda among others. These panellists, along with members of several women’s groups (including Saheli) visited areas in and around Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Panchmahals District between 14-17 December, 2002. During these visits, we met with survivors of the violence as well as with members of women’s groups, human rights groups, and other citizens’ groups from Gujarat.

The Initiative then held Press Conferences and Public Meetings in Mumbai and Delhi, where they released an Interim Report4 of their findings, which is excerpted below:

“...Many civil society groups and statutory government bodies have already documented the scope and systematic nature of the violence against the Muslim community, and in particular sexual violence against women in Gujarat. In our visit, we have heard many confirmations of the information contained in these reports. We find it regrettable that the Indian government has not ... ensured the enforcement and implementation of the recommendations set out in, for example, the report of the National Human Rights Commission. We are also concerned by the fact that in spite of the totally inadequate legal and other responses to the violence in Gujarat, the government has continued to deny permission for international scrutiny of the situation.

The situation that has arisen in the context of the post-election scenario in Gujarat exposes the fallacy of India’s claim to be the world’s largest democracy and raises a clear question about whether a ‘free and fair’ election alone is a sufficient indicator to guarantee and assert the existence of democracy in any society. The key principles that underpin the democratic functioning of any system of governance consists of a series of closely balanced interlinkages of institutions that allow for accountability and transparency... In a pluralist society such as India, ensuring the equal representation and participation of all communities and guaranteeing the rights of women and of minorities are among the most important tests of a genuine democracy. The propagation of fear and hatred among communities is anathema to these principles and is inconsistent with both national and international law.

We are also concerned about the various complex ways in which the post September 11 political climate and the ‘war against terror’ is being used to deepen divisions and conflicts in Indian society through the manipulations of prejudices and fears...

We have no doubt that the state has been complicit both in the perpetration of the violence in the state of Gujarat, and in the failure to redress it. Nine months later, we are appalled to discover the continuing levels of violence and the inadequacies of existing mechanisms to deliver justice to the victims and survivors. This violence, which reflects a longer and larger genocidal project, in our view constitutes a crime against humanity and satisfies the legal definition of genocide, both of which are crimes of the most serious dimension under international law. In addition, the results of the recent election in Gujarat give the instigators and perpetrators of violence in that state the power and potential to continue with their campaign of hate and terror against the Muslim community. As we heard so often, ‘They will never let us survive’. This constitutes a frightening exacerbation of the genocidal conditions prevailing in Gujarat with the potential of spreading to other parts of India, and calls for an urgent and concerted international and national response.

The systematic use of rape and sexual violence as a strategy for terrorising and brutalising women in conflict situations echoes experiences of women in Bangladesh in 1971, and in countries such as Rwanda, Bosnia and Algeria. In Gujarat, as in all these other countries, women have been targeted as members of the ‘other’ community, as symbols of the community’s honour and as the ones who sustain the community and reproduce the next generation...

During our visit, we have been struck by the explicit use of male sexuality as the mechanism and mobilising tool for recruiting members for the ‘cause’ and as a means of imposing ‘Hindu’ dominance upon the Muslim community. We find chillingly unique the incitement to sexual violence as a means of proving the masculinity of the ‘Hindu’ man, as reflected in the political propaganda of the forces of Hindutva prior to, during and after the violence in February/March 2002 and as carried out through patterns of men stripping and exposing themselves to women in an aggressive and threatening manner, and committing acts of mass rape and burning of victims.

The impact of sexual violence experienced by Muslim women of Gujarat continues. The medical system has also proved to be unresponsive to the needs of women who have been victims of violence including sexual violence. Survivors of sexual violence have little access to counselling, and issues relating to their sexual and reproductive health and rights are neglected. We found very little attention paid to issues relating to pregnancy, abortions and sexually transmitted infections as a consequence of sexual violence, and were appalled at the lack of safe spaces for women to recover and defend themselves.

