Has violence against women become so commonplace in India that we have stopped noting it? Do we need anniversaries — December 16 is coming up — to remind us of something that happens every day? Every year, the United Nations designates 16 days for activism against gender-based violence. So from November 25 to December 10, Human Rights Day, a slew of statements and events focuses on this. Useful as that is, we have to ask why we need specific days to express our concern for something that ought to be part of our daily discourse.
Gender violence does not occur occasionally. It happens everyday, everywhere. Yet, we only take note when something out of the ordinary happens, something horrific like the December 16, 2012, gang rape in Delhi. The sheer brutality of that rape and murder is seared into our collective memories. It galvanised people, who had never before been out on the streets, to shout that enough is enough and this culture of violence must end.
That was three years ago. Today, that culture of violence remains embedded, throwing up new shoots every day. What is frightening is the ordinariness and the pervasiveness of sexual violence: the acceptance that it is there and will always be there; that women will get beaten up; that girls will be sexually assaulted. It is this ordinariness that makes us immune, almost indifferent to the daily litany of sexual assaults against women. Look at any newspaper. The stories leap out at youevery day, any day: “Nine-year-old sexually assaulted by her teachers”; “21-year-old jobless youth held for sexual assault of two-year-old.” What we read about is but a sliver of the whole. Because the whole of it takes place behind closed doors, in hidden places where there are no eyes to note, no cameras to record. It includes crimes that we don’t read about, because no one goes there to witness them, to listen to the victims, to understand that violence against women is the new normal in some parts of our country.
One such place is Chhattisgarh. With deadly regularity, there are reports of encounter deaths. What is not reported is what precedes or follows these encounters. Some of these stories have been reported in local newspapers but barely a word has appeared in the national media. As usual, a curtain of invisibility falls on incidents that occur in places that the media cannot access or does not try to access.
A few brave local journalists have tried to report on some of these stories that would otherwise be forgotten. And they have paid a heavy price for this. Two of them, Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag, are still in jail in Chhattisgarh after being picked up in September and July respectively on suspicion of being sympathetic to the ‘Naxals’.
Apart from “encounter” killings, women in these troubled districts of Chhattisgarh have been targeted. Their stories remain largely unreported and uninvestigated. The report by Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression that recently sent a team to investigate the impact of the conflict on women, speaks of the violence, rape and sexual assault that the local women live with every day. Their report, about incidents during October 2015, is based on testimonies by dozens of women.
One such story was that of a 14-year-old girl from Peddagulur village in Bijapur district. According to the report, the girl “was grazing cattle with other women when she was chased by security forces. Overpowered and blind-folded, she was raped by at least three people before she became unconscious.” Another tragic story is that of a four-month pregnant woman who was stripped by the security forces, “repeatedly dunked in the stream, and then gang-raped.” Other women spoke of being chased, beaten, their houses looted and their property destroyed.
Despite this report, the higher ups in the police dismiss the complaints as propaganda. When you divide a population into ‘us’ and ‘them’, and the latter are seen as ‘terrorists’, then anything can be denied. Crimes against humanity become propaganda. And by refusing to even acknowledge that these crimes have occurred, the state seeks to erase them from history.
In this case, there are two small factors that give some hope. One, that the women’s group and the local media were able to reach these villages and record the testimonies of the women. And two, that some of these women could travel to the district headquarters and depose before a district collector who was willing to listen and a police officer who was open to filing an FIR.
It is still a long haul from this stage to one where the men involved will be caught and punished. But given that practically no case of this kind has made it even to the FIR stage, it is worth noting. To come back to special days, and activism against gender violence, this is needed, every day, and against all forms of violence. Not just the sexual assaults in our cities, or those that the media choose to highlight.
Views expressed here are personal.
Kalpana Sharma is an independent journalist and columnist based in Mumbai.