Women’s Tribunal Puts the UPA Government in the Dock

– Bhasha Singh

"I was raped when I was sixteen and have been sexually exploited by the rapist, an influential doctor, for eight years since. For the past five years I’ve battled to get an FIR lodged – and in the process have been jailed twice myself. In Modi’s Gujarat, women have the choice of committing suicide or demonstrating in the nude by Pooja Chauhan of Rajkot if their voice is to be heard. But I’m determined to keep fighting.” 28-year old Shilpi Indra Mohan from Ahmedabad shared her determination to resist women’s oppression in Gujarat – and she was not alone. On 8 August at the Women’s Tribunal organised by the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) at Parliament Street, women from 10 states took part, and shared their experiences of resistance. They indicted the Governments in their respective states and at the Centre on three major counts: violence against women, increasing unemployment and economic insecurity, and false promises of political empowerment.

In the backdrop of celebrations of 60 years of Independence, these women declared that in these 60 years, ruling establishments had only given them new forms of oppression – and any measure of freedom and justice were to be had only through fierce struggles. Above all they put the Manmohan Singh-led UPA Government in the dock for its pro-imperialist new economic policy, for SEZs which were robbing them of land and livelihood, for communal violence, feudal oppression, colonial and repressive laws like the AFSPA and for betraying its promise of 33% reservation for women in Parliament.

Savita Rani from Mori Karima village of Ludhiana district in Punjab told her story of exploitation at the hands of a chief of a local Dera. 27 years old, she is responsible for her two younger sisters, aged six and three. She told the gathered women and the tribunal she was a widow, and a local Dera chief attempted to exploit her sexually. When she refused he had her beaten up and her clothes torn. Her little sisters and brother were also threatened. “Later when I returned with angry villagers the Dera chief electrocuted the boundary walls. The police refused to help. It took a tough struggle to get an FIR filed. The villagers were very supportive. Only when the village sarpanch and the sevadar of the Dera came along did the police eventually file my complaint. My concern is for other vulnerable women who get fooled and exploited by these conmen.”

What was remarkable about the women who deposed before the Tribunal was that far from wanting to hide their faces and cower in fear, they were determined to fight back and said that it was rather their oppressors who ought to hide their faces in shame.  
Women from Bihar and Jharkhand recounted their experience of struggles that showed how issues of land, identity and dignity are inseparable. In both states, women who contested and won panchayat polls face persecution in the form of false cases. Pratima Ingapi from Karbi Anglong spoke of how women in the North Eastern states are subjected to custodial rape, torture and fake encounters at the hands of the Army, thanks to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.

Shobha Singh from UP spoke of the Shravasti gang rape of Muslim women orchestrated by the Minister in Mayawati’s cabinet, while Tahira Hasan of the Tehrik-e-niswan spoke of her experience in taking up the case of Farzana Khatun, victim of a communal gang rape, in which the rioters and rapists were protected by the Mulayam Government. Farzana, a beedi worker from UP, spoke movingly of the tremendous economic exploitation suffered by women working in beedi factories. Sudha from Rajasthan spoke of the feudal oppression suffered by dalit women forced to bear night soil in Rajasthan.

Historian Tanika Sarkar spoke to the gathered women of the struggles of women of Singur and Nandigram against land grab and SEZs. Uma Chakravarty, also a historian and a member of the jury, remarked that many of the cases heard here would not even be recorded by the National crime Bureau since getting an FIR filed is so difficult.

Women from most states spoke of how minimum wages and equal wages were denied to them systematically, how even under the NREGA, employment for women is far from guaranteed, and how women employed as health workers or voluntary workers in anganwadi and similar schemes are denied proper wages. This economic insecurity and joblessness effectively makes women more vulnerable to domestic violence, dowry harassment and so on.

The jury included Shaista Ambar of the Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board, Uma Chakravarti, Supreme Court advocate Aparna Bharadwaj and Vrinda Grover, Prof. Mary John and Prof. Anuradha Chenoy from JNU, and Savita Singh from Delhi University.

AIPWA General Secretary Kumudini Pati and President Srilata Swaminathan addressed the gathering, calling for an intensification of struggles of women against the policies of successive governments that were aimed at suppressing the women’s movement.

The Tribunal culminated with women enthusiastically burning an effigy of Manmohan Singh representative of the many weapons wielded by his Government against women and the women’s movement.