Tag Archives: law

TOI iDiva: A Cinderella Story

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Change on the level of society is a generational thing. The dream is that there will come a day when a rape, even a single one, becomes as shocking as a beheading or a skinned scalp – an act of torture from an unevolved era, not a hypothetical, daily risk. But until then, as depressing and perhaps controversial as the notion is, there is only so much we can do: caregivers today have a responsibility to raise their sons differently, while simultaneously protecting themselves and their daughters from the dangerous conditioning that remains rooted in human mentality at large.

Unfortunately, “protection” is interpreted too frequently in ways which are invasive, imbalanced, curb basic freedoms or blame the victim. The city of Gurgaon recently imposed an 8pm curfew on its female population. This curfew carries multiple layers of responsibility: women are discouraged from working or being out of the home past that hour, and their employers are required to arrange for transportation to drop them back home, in addition to a slew of tab-keeping measures that monitor personal details and activities. Accountability is thus shifted completely away from the police and the authorities; should a crime occur past that hour, they can plead as useless as the post-midnight pumpkin in the story of Cinderella.

As many people have pointed out: why is the onus on potential victims, rather than potential perpetrators, to stay off the streets? Why can’t Gurgaon ban its male population from being outside at night?

And why is rape or other gender-based crime (such as eve-teasing or molestation) only expected to happen at night?

The word “curfew” is said to have come from the French words for “cover” and “fire” – “cover the fire”. What Gurgaon has done could happen, as though in a dystopian Margaret Atwood novel, in any other city, and in fact already does happen in informal, unstructured ways.

The visual this term – “cover the fire” – conjures to my mind suggests that the fire is not put out, only kept from view. There is a profound and pervasive stifling of “fire” in women – dissent, expression and passion. But there can be no extinguishing it. As any of us who have experienced the curtailing of ambition, moral policing or other forms of inhibition know, the fiery woman knows when to take the form of water: to become amorphous and slip away, reconstituting in kinder vessels, larger landscapes.

A simple example that you might be deeply familiar with: afternoon sex, after all, is the only kind of sex good girls in Madras have.

The most terrifying thing about a law-enforced curfew is not that it has happened, but that it will continue to. The Gurgaon precedent may “inspire” the administrations of other places. Before we get to that stage, and with the sobering reality that a truly egalitarian society won’t manifest overnight in mind, what can be done to effect little changes that might go a long way?

A culture of fear is a culture of defeat. There have to be better ways to protect ourselves and the other women in our lives than to simply say “stay at home, it’s for your own good”. For example: “morality” is taught in schools, but what about martial arts? We routinely carry shawls to cover our upper bodies, but do we carry pepper spray in our handbags? Do city corporations invest in adequate street lighting?

Instead of questioning women who are alone on the street, can’t the police also question male loiterers? Instead of chasing couples off the beach, why not keep a closer eye on actual crime?

Instead of blaming all women, or suspecting all men, why not take the view that we’re all in this together, and that a society is only as sick as its silences?

An edited version appeared in iDiva (Chennai), The Times of India.

Vachathi

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There are places in the world known only because of the events that catapult them to recognition; their names become a metonym for the atrocities or tragedies that occurred there. This is what happened to Vachathi. Deep in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district, fringing the expanse of semi-evergreen forests in the Kalrayan Hills of the Eastern Ghats, the hamlet of Vachathi was as unremarkable as any other until the summer of 1992. The dacoit Veerappan, scourge of South India’s woodlands, was nearing the apex of his powers; the following year, the state government would deploy its Border Security Force to carry out his arrest. It would be over a decade before he would finally be killed. But in the thirty years during which he evaded capture, the pursuit of the dreaded brigand fuelled tensions in the relationship between the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments, involved at least two high profile kidnappings and numerous murders – and resulted also in much collateral damage of less immediately conspicuous proportions. Among these was Vachathi.

Vachathi borders the Sathyamangalam forest and was, and remains, fertile with various kinds of produce – mango, pearl millet and turmeric for example, but also a certain highly coveted tree: sandalwood. Except in Kerala, the fragrant and lucrative timber is largely controlled through state licensing in the South; it is an offence to possess more than 20kg of the commodity. Veerappan was its most successful, and more reviled, poacher. It was while investigating a sandalwood smuggling racket possibly associated with Veerappan that a team of forest officials and police officers raided the village on the evening of June 20, 1992.

Daylight still brightened the vicinity at that hour. Its inhabitants were still out in the orchards, gathering fruit, or working in the pastures. Vachathi’s population, mostly consisting of tribals, numbered around 2,000 at this time. Most of the men had yet to return from their work, which took them further afield – or, as some accounts put it, they had escaped as they heard the vehicles approaching. When the jeeps arrived, carrying a battalion of 269 police officers, forest authorities and revenue officials, whoever remained – women, children, the elderly and the unwell – were rounded up.

