Fear of rape: The experience of women in Northeast India
Nonibala Devi Yengkhom & Meihoubam Rakesh, Advocate, North East Network, India
Justice J S Verma, former Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission (India) has said that the law enforcement agencies are the biggest violators of human rights in the country. His statement is highly relevant to what is happening in Manipur and the other neighboring states of Northeast India, which are subject to an exceptionally high level of militarization.
Women everywhere, irrespective of caste, creed, religion, wealth or age, have faced various forms of violence. Northeast Indian women are no exception. Of all forms of violence, rape is considered the most cruel and inhuman form of torture. The fear of rape is common to all women, however, among Northeast Indian women this fear is heightened by the situation in which they live. It stems not merely from the horror of physical assault, but from the subsequent social stigmatization and many other inexpressible feelings. In fact, in Manipuri the literal meaning of the word to describe rape is "elimination of one's esteem". In a single act of wild sexual aggression the victim loses her esteem forever. Not only does she suffer from this social stigmatization, but also from the mental trauma of potential pregnancy, lost virginity, possible physical injury that may render her unable to bear children and the prospect of sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS. The survivor of such violence is never the same person. Many victims complain of headaches, general weakness, lost appetite, nightmares, insomnia, restlessness and anxiety.
In this part of the country the rapists are typically members of the Indian armed forces deployed to curb insurgency. Most of these men hail from the strictly patriarchal societies of mainland India, which are extremely prejudiced against women. Coupled with this, in Northeast India they enjoy elated status as security forces. They usually carry out rapes during combing operations in residential areas, when they compel the males to come out of their homes and gather them at one place, while women are forced to stay indoors. Anyone who tries to intervene is severely beaten. Generally, the perpetrators go completely free, as they acquire immunity from prosecution under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958, which has been imposed in the whole of Northeast India for decades. It has become a common practice among the security forces engaging in the counter insurgency operations to do away with the safeguards accorded to women by the Criminal Procedure Code. After the crime, the army also always tries to cover it up by using any available means. In some instances, rapists have been deliberately left out of the line up for the purpose of identification. In others, the identification parade has not been done at all, or after a lengthy period since the crime.
Most of the rape cases go unreported for obvious reasons, implied above. The victims typically fear being stigmatized, losing marriage opportunities, revealing lost virginity, or are reluctant to talk about a sexual act in public. Under any circumstances, the perpetrators are almost never found guilty, the victims receive no compensation and are liable to be harassed, while their families are also traumatised and at a loss as to what steps to take. Proper steps for treatment and rehabilitation have also not been adopted by the state, in spite of directions to this end by the Supreme Court of India. Although a few organizations have taken up humble initiatives, a lot more needs to be done.
Out of the rape cases from the northeast that have been brought out into the open so far, only in one case were the rapists tried and punished, that too in their own military court. This was a case from August 1996, when two army personnel raped a woman in front of her disabled son during the course of a combing operation. Overcome by a sense of humiliation, she came out into the open. The general population and human rights activists joined her in seeking justice. It was only because of the public outrage and the intensity of the movement that the army authorities were compelled to initiate court martial proceedings against the two personnel. They were found guilty and punished for their crime in 1997. Although the case was a turning point in public attitudes, it was an exception to the norm. In other reported cases, the military tribunal has decided against the victims, and there is then little the women can do. On 4 April 1998, for instance, Pramo Devi - then aged about 27 and pregnant - was raped at gunpoint inside her own house by a soldier of the 6th Btn J K Rifles, while on patrolling duty. The military court ruled that it was only a case of molestation and not rape.
While dealing with suspects, male security personnel routinely arrest, interrogate, torture and sexually abuse women. For instance, the Central Reserve Police Forces (CRPF) picked up two sisters - Laishram Bimola Devi, aged about 32 years, and Laishram Manishang, aged about 29 years, of Pukhao Ahallup Awang Leikai - at around 11am on 14 January 1999, falsely accusing them of sheltering underground activists. The all male team took them to their camp located at Pangai, allegedly stripped them naked, and inhumanely beat them with iron rods and sticks on their hips, buttocks, thighs, calves and feet. They were released on the same day, as nothing incriminating was found against them, and were hospitalized for the next two weeks. In a different case in January 1999, a 17-year-old innocent girl, Oinam Subhashini Devi of Thanga Island, was detained and interrogated on suspicion of being an insurgent sympathiser. In spite of the psychological pressure Subhashini's life continues, but in another case a girl took an extreme step. On 25 March 1999, following the investigation of a murder case, the 32nd Assam Rifles stationed at Yairipok took Chabungbam Jamini Devi, an 11-year-old girl, into custody, alleging that she was the girlfriend of an underground activist. She was interrogated in their camp and a recorded version of her statement broadcast in a public meeting convened by the Commanding Officer of the Assam Riffles on March 29. Two days later, on April 2, the girl committed suicide.
Women themselves are now being forced to take responsibility to prevent rape. The Maira Paibi (Women Torch - Bearers) have been at the vanguard of this movement, and are present in all localities. But the Maira Paibi are now also becoming a target of abuse for their human rights work.
* This is a revised and edited version of a paper presented at the National Conference on Human Rights, Social Movements, Globalization and the Law held at Panchgani, Maharastra, India, from 26 December 2000 to 1 January 2001.