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January 14, 2017

India: Where police rape women and NHRC seeks mere compensation

[This is an AHRC Statement.]

It is almost a week since the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC) admitted to having found prima facie evidence of the security personnel of state government of Chhattisgarh having raped and sexually and physically assaulted at least 16 women, mostly women belonging to the indigenous communities. It is also been a week since the NHRC put the state government on notice, though in doing so, merely asking why the women should not be monetarily compensated, with a sum of Rupees 3 lakh for each of the eight victims of rape, Rupees 2 lakh for each of the six victims of sexual assault, and Rupees 50,000 for the two victims physically assaulted.

NHRC only cited compensation, and sidestepped the directive to invoke SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in all the cases when the victims belong to Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes. It has not sought even suspension of the cops accused and named in the first information reports, never mind taking the investigations into the cases away from the Chhattisgarh Police, the force whose personnel are accused of these rapes and assaults. The Chhattisgarh Police has itself of course not sought to hand over the cases to an independent body to ensure an impartial investigation.

The NHRC omission comes out of no unintended dereliction of duty. NHRC for once has stood as true to its mandate as it can, taking suo moto notice of a media report detailing the assaults and acting on them, to at least do this much. Had it not been for this timely intervention by the Commission, the crimes committed by those obligated to protect the victims might have been forgotten, like so many others committed in the state marred by an ongoing armed struggle between Maoist insurgents and the State.

What the case indeed betrays is a total collapse of the rule of law in most Indian states. Particularly in the hinterlands, public justice institutions have been rendered completely incapable of providing redress for victims, whatever the nature of the crime committed by either private citizens or State personnel. The reality is laid bare in this case of rape and assault. In a functioning rule of law system, a victim of rape and/or assault would rush to the police to seek justice. What if the cops themselves committed the rapes, though? And, what if the justice system is corrupt and dysfunctional? Whom would the victims go to seek justice?

There is a high possibility the women will not get any justice even if some other institution enters the fray. The same force whose personnel are accused of committing the crimes will still investigate these cases. Further, prosecutors, being from the same state administration that NHRC held as “vicariously liable” for gross violations of human rights, would sniff out any hope of justice remaining. Any intervention by an outside agency, even if it were independent, would become meaningless. So the only possibility in the current scenario is some financial compensation, i.e. if even this snails its way to the point of reimbursement.

It is in this context that the NHRC intervention – stopping at seeking compensation and invoking provisions of SC/ST (PoA) Act – turns into a welcome, but cruel, joke. It will remain so unless the NHRC puts its act together and orders transfer of investigation to an independent body in a time-bound manner, monitored by either itself or any other competent and independent body.

If it does not, the intervention will be just another, in a state notorious for security forces themselves committing crimes against women, raping and assaulting them, with impunity. One does not get much hope from the developments in the Meena Khalkho rape and murder case. Nothing much has happened in that case despite the Anita Jha judicial inquiry commission having indicted Chhattisgarh Police officers and ordering them to file an F.I.R against 25 cops in 2015.

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