Accosted, dragged by the hair or coerced by brute force if they put up any resistance, they were made to congregate under the immense banyan tree, the traditional locus of the village’s activities. The allegations against its residents were that they had participated in a racket, hiding chopped bundles of sandalwood in their agricultural fields: 60 tonnes of the same were seized and handed over to the government after the operation. Thirty women and ten men were made to lead the way to the buried sandalwood. Female constables, though present on duty, did not accompany them.

Meanwhile, those assembled in the shade of the banyan were routinely thrashed. A small shrine to the goddess Mariamman, also situated under the tree, was vandalized. These were the least of the brutalities that would take place in the course of the events known now as “the Vachathi case”. As night fell, over a hundred people were held under police custody and taken away. The rest fled into the Sitheri hills, where they stayed for months, traumatised.

Some of the women taken under custody were first taken to a nearby lake and raped, made to urinate in view of their attackers and subjected to abusive language. The ordeal was repeated at the Forest Rangers Office in Harur, the taluk headquarters. Through the long night that followed, the eighteen women who later came forward as victims were each exposed to the cruelty of multiple assailants. The youngest of the women was 13 years old at the time.

Among the four men taken under custody that night was Vachathi’s village chieftain, Perumal. Police personnel had a singular punishment in mind for him at the Forest Rangers Office. The ninety women also apprehended there were made to assemble into three rows. They watched as the officers stripped him to the waist and tortured him. When he collapsed, the first two rows of women were given broom sticks. They were told to beat the chieftain – if they did not, they in turn were hit with lathis. They refused to strip him of his trousers, as instructed to, but they could not refuse to beat him or watch him being beaten.

It was nearly two months before the detained were released. Many had been held at the Salem Central Prison; a total of 133 villagers were incarcerated, including twenty-eight children. What they came upon on their return to Vachathi was a scene of utter desecration.

The village had been looted of everything of value within the first two days of the operation, but it had also been rendered inhabitable. Most of the houses were razed. The livestock had been killed, mostly to be used as meat, and the village well had been used as a dump for the remains. Chicken heads, goat skin, bones and other inedible parts of the carcasses filled and contaminated its water.

Other wells were filled with equipment and daily instruments: grinding stones, bicycles, utensils and engines were found discarded. Grains that had been kept in storage had been mixed with glass.

An old woman and two dogs were all that remained. Every other living being was still in hiding in the hills, in fear of a second attack. Behind the shelter of shrubbery and rocks, they had managed to survive in the most primitive of ways. Some women, pregnant at the time of the raid on the village, had even given birth under these conditions.

Wrecked in mind and body, punished as a collective for the criminal endeavours of a few in their midst, the former residents of the village of Vachathi, now the survivors of the Vachathi incident, took a long time to trust the help extended to them by NGOs and different government bodies. They continued to live as foragers for a time, finally choosing to accept the assistance of former MLA, M. Annamalai, who promised their protection. It would be three years before an FIR, spearheaded by the district’s CPI (M) representatives, was filed. A CBI probe into the incident was begun in 1995.

It was not until September 29 2011 – almost two decades after Vachathi and its inhabitants were pillaged and violated – that justice, at least in its legal form, was served. The case had moved from courts in Coimbatore and Krishnagiri to the Dharmapuri sessions court, which finally lay down its verdict.

That 34 of the victims, among hundreds, had died over the course of the investigation and trial is not in itself strange: the villagers had been left impoverished, and among the sufferers were the elderly and the ailing. More surreally, perhaps, no less than 53 of the 269 of the accused – all of them government employees able-bodied enough to perform the brutalities committed on the night of June 20 1992 – had died in the interim years. Only 216 remain to serve the punishments decided by the Dharmapuri sessions court: 10 years of rigorous imprisonment under the SC/ST act for atrocities against tribals (specifically, torture, unlawful restraint, abuse of office and looting). Seventeen officials found guilty of rape were sentenced to seven years of rigorous imprisonment.

For the people of Vachathi, however, who have begun to properly rebuild their lives only in the last few years, it is unclear whether the verdict, in effect, is more than a symbolic victory. The time they have spent waiting for justice is longer than the sentences that have been served to their persecutors. The financial compensation awarded is meagre: only 15,000 rupees each have been given to the rape victims, while the loss of livelihood, destruction of property and mental trauma among the populace at large has gone unconsidered. The SC/ST Commission, which in 1997 offered 1.25 crores in compensation to 500 villagers, had provided more by way of monetary assistance than the court.

At present, the case may be appealed in the High Court of Madras. Meanwhile, the village of Vachathi continues to slowly pick up the pieces: its people rebuild their lives in the shadow of the horrific incident which its name has come to stand for. They have reconstructed its 250 houses and gained access to a secondary school. The great banyan beneath which they were tortured still stands, its Mariamman shrine restored.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.

Op-Ed: Chennai’s Moral Police

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In Chennai, the term “moral police” is too often a literal one.

