Orissa Kandhamal Nun gang rape: partial, delayed justice
Those following the gang rape of a Catholic Nun, Sr. M [the Supreme Court of India bars the naming of victims of gender violence] in Kandhamal, Orissa, on 25th August 2008 would have received the conviction of just one of her ten tormentors in the crime, with a sense of sadness for justice partially done and inordinately delayed. In the process, the traumatised religious sister has suffered embarrassment and humiliation in public, and has had to challenge malfeasance the state police and even by a judicial officer.
The Nun had to seek an intervention by the Supreme Court after failed attempts in the high court to ensure that the trial was conducted in a just and transparent manner.
A court in Cuttack on 14th March 2014 finally convicted the main accused – Mitua alias Santosh Patnaik – of the rape of the Nun, while finding two others – Gajendra Digal and Saroj Bahdei – guilty of the lesser crime of “outraging her modesty.” Six persons were acquitted due to lack of evidence. One person is still evading arrest, five and a half years after the crime was committed during the genocidal anti-Christian violence in the Kandhamal district in 2008 following the assassination of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad [World Hindu Council] vice president Laksmananada Saraswati by a Maoist terror squad.
That there has been a conviction at all speaks of the bravery and tenacity of the Nun, and of a small band of supporters who have carried on an unceasing campaign for justice. The state itself from the beginning had seemed totally disinterested in pursing the rapists and brining them to justice.
Two months after the crime, the victim came before the international media in New Delhi to narrate her pain at the police inaction. She spoke of how she was gang raped in the office of a not for profit social organization she worked for in Kandhamal. In fact, a group of rioting men who had caught her, wanted to burn her alive. Then, one by one, they raped her. Not satisfied with that, the group paraded her naked, together with a Priest who had also been captured by them. The police, when they reached her, were of no help. Twice, they allowed other groups of marauders to re-capture her. Later they advised her not to press charges, saying there could be “consequences” for her. They ordered her to not write her travail in detail in her official complaint. Eventually, instead of escorting her to a safe haven, they left her to take a public bus to the state capital where finally she found refuge in her religious community.
It was after outraged Christian activists made a noise in the national capital, New Delhi, that arrests were made. That six persons have been acquitted for want of evidence itself speaks of the shoddy investigations that were carried out. Much later, when finally she was asked to confront and identify the accused persons, the magistrate on duty sought to falsify her statement that she had identified the men. She moved the high court in Cuttack, which did not accept her plea. The Nun then came to the Supreme Court, which was aghast at the treatment meted to her by the subordinate judiciary.
The Supreme Court judges set a deadline for the case to be tried by the Orissa court and judgement given. This was not the only case of rape in the Kandhamal violence. Two other cases have been reported. There were many other cases of gender violence that never came to trial because the police was bent on minimizing the extent of violence against women, as indeed they had failed to register many other cases of arson, and some of murder. What has been particularly galling has been the failure of civil society in Orissa to stand by the Nun. In fact, both government officials and local citizen and political groups first sought to deny there had been a gang rape at all.
The Nun was then subjected to a vilification campaign in which the local media joined in, rather enthusiastically, with a slew of insinuations. State and national women’s commissions, meant to safeguard the interest of the common people and charged with overseeing that justice was done in cases of gender violence, kept almost entirely silent. So did the National Human Rights Commission and the government bodies who otherwise are known to speak out when other such crimes are committed. The investigations and trial have taken more than five years, and one person is still to be traced and arrested.
It is inexplicable that this lackadaisical process has taken place when there is a national mood of zero tolerance of rape and gender crimes following the gang rape and murder of a premedical student in New Delhi in December 2012. That horrendous crime led to the setting up of a commission headed by the retired Chief Justice of India, Mr. J S Verma, whose momentous report has set the norms and guidelines to curb violence against women.
In fact, the government accepted the report immediately and soon legislated a harsher law against rape, mandating the death penalty for those found guilty. Several persons have been given capital punishment since 2012. One would have wished the norms stipulated by Justice Verma for investigations and trial had been followed in the case of Sr. M. But traumatised though she may have been by her experience in Kandhamal and then in the court rooms, Sr. M. has not accepted defeat. She has refused to be broken, and is understood to be pursuing higher studies and hopes to be come a lawyer one day. I know Sr. M personally, and am moved beyond words by her courage and the strength of her spirit, and of her faith. [UCAN]