The few women who tried to bring charges of sexual violence have found the legal and investigative systems totally unresponsive to their needs. In many cases, it is the police who were the instigators and perpetrators of sexual violence against Muslim women. The entire system conspires to detract from the gravity of sexual violence as a crime including as a crime against humanity... The known connections of officials within the legal system including many members of the police, Public Prosecutors and the judiciary, with organisations of the Sangh Parivar clearly impairs the course of justice... What the experiences of Gujarat show more clearly than ever is the need to eliminate unjust evidentiary requirements that prevent prosecution without medical reports and other corroborating evidence... This situation is all the more unacceptable in the face of progress that has been made internationally in terms of prosecuting rape and sexual violence as torture, as a war crime and as a crime against humanity and genocide at the ad hoc Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. These advances have now been expanded and codified in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

In addition, many testimonies point to the direct involvement of BJP, VHP and Bajrang Dal leaders as instigators and perpetrators of the violence in Gujarat. In a search for justice, holding public figures who bear a specific responsibility to safeguard democratic norms and human rights accountable is an essential step. This accountability has been demonstrated in the Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, where public officials and public figures have been tried and convicted for the instigation and encouragement of crimes against humanity and genocide including sexual violence.

Despite the Indian government’s claims that normalcy has been restored, during our visits we have seen patterns of continuing violence that totally marginalise the Muslim community and convey to them that they do not have any place within the Indian nation today. Many Muslims have been displaced due to the attacks on their villages unable to return home, unable to work, unable to send their children to school or play, with a deep sense of physical and mental insecurity. In many cases, Muslims face an economic boycott, despite claims to the contrary.

The criminal justice system has failed to deliver justice to the victims of the violence... While perpetrators continue to enjoy impunity, hundreds of Muslims remain in prison on false charges... The state continues to abdicate its responsibilities to Muslim citizens in terms of support for survival needs, rehabilitation and reconstruction... It has left this process almost entirely in the hands of NGOs and charitable organisations.

There is a lack of focus on specific issues faced by single women, widows, female heads of households especially in the context where their traditional systems of support have collapsed.

In the post-election scenario, where the BJP won in all areas where violence was most widespread, Muslims feel that for them, all democratic options for justice and representation have been closed... The election result reaffirms the impunity of those who unleashed and enacted the violence, and their renewed strength has increased fear among the Muslim community... Post-election victory speeches and statements have also threatened all those who have tried to draw attention to the situation of the Muslim community in Gujarat, labeling them as ‘pseudo-secularists’ who try to ruin the image of Gujarat. For example, we cite Pravin Togadia’s statement, “All Hindutva opponents will get the death sentence and we will leave it to the people to carry this out”. (The Hindu, 18 Dec, 2002). Such statements enhance fear and insecurity among NGOs, community leaders and progressive media persons that they would be targeted next. In many villages women activists are being told ‘we know where you live, we know you go to the field alone, what happened to Muslim women can also happen to you’. The tolerance of such hate propaganda is morally reprehensible, and in flagrant violation of national and international standards that prohibit the inciting of hatred against a community, as set out in the Convention against Genocide and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a signatory.

At the conclusion of our visit, the most immediate need remains to guarantee safety, and legal and social justice to the victims of violence in Gujarat at the individual and collective level...

Even as we indict the state and its mechanisms for its failures to protect citizens and to provide redress for injustices, we also call upon all Indian people and civil society institutions to actively counter the campaign of hatred and fear that is at the core of this genocidal project. The international community, at the level of state, inter-governmental and non-state organisations, must condemn the advance of this genocidal project in India, and pressurise the government of India to protect human rights and democratic principles.

