The Fault Lines of History – The India Papers II, the second on India, addresses the question of state impunity, suggesting that on the issue of the violation of human and civil rights, and particularly in relation to the question of sexual violence, the state has been an active and collusive partner in creating states of exception, where its own laws can be suspended and the rights of its citizens violated. Drawing on patterns of sexual violence in Kashmir, the Northeast of India, Chhattisgarh, Haryana and Rajasthan, the essays together focus on the long histories of militarization and regions of conflict, as well as the ‘normalized’ histories of caste violence which are rendered invisible because it is convenient to pretend they do not exist.

Even as the writers note how heavily the odds are stacked against the victims and survivors of sexual violence, they turn their attention to recent histories of popular protest that have enabled speech. They stress that while this is both crucial and important, it is also necessary to note the absence of sufficient attention to the range of locations where sexual violence is endemic and often ignored. Resistance, speech, the breaking of silence, the surfacing of memory: these, as the writers powerfully argue, are the new weapons in the fight to destroy impunity and hold accountable the perpetrators of sexual violence.

In 2004 Manorama, a young Manipuri woman, was picked up by security personnel from her home in Imphal, raped and then brutally killed. It was the nineteenth such incident that year of what has euphemistically come to be called ‘encounter killings’ and it too could have disappeared in social memory, as the eighteen other incidents have since then. But, perhaps, it was the sexual violence, along with its exceptional nature,1 that became the trigger for anger and outrage.2 Manipur went up in flames, a young student set himself ablaze in agony at the lack of judicial redress to women victims of state violence, at the continued imposition of a state of emergency (in place since 1958), the sanctioning of a ‘law’ that indemnified all acts by the security personnel including killings under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). Despite these dramatic political events, the rest of India went on as before; the media paid no attention at all. But then a number of women stripped themselves naked at the entry gates of the Kangla fort which was the headquarters of the Paramilitary Assam Rifles in Manipur, literally using their naked bodies to challenge acts of brutality by the security forces in general and the rape and killing of Manorama in particular.

They were drawing attention to the sexual violence that was perpetrated by soldiers upon women and had never received redress for the ‘intolerable harm’ inflicted upon them under the false cover provided by the AFSPA.3 Left with no means to challenge the impunity of the state, women used their naked bodies to talk back to the state defiantly ‘what can you do? What can the AFSPA really do?’ By appropriating the stigma of rape the protesting women flung it right back at the oppressors. This is the only solution offered to women under the AFSPA in the face of de-humanizing sexist violence, a renaming and talking back gesture. Even from a no–win situation of a raped body the woman sought to be brutalized can still talk back. The talking back in this case involved the display of naked bodies as the potential products of violence.4 By using their bodies to talk back the women who belonged to a member of different organizations in Manipur, sent a message to the Indian state and to Indian feminists: ‘This is what you can do and this is what you can be complicit in!’

Only then did the media in the rest of India take notice, shamed by the images of women challenging the Indian army to come and rape them which circulated through mobile phones and personal videos. Finally, after many wrangles between the army, the Government of India and the Manipur government, the Judicial Commission, appointed by the state government was allowed to proceed with its inquiry (the army had initially challenged the authority of the state government to appoint such a commission). Sadly, the Commission’s completed report has never been made public or officially discussed by the powers that be. Impunity continues to reign in the Northeast: it is almost as if impunity and the ‘sovereignty’ of the Indian state are structurally integrated into each other and must be upheld as an infallible political entity that is beyond debate.

The AFSPA under which the army claims immunity from criminal prosecution has been in operation in parts of the Northeast since 1958. From then until 2000 when the Malom incident (discussed below) happened, the AFSPA was extended spatially to the whole of the Northeast, and has been routinely extended in time up until the present. Except for democratic rights groups, civil society in India has paid no attention to states of Emergency that exist in large swathes of India. During this period, at different times and different places, it was possible to unleash a reign of terror with military operations and even bombings, forced resettlement of the populations into defined and encircled areas as part of a policy of grouping in the 1950s and 60s in Mizoram and Nagaland. It successfully broke the resistance in Mizoram and led to a ‘truce’ but not so in Nagaland where resistance continued till much later.

Excerpted with permission from Fault Lines of History – The India Papers II edited by Uma Chakravarti, Zubaan. You can buy the book here.

Also read: Book Excerpt: Undoing Impunity – Speech After Sexual Violence By V. Geetha

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