CHENNAI: Zubaan’s latest book, The Search for Justice: The Sri Lanka Papers comes at a time when Sri Lanka would like nothing better than for the world to forget the wartime atrocities during the final stages of the war. All the more reason to grab the book, the latest in the feminist publisher’s series documenting and studying sexual violence and impunity.
Speaking to CE, Urvashi Butalia, founder of the Zubaan publishing house, said, “The Sexual Violence and Impunity (SVI) Project was a three-year project that was undertaken and commissioned by Zubaan.”
The research papers commissioned in five countries — India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh —were compiled to yield nearly 50 papers that were later collated into a series of eight volumes and are now being released as books.
Uma Chakravarti, an advisor of the Sexual Violence and Impunity project and editor of two books in the series said that sexual violence had become so routine in conflict zones, where the perpetrators are state actors and agencies, that the survivors themselves do not classify it as sexual violence. It was often classified either under plain torture or simply routine in the way that search-and-seizure operations were expected to humiliate the victims.
The women spoke at length about the climate of fear that prevailed in the war-torn country, the complex interpretations of justice among survivors of the excesses of the army and how they looked back at the days of the war.
Sumathy Sivamohan, political analyst, was a part of a panel discussion ‘The messy walk to freedom: seeking survival, seeking justice’ ahead of the book launch. Talking about her observations during the course of her research, she said, “The binary victim-perpetrator dynamics don’t really work in these cases.” To explain, she recounted a conversation with an ex-soldier who told her that he and his troupe would look at the bodies of women and make lewd jokes. “That was how they survived, being so close to war. So, women had to live next to a perpetrator who was himself a victim of war.”
Rohini Mohan, author and political journalist brought her own experiences to the table. “Seeing sexual violence as a weapon of war allowed women to talk about it with their husbands without shame but with anger,” she said.
The scenario is not unique to the conflict zones of Sri Lanka. Gazala Peer, a researcher with the SVI Project who worked in Kashmir recounted, “In one account from a female victim, the army reportedly barged into their home alleging that she was sheltering militants, and raped her. Despite her telling her neighbours and family about the incident, and a protest taking place, the local police station refused to file an FIR until 3 days later. When a chargesheet was ultimately filed, the men would refuse to depose, arguing they came to the military area instead. Even if they were eventually punished, it would be minimal at most and temporary. This is just one example of structures of impunity by the state,” she says.
According to the researchers, justice for the survivors lies in much more than public accountability. “There must be social acknowledgement of suffering before legal redressal can be sought,” says V Geetha, author of one of the books in the series, Undoing Impunity: Speech after Sexual Violence, which introduces readers to meaning of impunity in relation to sexual violence in South Asia. “Sexual violence incites very little understanding — some people are horrified because anything to do with sex, violent or otherwise, offends their sensibilities, and others are horrified by the violence, but that does not mean they wish to understand why these things happen,” she adds. “As much as we are critical of state power, we cannot allow that power to dictate how we ought to respond — so rather than be continually horrified, I would like us to focus on how we have responded, as responsible citizens, with courage, tenacity, hope and sorrow,” she concludes.