Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Population

INDIA: Women Resist Rape as Weapon of Suppression

Laxmi Murthy

NEW DELHI, Nov 6 1997 (IPS) - Protected by powerful lobbies, landlords and men in uniform continue to use rape as a means of suppressing dissent, say social activists.

They say that newspaper headlines screaming ‘landlords gang- rape dalit (low-caste) women,’ ‘activists raped by members of rival group’, and ‘army jawans (soldiers) gang-rape tribal women in the north-east’ seem to disturb no one.

“Not only is there an escalation in the number of rapes, but in the perversity of crimes against women,” said Indu Agnihotri, senior fellow at the Centre for Women’s Studies here.

Agnihotri says the situation is worst in the north Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, where caste and gender divides are sharp. “Gender issues including rape are often subsumed by caste loyalties,” she said.

This was clear in a gang rape case that occurred in September this year. When a 25-year-old woman complained of having been gang- raped by seven men in a college hostel in Jaipur, Rajasthan, politicians from the poweful Jat-caste to which the men belonged rallied to protect their kind.

Cutting across party lines, the Jat politicians termed the rape story, which found prominent display in leading newspapers, a “conspiracy to defame a particular caste”.

As a result, the National Commission for Women (NCW) that investigates rape cases often finds itself helpless in cases where political pressure is brought to bear on behalf of the accused rapists.

“Lower-rung police officials are not responsive and either do not register complaints or falsify or delay them,” said Kokila Vyas of the NCW.

In fact, rarely do rape victims get justice. Bhanwari Devi, a worker with the Women’s Development Programme, was gang-raped in 1992 by four high-caste men for daring to oppose child marriage. She is still shuttling in and out of the courts seeking justice.

In 1994, a lower court judge who acquitted the four men said the rape could not have taken place since the men were upper-caste and included a Brahmin — while the victim was low-caste. Bhanwari has brought her appeal to the High Court.

However, the NCW has been able to intervene and get police cases registered against members of the Shanti Sena, a group backed by the ruling party in Maharashtra state, who allegedly gang-raped activists of the rival Adivasi Mukti Sangathan (AMS) in August.

Madhuri Krishnaswamy, an activist with AMS, says women at the forefront of struggles on behalf of the poor and marginalised face serious risks of getting raped.

In 1993, Budhi Behn, an activist of the Narmada Bachao Andolan in Gujarat, was gang-raped by policemen after she resisted eviction from her land threatend by a dam project.

Usha Dhiman, a low-caste woman, was stripped, paraded naked and raped by goons of a powerful liquor lobby, whose interests she threatened by leading an anti-liquor movement that was gaining momentum in western Uttar Pradesh state.

In a similar case, Dhapu Bai, a tribal women from the Tonk district in Rajasthan, was gang-raped by liquor contractors because her husband was leading an anti-liquor agitation.

Perhaps the worst abuses are found in Bihar, where landowners and upper castes maintain armed private armies like the Ranvir Sena, which regularly attack low-caste villages and kill or mutilate the men and rape the women.

Women’s groups such as the All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) have been vocal against police or army collusion with landlords, employers and business or political interests who use rape as a weapon in conflict or suppression.

The All-India women’s association alleges that as part of the “pacification” programme in the north-eastern state of Tripura, scores of women were raped by soldiers in Ujanmaidan.

Similar occurrences have been reported in areas like the northeastern region where there is unrest among the Naga people, and in divided Kashmir. According to members of the Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights, “security forces in the North-east and in Kashmir rape women to induce a state of humiliation and terror in the entire local population.”

Often, such abuse of power by men in uniform is facilitated and justified by special laws that give them wide-ranging powers of search and detention over civilians.

Women’s organisations are now coming together in broad coalitions to resist abuses by law officers or those who represent the forces of caste hegemony. Some of them have in fact been formed specifically to fight rape.

“If they think they can silence us with rape, they are mistaken. We will never take it lying down. We are now stronger than ever before,” asserted activist Sumli Bai, leader of the Advivasi Mukti Sangathan.

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