Urgent Actions to be taken: 
by the Indian Governmen
t
  • Restore to the Muslims of Gujarat, their rights to life, security and survival, as guaranteed to all citizens in the Constitution of India.
  • Safeguard and protect the social, economic, cultural and political rights of Muslims in Gujarat as per international human rights norms.
  • Establish a special independent court and appoint special prosecutors as well as staff untainted by connections to communal organisations, with the authority to try the crimes committed in Gujarat as crimes against humanity and genocide under customary international legal standards, including the international crimes of rape and sexual violence.
  • Ensure prosecution of all instances of sexual violence, including those where the victim is killed, broaden the understanding of rape to include insertions other than penile penetration, eliminate the insistence on production of medical evidence and corroboration of victims’ testimonies, and prohibit admission of evidence attacking the character or sexual chastity of victims.
  • Institute a legitimate investigation and prosecution of the crimes committed against the Muslim community and Muslim women by individuals in the police, paramilitary forces and other officials, including the review and re-filing of FIRs and arrest of absconders.
  • Investigate and prosecute organisations such as VHP, RSS, BJP, Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena and their affiliate organisations as well as officials and individuals responsible for the continuing harassment and propagation of hate through measures such as the training of militia and the overall planning of genocidal attacks in Gujarat.
  • Enforce, and outlaw, where necessary, those responsible for the economic boycott, ghettoisation and other economic sanctions against the Muslim community.
  • The Supreme Court should immediately hear the PILs that are still pending, authorise CBI investigation of major cases, and implement the recommendations of the NHRC.
  • Accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and implement its provisions in domestic law applicable to crisis and non-crisis situations.
  • Invite and facilitate an international mission of enquiry, including visits by the relevant U. N. Special Rapporteurs to monitor the development of genocide and state responsibility, in order to prevent and punish it.
  • Recognise state responsibility to provide compensation, in addition to assistance and relief, and ensure transparency in the distribution of the relief funds.
  • Ensure food security and shelter, and guarantee adequate conditions of living to those displaced.
  • Provide comprehensive health services, including trauma counselling, and support services to all subjected to brutalised forms of violence.
  • Remove communal and discriminatory references and distortion of historical facts in the text books of schools, colleges and other educational institutions.
  • Disband forthwith the Gujarat State Cell to monitor inter-religious and other forms of mixed marriages.
  • Ensure safety and security of human rights & women’s rights defenders, and of independent and secular NGOs working to promote human rights and non-discrimination.
Urgent action to be taken:
by the international community

  • Declare a genocidal alert.
  • Utilise universal jurisdiction to fulfil the obligation to try genocide and crimes against humanity under international law.
  • Challenge the charitable and tax exempt status of organisations that support, directly or indirectly, the Hindutva agenda.
  • Investigate and prevent the sending of funds to organisations participating in the instigation and implementation of genocide and crimes against humanity against the minority communities.” 19 December 2002.
As this newsletter goes to press, 131 Muslim men in Godhra have been charge-sheeted under POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) for the burning of coach S-56 of the Sabarmati Express, and killing 57 men, women and children, predominantly Hindus. Yet, despite overwhelming evidence of sexual assault on Muslim women, merely three cases are being fought in the Gujarat courts; despite widely acknowledged economic boycott against Muslims, no action is being taken; despite manifest destruction of property and livelihoods, meagre ‘compensations’ are being offered; and despite the most widely filmed and televised rioting, looting and burning, the state has failed to file a single case against the guilty! It is imperative that initiatives like the IIJ work relentlessly to keep alive the story of Gujarat 2002, to break the silence that has descended on its horrors, to persevere and increase the pressure for redressal and justice for those citizens. To strengthen our collective ability to combat such communalisation of the majority, and subsequently widespread public sanction of the most heinous crimes on a minority population.

The Panelists of the international initiative for justice
INSPIRING WOMEN’S VOICES FROM AROUND THE WORLD

Rhonda Copelon
is a professor of law at the City University of New York School of Law, Director of the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic and Founder member of the Women’s Caucus for Gender Justice which influenced the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda with respect to the recognition of gender violence as a form of torture and genocide. She is legal counsel in major cases under the US Alien Tort Claims Act against perpetrators of human rights violations.
"After ten years of feminist advocacy around the world, the international tribunal in Yugoslavia and Rwanda came to recognise rape as a form of torture, act of genocide, and a crime against humanity. And although the International Criminal Courts have no jurisdiction in India, it is a norm that can be used for advocacy in law reform and in Gujarat.”

Gabriela Mischkowski is a historian by training and co-founder of Medica Mondiale, Germany, which works to support war traumatized women in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Albania and Afghanistan by providing medical and psychological care and support. She monitored and extensively documented the Foca Trial of Former Yugoslavia, which dealt exclusively with sexualized violence and enslavement.

She emphasises that “the patterns and functions of rape in a war are different, and in Gujarat, it was clearly linked with an assumed threat to hindu masculinity. Hence, the centrality of rape, women, and sexuality in the Gujarat conflict is significant.”

