The Justice Verma Commission's recommendations on the safety of women in areas of armed conflict have generated the worst controversy. Not only has the government of India not incorporated these in the Criminal Law Ordinance, 2013 on Sexual Assault, but members of the security establishment have made virulent attacks on the recommendations. A senior officer is reported to have indicated that the forces deployed in conflict zones, like Jammu & Kashmir, Maoist-affected states and the insurgency-hit areas in the northeast, have to constantly guard against foisting of false cases by local, self-proclaimed rights groups that may actually be a front of terrorist or extremist groups. “The Verma Commission's suggestion, if accepted, will only give such activists a legal handle to falsely implicate not only the jawan but his commanding officer as well,” the official is reported to have warned.
The Commission had recommended amendments to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), and to hold trial of Army men or policemen accused of rape and sexual violence against women in ordinary criminal courts. It also recommended introducing a new section in the Indian Penal Code that would pin responsibility on the commanding officer of the accused.
It is our contention that rape and sexual assault on women is used as a cynical tool of ‘area domination' as part of armed resolution to conflicts. Aggressive masculinity and sexual violence against women is intricately involved in every aspect of war—whether it involves civilian women in areas under occupation, or women of the ‘enemy' population. The distinctions are often blurred in actual practice. Sexual violence against women is never ‘collateral damage' of conflict; women are specifically the targets of assault. Impunity for systematic or isolated sexual violence in the process of internal security duties is built into our legislative frameworks like the AFSPA, which is in force in large parts of our country.
Documents produced in connection with the Faith and Ethics Caucus of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court on Women, held in The Hague on September 7, 2004, confirmed that women and children were the principal casualties of contemporary armed conflicts and mass violence. Far from being accidental victims of international crimes committed in times of war, they are often targeted deliberately. Bangladesh, Rwanda and former Yugoslavia are painful examples of this reality.
The experiences from internal conflict areas in our own country have not been any different. Rape, killing and other forms of sexual violence against women by men in uniform have been reported. The Shopian case of 2009 in which four police officers were indicted on charges of rape and murder of two women, is well known. Similar cases are documented in a report produced jointly by the International People's Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-Administered Kashmir and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons. Some years ago, Manipur was shaken by the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama Devi and protest by 12 naked women who dared the Indian Army to rape them.
Memories of sexual violence on a large scale can be festering wounds in the collective psyches of the communities that suffer them. Strong measures to ensure the security of women in conflict areas will go a long way not just in providing women their rightful entitlements, but also in restoring confidence in the administration in conflict areas. And that will ultimately help in conflict resolution.
Bangladesh has only recently begun to deal with the history of rape and violation of women that accompanied its freedom struggle. How much longer do we have to wait in our country before we learn to confront the truth?