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Speaking at a panel discussion as part of the ‘Karnataka Against Sexual Violence’ dialogues in Bengaluru, Vrinda said the state uses experiences of sexual violence to reinforce its power through harsh punishment methods.
Death sentence, especially in cases of sexual violence, is only an exercise of state power and not a solution to systemic bias, senior lawyer and gender justice activist Vrinda Grover said on Saturday, February 11. She was speaking at a panel discussion as part of the ‘Karnataka Against Sexual Violence’ dialogues in Bengaluru, an initiative by Naveddu Nilladiddare, a collective comprising of several stakeholders in the gender justice movement.
“Nothing in law has ever changed due to the magnanimity of the state. Change, as we are beginning to see today, has happened because of activism on the ground. The state is now openly partisan and it was never women, transgender, or Dalit-friendly. A state that has never been willing to listen to a Dalit/Muslim/transgender man will never listen to women, be it from any identity. Therefore, we must document what has happened in the last ten years to see where we have been going wrong and how we can be better,” she said, in a session titled ‘The Politics of Rape: Beyond retributive to restorative justice’.
Advocate Manoranjini was also part of the discussion, which was moderated by feminist activist and journalist Laxmi Murthy. The panel discussed the idea of justice in India, investigating the ways in which law and gender come in conflict with each other.
Elaborating on the changing nature of law and the state itself, Vrinda said that though the law has expanded over time to codify various forms of sexual violence such as workplace harassment, caste-based sexual violence, and the like, women and minorities face several kinds of hostility during the legal process. “Post Nirbhaya, we have been able to make sexual violence an integral part of our social and political discourse. Politicians or state authorities can no longer ignore it. But we have also seen a weaponisation of the same because most discussions on justice are about longer and harsher punishment,” she said, emphasising that she does not believe in the death penalty as it does nothing to remedy the systemic and structural nature of sexual crimes.
“Intensity of punishment is a distraction by the state,” she added, underlining that instead of putting problem-solving mechanisms in place, the state uses the experiences of sexual violence of survivors to reinforce its power through harsh punishment methods.
Citing the release of the rapists of Bilkis Bano, Vrinda said that though she is against the release, she also does not want them to be awarded capital punishment. “Fighting for gender justice and not agreeing to retributive justice are not contradictory. I myself argued against the death penalty for the convicts in the Nirbhaya case. Even in the Disha rape case, we must question the fake encounter of the accused. What justice must do is give dignity to the survivor, and dispose of cases fast. We must hold the state accountable and ask for more mechanisms to ensure that the process of seeking justice is not exhausting and humiliating for a survivor. If we approve harsh punishments like the death penalty, the state will simply use it as a weapon to distract from the issues on ground, as well as target particular communities as is happening with the arrests in Assam to curb child marriages,” she said.
Advocate Manoranjini also spoke at length about the definition of rape itself, observing that the law defines the term itself in narrow terms, discounting the effect of marginalisation and intersectionality on different people in sexual crimes. “I was the Assistant Public Prosecutor in a case pertaining to the gang rape of a student. [The survivor] was dissuaded by everyone to not pursue it, but she bravely came forward to report the case and follow up. But when she stood in the witness box, she got scared at the harsh tonality and invasive questions posed by the defence lawyers. She broke down at one point,” recalled Manoranjini, elaborating on the need for courts and judicial officers to offer sensitivity to survivors of rape and sexual assault.
She mentioned how crimes against the bodies of Dalit women are not defined as sexual assault because the courts rely on technicality when it comes to defining rape. “The courts feel that only penetrative sexual violence is rape. But what about the assault on Dalit women and their bodies when they assert themselves or refuse to budge before dominant caste individuals? The law interprets rape very narrowly, and this is exclusionary,” she said.
The day-long programe also had other panel discussions on gender-based sexual violence in Karnataka, increased impunity of perpetrators in the context of caste, class, and religious divides, and ways to justice that are healing. Eminent gender justice activists including Akkai Padmashali, Madhu Bhushan, Anita Cheria, Ruth Manorama, and Haseena Khan among others were present. The forum also read out the Charter of Demands, a document listing down action points for the state to better address sexual crimes. The event was held at the auditorium of St Joseph’s University in Shantinagar.
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