The shame of Kandhamal

The untold story of gender violence in Orissa
KANDHAMAL, (Dr John Dayal) — On a recent visit to Orissa, I interviewed a 13 year old girl who had been gang raped on Dussehara evening in a forest in Kandhamal, not far from her home in a  small township. She was returning with her companions from a “mela” or fete organized to celebrate the victory of good, exemplified by the Lord Rama, over evil, represented in lore by the effigy of abductor King Ravana.

Torn and naked, barring coat someone had given to hide her body, she made it to the town, and eventually to her extended family. After a long struggle and encounter with a foul mouthed woman police inspector and a callous official of the Orissa government’s Women’s Commission, the family managed to get a First Information Report lodged with the Police. The case is still not in court.

Another girl, also about 13 or 14 years old, was not so lucky. Coming home from another fete, she was captured by a gang of young men, stripped and gang raped. They then tied her to a tree, and  in a frenzy, killed her.

And now, a fact finding team, organized by the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights and others, which went to Kandhamal early in January, has discovered the rape of a third girl. All of them were either Dalits or Tribal. And two of them were Christian.

Away from the mass movement in New Delhi and other big towns, both spontaneous and organized,  of the gang rape and murder of “Brave-heart Daughter of India” as media and politicians called her, there has been a stunning silence on rapes of Dalit and Tribal women across the country, often enough by members of the police an security forces, and the absolute impunity that goes with it. Orissa has specially been an area of darkness. Some accounts have put the number of rapes in Kandhamal region as high as 30, with civil rights groups speaking of upto 100 cases in Sundargarh, for instance.

This is time to have a look at the full picture in Orissa which has a long history of rapes and its political consequences. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s 13-year long regime has witnessed a series of such gory incidents.  Civil rights groups quote official data which says that three women are raped every day in the state.

Local activists say this winter has seen many spine chilling rape incidents. A dancing girl was raped by three persons in the state capital while another girl was molested and pushed out of a running auto-rickshaw in the city. This was followed by a most pathetic incident where a minor girl was forcibly lifted and gang-raped in Rayagada. The orphan girl who was staying with her grand-mother attempted self-immolation.

Crimes against women under three heads – namely rape, molestation and “eve teasing” – during the years 2009, 2010 and 2011 have increased in the state.

“There has been a 20% rise in rape cases in the state during 2012. The increase in molestation and eve teasing cases have also recorded roughly the same percentage,” a senior official in the state Home department has admitted.  The tribal dominated Keonjhar district tops the list of crimes against women. While 75 rape cases were registered in this mineral rich district in 2011, the figure increased to 101 in 2012. Besides, 235 molestation and 20 eve-teaching cases were also reported in Keonjhar the same year. Mayurbhanj registered the highest number of 295 molestation cases in 2012, figuring slightly below the neighbouring district in rape cases (82).

Christians have been particular targets. In the 2007-2008 attacks, women and girls were targeted for sexual violence, humiliation, brutal physical assaults and threats. “There are several other reports of sexual assault and molestation and it is highly likely that many other such cases have gone unreported due to the shame attached,” warned the study ‘Genocide in Kandhamal: Ethnic Cleansing of Christians by Hindu Rightwing Forces in Orissa’ by the Human Rights Law Network. According to the report of Nirmala Niketan College of Social Work, five women reported that they and / or their female family members had been subjected to sexual assaults, and that 16 women said that young girls in their area had been raped while 12 women reported that women had been raped in their villages.  Though witness testimonies indicate that sexual violence was rampant during the attacks, there are very few reported cases, and an even smaller number that have been registered and are pending in the courts for prosecution.

Patently, civil society – which includes the Church in the State and in India, must wake up to this grim reality before we seek to rouse the Judiciary and the political system.

We must not be partners in the conspiracy of silence.

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