Nira Yuval-Davis, Professor in Gender and Ethnic Studies, University of East London and President, Research committee on ethnic, race and minority relations of the International Sociological Association, describes herself as a diasporic Israeli anti-Zionist Jew. She has written extensively on nationalism, racism, citizenship and gender relations, and is a founder member of Women against Fundamentalisms.

“Sociologists must look at the interrelations between gender, sexuality and ethnicity” she asserts, focussing on the continuing violence and humiliation of Muslim women by men who raped them in Gujarat, and the vicious targeting of pregnant women many of whom were told be their rapists, ‘we will create a new Hindu in you.’

Anissa Helie
is coordinator of the international office of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, UK. In a global context of rising religious Right, this international solidarity network looks at issues of militarisation, sexual rights and fundamentalisms – the use of religion, ethnicity and culture to seek or obtain political power - within the Muslim world. Anissa stressed on the fact that “when the state abdicates its responsibilities and a community becomes more vulnerable, it doesn’t augur well for women. In Gujarat we are already seeing forced marriages and lesser access to education for girls. Women’s mobility has decreased, as of course has their autonomy.”

Sunila Abeysekara, director of Inform, a human rights documentation center in Colombo, Sri Lanka, has been involved in monitoring the on-going peace process in Sri Lanka.
 
“We saw people transform after the election results. It was a terrible moment that signified the final shutting of all the democratic options”, she says. “So the crucial challenge ahead is to think about why there is still no coming together of movements in civil society to build bridges in Gujarat... In Sri Lanka, we have had 20 years of struggle and it is only now that we can even think of organising inter-ethnic exchanges - and the initiative has been from women - mothers whose children had disappeared with mothers of soldiers killed by the LTTE!”

Vahida Nainar
is development director of the Women's Caucus for Gender Justice, a network that intervened in the International Criminal Court process from a gender perspective by influencing the language of the justice mechanisms. Beginning as a field worker with Aawaz-e-Niswan, Mumbai, she co-founded and directed Women's Rights Action Group (WRAG) for four years during which time she coordinated a nation-wide study on women and the law in muslim communities.

Farah Naqvi is an independent writer and consultant on issues of women, democracy and development. She is a founder of Nirantar, Delhi, a women’s organization working with rural women. She is also a television journalist producing features on women in global politics and in Islamic societies. She was part of Survivors Speak, the first fact finding report focusing on the impact of Gujarat carnage on Muslim women, and has been working on the issue of Gujarat since March 2002.

“Just because we have had elections, it doesn’t mean our great democracy is as glamorous as it is made out to be. At this rate, sheer majoritarianism will keep every minority under constant threat and ultimately wipe it out.”

Uma Chakravarty is a feminist historian who has been associated with the democratic rights and the women’s movements, and since 1984 involved in investigation of riots. Recently, she participated in the PUDR fact finding mission in Gujarat on the state of criminal cases and rehabilitation of the victims.

“It is important to remember that unlike other contexts of conflict, in Gujarat rape was a public spectacle... and this opens up new questions on complicity of an entire community.”

Meera Vellayudan
is a historian by training and currently working with the Institute for Environmental and Social Concerns, Kutch. Her mother was the first Dalit woman graduate in India as well as one of the eleven women on the Constituent Assembly, which drafted the Indian Constitution.

She said that "this is the first time that Dalits, Adivasis and Hindu women actively participated in such large numbers" and expressed concern over "the extent of Hindu mobilisation and the repercussions of this on these communities."

 

ENDNOTES
1 Article adapted from the proposal outline of International Initiative for Justice and the Interim Report of the International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat, 2002 (Copies available with Saheli).

2
Detailed account and references of other reports in Saheli newsletter, May-Aug 2002

3
Constituent groups of the International Initiative for Justice included: Citizen’s Initiative (Ahmedabad), Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties - Shanti Abhiyan (Vadodara), Communalism Combat (Mumbai), Lawyer’s Collective (Mumbai), Awaaz-e-Niswaan (Mumbai), Forum Against Oppression of Women (Mumbai), Stree Sangam (Mumbai), Jagori (Delhi), Sama (Delhi), Saheli (Delhi), Nirantar (Delhi), Organised Lesbian Alliance for Visibility and Action (Pune), etc.