Women

Breaching the Citadel

In this MeToo moment, feminist activists and scholars excavate previous histories of silence and impunity around sexual violence, and speak of the immense power of testimony.

New Delhi: “Political gains … from the testimonies of women political leaders who’ve been subjected to savage sexual violence become meaningful only if they take into account the personal costs to the women, ” said Kavita Punjabi, while talking about the life story of Ila Mitra, revolutionary leader of the Santals during the Tebhaga Movement in Bengal in the 1940s.

Punjabi is the author of a scholarly critique of Mitra’s methods as well as a salute to her courage, and was speaking at a programme titled “Breaching the Citadel” on October 28 to mark the launch by Zubaan Books of the first India volume of a series on sexual violence and impunity in South Asia. Besides Punjabi, who has contributed a chapter on Ila Mitra, other speakers were journalist Neha Dixit and feminist activist and writer Farah Naqvi, whose interview by historian Uma Chakravarty forms a chapter in the book.

Punjabi said that when women from conservative, aristocratic families were bound by codes of honour and an “imperative of silence”, it took tremendous courage on Mitra’s part to speak of the savage sexual torture she had to endure at the hands of the police. What could have made her break the taboo, Punjabi wondered aloud. One compelling reason was that the Communist Party of India convinced her that if she came out with her testimony in public, it would help strengthen the party’s cause and help it garner more support. So it was “a case of the state’s deployment of patriarchal code of honour versus the Left’s “progressive” stance”, but it did not care for her concerns as a woman, a wife and daughter-in-law. Hence, no wonder, later on in her life, Mitra had all but disavowed what she so bravely spoke about earlier, and when Punjabi and other researchers had gone to meet her some years ago, she chose to remain silent and instead just handed them her autobiography to read.

Also read: #MeToo: Working Class Women Share Their Stories of Harassment

Neha Dixit, who wrote a searing report in Outlook magazine on the mass gang rape and rape victims of the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, shared her experiences of speaking to the women, 19 of whom narrated their ordeals to her. Dixit spent a good three weeks in the relief camps, and found that Lisad village was one of the worst affected. Women, young and old, were sexually violated by their neighbours and the rich Jat landowners in whose fields they used to work. Although initially the women opened up, later on they were silenced by the men, many of them, ironically, from their own communities. The old chestnut of community and personal honour was used by maulvis and their own male relatives alike to coerce them into silence and stop them from testifying in court. Dixit said that the trope of community and women’s honour (of the Hindus) which was maliciously used by BJP MP Sangeet Som to stir the communal cauldron was ironically used by the Muslims also, resulting in manifest injustice. Adding to this was the complicity of the police, who often bullied and shamed the women into silence while ostensibly carrying out “independent investigations” into the rapes and gang rapes.

Farah Naqvi, co-author of the report titled “Survivors Speak” on the Gujarat pogrom and genocide of 2002, spoke about the testimonies and evidence of  en masse  sexual violence which she encountered during her visits to, and prolonged stays in the state ravaged by communal fires. Our job as feminists and as fact finders, was not only to record the facts of sexual violence in legally comprehensible terms, but to also “make sense” of what had happened – because this was different from cases of sexual violence that we as feminists had encountered previously, Naqvi said. “In its scale, its brutality, and its very public nature, this was something new we were witnessing. To experience this, through the words of survivors broke a part of me, but also made me a stronger person, a better activist and a better feminist.”

Naqvi said that Gujarat represented a new phenomenology of violence for feminists. There was a sign and there were signifiers and a message was being sent to the entire nation. The public nature of the sexual crimes in the Gujarat pogrom was extraordinary, and therefore the silence and shame that one often encounters in cases of sexual violence was already broken. There was no hiding what had happened. Women spoke of it openly in the relief camps.  and even girls as young as seven and nine spoke about it, describing balatkaar as seeing women stripped naked and then pounced upon by men, subsequently to be hacked or burnt to death.

Naqvi also pointed to what she called ‘the meta-narrative’ of sexual violence that they encountered in the relief camps. “Each episode of sexual brutality was spoken of as if it happened to the teller herself – there was a congealing of narratives, there was a collective narrative of violence in which each woman, victim or witness, was a participant, and a deeply personal way in which they all collectively experienced the horror enacted on their bodies.” In many instances, women spoke of others’ sufferings as if they were their own, and described someone else’s pain as one’s own. “It was sometimes an uphill task to distil the individual voice of a survivor, in order to legally prosecute individual cases, from larger mass of voices that spoke about the collective violence experienced by the whole community. It was all part of the same collective voice. And it was powerful. And it was real”.

Also read: #MeToo Movement Reaches the Police in Gujarat

Yet, prosecutions for sexual violence in Gujarat pogrom were not as robust as they could have been. Many survivors of sexual violence were dead, burnt after being raped.  And consequently even among activist-lawyers, they heard a reluctance to take on board the difficult prosecutions for sexual crimes, because there were few survivors left alive to testify in court, and their charred bodies could not provide any medico-legal evidence. So, the legal priority became prosecutions for the mass murders, rather than for sexual crimes. As a result the silence around sexual violence that had been pierced was once again reimposed. Visiting Gujarat for a follow-up report to “Survivors Speak” just a few months later, Naqvi unearthed many more cases of sexual violence in rural areas, but now people only spoke in hushed voices, and community elders neither wanted to go public with the survivors names, nor seek legal justice. This echoed what Dixit had earlier said about Muzaffarnagar.

Naqvi ended her comments by saying that Gujarat was about mass murder, and unspeakable sexual brutality, public mass rapes and gang rapes, but also about anarchy, and the complete breakdown of all constitutional institutional mechanisms of protection on a mammoth scale. “You learn from that to never take the resilience of these institutions for granted. You learn that you must fight for the health of these constitutional guarantees every day. And you learn that collective experiences of mass violence and testimonies of mass sexual violence need new frameworks of both legal and feminist understanding and response”.

Saurav Datta divides his time between legal education and journalism and between Bombay and Delhi.

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