Two relatively high-profile incidents in the past week cast the city’s police force in a frightening light, as enforcers of a deeply misogynistic worldview who go as far as to violate the law in order to uphold their principles.

In the first case, a married woman who was with a male friend at the Kotturpuram railway station was apprehended by a police officer, who then physically assaulted the friend in question and cast aspersions as to why the duo were together. When told that her husband was fully aware of this friendship, the officer threatened to make bystanders testify against her.

In the second instance, a 21-year old lesbian who had left home and subsequently been reported as a missing person by her parents voluntarily went to the Thiru-Vi-Ka police station to declare herself an adult operating under her own autonomy. She was detained for a day, and released only into the custody of a relative. Activists from the gay rights group Sangama, who were supporting her, were harassed.

The moral universe occupied by too many members of Chennai’s police force is a murky one, bolstered by a flawed understanding of “Tamil culture”, unchecked sexism, and an abiding disrespect for the law itself.

But these are hardly isolated incidents. If anything, they have only served to reinforce what every woman in this city already knows: the police are more likely to harm than help. As journalist Chithira V put it to me, the security-heavy Gopalapuram neighbourhood – where the state’s CM resides – is a dangerous area, not in spite of but because of the presence of the police. Even the 20 all-women police stations in the greater Chennai area cannot effectively address the daily threats and aggravation that take place in public spaces, by members of the force itself.

Chennai is a city of fear and loathing, and the deep distrust in its sanctioned protectors is not a phantasm of urban legend. The city’s profound conservatism is in conflict with the needs of a modernizing population, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the manner in which its police relegate law and ethics in favour of their private concepts of morality.

The misogyny of the police force finds an accomplice in the unresponsiveness of Chennai’s ordinary citizenry. These instances are too omnipresent to enumerate, but one in particular, also shared by Chithira V, illustrates this pervasive attitude to chilling accuracy: some weeks ago, three women were attacked by a man with a knife on Besant Nagar beach. When they scattered, screaming, the man calmly walked away unperturbed. None of the families or couples sitting near these women paid any attention to the skirmish. The women called the police; an officer arrived, rounded up two random men, and insisted that they were the attackers. The real attacker not only went unpunished, but surely orchestrated the attack expecting this. Even in a group of three, the women were – in the city’s understanding of this word – “alone”.

So deeply embedded is the belief that one must be vigilant of the vigilantes that many women go to lengths to avoid interactions with the police, even at their own peril. A friend who was being followed by an ex-boyfriend felt she could not approach the police if the stalking became more invasive, because her former relationship with him would surely be held against her, and render her a target for humiliation and harassment. I personally leave home well before dark whenever I have planned a night out; having been questioned twice by a policeman on a bike right in front of my apartment, I changed my schedule. This is only an inconvenience, but the sinister underpinnings behind why I had to do it are hard to ignore. When my parents enquired about what the policeman was doing, they were told that a brothel was allegedly operating near the premises. There is no brothel here, as far as I know, but there is a women’s hostel.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian, New Delhi.

Beyond Pro-Life and Pro-Choice: Abortion in India

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I’m now a regular contributor at Ultraviolet, the only (and possibly first) Indian feminist collablog. This post was cross-posted there, so comments are off here.

Not all of us may agree on whether or not abortion is ethical. Some may feel that it is sinful, but a subjective choice nonetheless. Others may approve in theory but with a dose of “abortion guilt”, to use Naomi Wolf’s term. Still others, I realise, may condemn it altogether. But wherever we stand personally on this spectrum of opinion, the fact that abortion (legal or not) is inevitable in any society should be regarded as the foundation of one’s argument. And as feminists, a certain understanding that real women’s lives hang in the balance between ideologies is a must. Simply put, in the absence of safe and legal abortions, hundreds of thousands of women a year would die or suffer bodily harm as a result of unsafe, illegal ones.

Recently, many American feminists celebrated the 35th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the landmark case that led to the overturning of all laws in the United States that restricted or banned abortion. The new decision came into effect on January 22nd 1973, continues to be a heatedly-argued statute, and has come under threat since. (Do look up Cecilia Fire Thunder for a great example of feminist courage under fire in this issue).

Here in India, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act was enacted in 1971, came into force the following year, and was revised in 1975. Because the law also provides for abortion in the event of contraceptive failure, all pregnancies –- not just those that endanger the health of mother or foetus, or resulting from rape –- can be terminated legally. Technically, any woman above the age of 18 can have an abortion with nobody’s consent but her own and her doctor’s.

When I came across this fact, I was thrilled by how sex-positive and decidedly unpatriarchal it is, and how lucky we are that it is so — but only for a moment. Like several of our laws designed to directly impact the lives of women in ostensibly positive ways, what is real on paper is not nearly as effective in practice. As with laws forbidding dowry or prenatal sex testing, or encouraging panchayat inclusion or girls’ education, such democratic protection when it comes to reproductive rights is not something that translates to the reality of the majority of Indian women’s lives.

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