Military personnel who rape in India’s conflict zones should be prosecuted: committee
The Justice Verma Committee, set up to review India’s legislation following the brutal gang rape of a student in Delhi last month, released its recommendations on how to make the country safer for women last week.
Among the issues which the panel addressed was a “neglected area” concerning sexual violence against women in areas of conflict.
The committee recommends stripping security forces of special immunity that they enjoy in conflict areas in cases of sexual assault on women, and bringing them under the purview of ordinary criminal law.
Special laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which is enforced in Jammu & Kashmir and the northeastern states, give security forces immunity from prosecution unless sanctioned by the central government.
Human rights groups say the military arbitrarily uses it to violate human rights, which sometimes include sexual assault on women.
Unlike other parts of the country, victims in most cases do not have any avenue for redress because security forces cannot be prosecuted by state law enforcement. What happens in most cases is that the army conducts an internal probe, and punishment for the accused is hardly reported.
A prime example is that of Manorama Devi, who was reportedly raped and killed by security forces a few hours after being arrested from her home in Manipur. The incident sparked a mass protest in the state, and a group of women famously stripped naked in front of a paramilitary base.
A retired judge who conducted a government-ordered probe said he found the security forces guilty. But the report remains sealed, and no action has been taken after nine years.
Allegations of abuse by security forces are also not a recent trend. A noted social worker in Mizoram last year refused a national award, citing the brutal suppression of the Mizo insurgency in the 1960s.
“I was only six years-old at that time. I had personally witnessed how three Indian Army personnel dragged a woman into a house. She was covered with blood stains and her clothes were ripped apart,” she said.
The army says special laws to protect soldiers are necessary in conflict zones because they work in an environment where it is difficult to differentiate between friend and foe.
The Verma committee recommended changing this. “It must be recognized that women in conflict areas are entitled to all the security and dignity that is afforded to citizens in any other part of our country,” it wrote.
That is not to say other forms of rights abuse are justified. The Verma panel also stresses the need to review the continuance of the special powers act and other similar legal protocol “as soon as possible.” The question now is what the government will do.
(July 3, 2009: A Kashmiri protester carrying a piece of brick confronts Indian police during an anti-India protest in Srinagar
. Anti-India protests raged across the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley after the bodies of two women, aged 17 and 22, who locals say were abducted, raped and killed by security forces, were found on May 29. Reuters photo: Fayaz Kabli)