After nine months of battling the absence of national political will to apply existing laws and redressal mechanisms to ensure justice for the victims of the attacks on the Muslim community in Gujarat since 27th February 2002, several women's groups in India launched an International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat (IIJ).
The Panel of feminist jurists, activists, lawyers, writers and academics from various parts of the world visited Gujarat between 14th and 17th December and investigated the violence - particularly the physical and sexual - in the light of existing international laws, conventions and norms. The Panel also addressed the complicity of the State in the violence, the lack of effective redressal for the victims and the implications of the recent BJP victory in the state. Members of the Panel visited Ahmedabad, Baroda, and Panchmahals and met with affected people, support workers, lawyers and government officials. They also held confidential meetings with women impacted in different ways.
"The Panel is not simply a 'fact-finding' mission, but an attempt to support efforts toward achieving justice for the survivors, as well as to support the prevention of future attacks against minorities, particularly women," said Chayanika Shah, a member of the Forum Against Oppression of Women, Mumbai, one of the main organizers of the Initiative. The correlation between what has happened in Gujarat - particularly to minority women - and the massacre of various cultural, religious, and ethnic
subgroups around the world prompted the convening of an international panel.
"As a Jew, meeting people from the Muslim community, seeing the terror on their faces, the ghettoisation and the privations of the economic boycott made me feel as though I was looking at my forebears in Nazi Germany," said Rhonda Copelon, Professor of Law, City University of New York. For the past ten years, Copelon has been examining the relationships between conflict situations and violence against women, and has monitored and filed amicus briefs, which influenced the jurisprudence of the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda with respect to the recognition of gender violence as a form of torture and genocide.
Gabriela Mischkowski, historian and co-founder of Medica Mondiale, Germany - a women's organization - initiated medical and psychological care and support for women subjected to rape in the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina and drew parallels between these situations. "The medical system has proved to be unresponsive to the needs of women victims of violence, including sexual violence. Survivors of sexual violence have little access to counseling and issues relating to their sexual and reproductive health and rights are neglected. We found very little attention paid to issues relating to pregnancy, abortions and sexually transmitted infections as a consequence of sexual violence, and were appalled at the lack of safe spaces for women to recover and defend themselves."
The pattern of sexual violence in Gujarat, while echoing situations in Rwanda and Bosnia, was different in some ways, feel the panelists. "We were struck by the public nature of the violence, the social sanction to it and the continuing threats we witnessed soon after the announcement of the electoral victory of the BJP," said Nira Yuval-Davis, Professor of Gender and Ethnic Studies at the University of Greenwich, UK. biases of the police, the medical and legal systems, as well as those of their families and communities who seek to hide their 'shame' have silenced many women victims of sexual violence. "We met many mothers who admitted that they had been compelled to send their daughters 'away' or marry them off to men they knew to be unsuitable. The failure of state agencies to prosecute perpetrators of violence means that rapists are free to continue threatening and taunting women on a daily basis," said members of the Panel.
Healing the wounds of, and building future security for the women has been impossible due to the denial of justice. A high placed police official who did not want to be named admitted to the Panel that legal redressal was negligible. While 2,200 cases were instituted in Gujarat, all 10 that have been dealt with in the Panchmahals led to acquittals. He estimated that convictions were likely in only about five cases in all. "The results of the recent election in Gujarat give the instigators and perpetrators of violence in that state the power and potential to continue their campaign of hate and terror against the Muslim community," said Sunila Abeysekara from Colombo. Abeysekara has been involved in monitoring the on-going peace process in Sri Lanka, and promoting the participation of civil society, especially women, in negotiations at the local level.
"The post-election scenario in Gujarat exposes the fallacy of India's claim to be the world's largest democracy and raises a clear question about whether a 'free and fair' election alone is a sufficient indicator to guarantee and assert the existence of democracy in any society," said Farah Naqvi, an Indian panelist urging that the 'sham' of Indian democracy be exposed.
The Panel's Interim Report voiced strong concern. "Inspite of the totally inadequate legal and other responses to the violence in Gujarat, the government has continued to deny permission for international scrutiny of the situation... In a pluralist society such as India, ensuring equal representation and participation of all communities and guaranteeing the rights of women and of minorities are among the most important tests of a genuine democracy. The propagation of fear and hatred among communities is anathema to these principles and is inconsistent with both national and international law."
The Report also addressed the similarities and differences in the way sexual violence has been used in cases of religious, ethnic or communal violence in other parts of the world. It says: "This violence, which reflects a longer and larger genocidal project, in our view constitutes a crime against humanity and satisfies the legal definition of genocide, both of which are crimes of the most serious dimension under international law."
The Interim Report outlines 'Urgent Actions to Be Taken' by the state, the national and international community. It stresses on the restoration of constitutional rights of the Muslims of India, and asserts the need for ensuring the protection of their human rights in accordance with international norms. It also recommends the setting up of special courts for immediate redressal for crimes of sexual violence, broadening the understanding of rape and eliminating the insistence on production of
medical evidence and corroboration of victims' testimonies.
Panel members also called for specific measures with regard to the issues of justice, the continuing impact of the violence, and the marginalization of the Muslims of Gujarat.