On July 11, 2004, in the northeast Indian state of Manipur, Assam Rifles soldiers handed over a memo to arrest 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama Devi, “a suspected insurgent, explosives expert and hard core member” of the banned People’s Liberation Army (PLA). A few hours later, she was found dead in a field, her body riddled with bullets. There was evidence that she had been raped, and she had been shot in her vagina.
Nearly four miles from where Manorama’s body was found, Irom Sharmila continues an indefinite fast. She has refused to eat a morsel since November 2000. She is protesting against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which has been in force in Manipur since 1958. The original anti-AFSPA heroine, she is being kept alive by force-feeding.
On July 15, 2004, four days after Manorama was killed, Indians were stunned to see photographs in the national press of a most extraordinary protest – a group of middle-aged women demonstrated, naked, in front of the gates of Kangla Fort, the headquarters of the 17th Assam Rifles in Imphal, shouting, “Indian Army, rape us!”
Among the protesters was Thockchom Ramani, who was then 75 years old and secretary of the Women’s Social Reformation and Development Samaj. Ramani said, “Our anger shed our inhibition that day. If necessary we will die – commit self-immolation to save our innocent sons and daughters.”
The reason for their rage is clear. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act grants soldiers legal immunity in “disturbed” areas (which large parts of northeast India have been declared to be), even if they kill someone.
Despite several attempts – including by some politicians – to repeal the law, it remains in force.
The rape of women by soldiers across the world is not new. For retreating victorious armies, women were part of the spoils of war. Remember the Rape of the Sabine Women? It was re-enacted with such ferocity, so recently, in Bosnia.
And before that, there were the Korean “comfort women,” forcibly recruited to service soldiers during the Japanese invasion of Korea – a shameful chapter in Japan’s history, for which no apology has yet been made.
Then there was the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka, whose misadventures, including sexual violence against women, cost a former prime minister of India his life.
We could go on and on.
In the mid-1980s, the women’s movement in India succeeded in forcing a major change in the law by making “custodial rape” – rape by state agents in state-run institutions (police stations, remand homes, shelters, hospitals, and places of refuge) – a criminal offence. But it made no headway with AFSPA: The armed forces remain above the law.
The privilege of immunity has always been granted to the armed forces, and to law, order, and security personnel of the state, on the grounds that they are doing their duty in the service of society and in the interests of national security. The immunity enjoyed by security and armed personnel under AFSPA, however, has meant that they are not liable for any criminal act committed “in the line of duty.”
In the decades that they have been deployed in northeast India, and in Jammu and Kashmir, the armed forces have been accused of repeated encounter killings, torture, kidnappings, and the brutal repression of insurgents and their families. Female members of insurgents’ families are especially vulnerable, as the armed forces often deliberately target them in their attempt to extract information on militant activity.
The scale of deployment is huge: In Jammu and Kashmir alone, there are said to be 634,000 Indian troops. Independent assessments calculate that there is one armed soldier for every 20 persons in the state.
In the context of insurgency or armed civilian conflict, as in Kashmir and the northeast, the state and its agents engage in “legitimate” violence against mutinous citizens, among them women who are caught in the crossfire. These are unintended victims, but there are also women who are targeted either because they are considered a direct threat, like Thangjam Manorama, or because they are a conduit to insurgent men.
It is no surprise that a militarized state displays the full extent of its masculinity via its armed forces. Feminists have long analyzed the “male” element in state institutions, which creates a brotherhood that not only closes ranks, but also perpetuates immunity – or what legal luminary Upendra Baxi calls “contrived and escalating orders of impunity.”
In India, however, sexual violence against women by the armed forces exhibits another alarming tendency: Over the years, and especially in Kashmir and the northeast, this violence has been ethnicized and communalized, reflecting and consolidating prevailing social prejudices. Muslims and ethnically distinct northeastern women have borne the brunt of it.
The horrific gang rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi in December 2012 compelled a review and amendment of laws relating to crimes against women. Despite the recommendations of an expert committee set up for the purpose, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act remains unchanged. It is unlikely that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s muscular government will strike it from the statute book.