Left Activist, Researcher, and currently an Exile. Docking in Hong Kong at Right to Food desk of the Asian Human Rights Commission.
The decision of going naked in protest to the oppression committed on them by POSCO and its supporters must not had come easily to the women of Govindpur village of Jagatsingpur district in Odisha. It cannot come easily to women of anywhere in country, however, much distressed they are. It is a country, after all, that still abides by essentially feudal codes of honour hinged, primarily, on their bodies and punishing those who stray with extreme, and extrajudicial, measures like honour killing with the law enforces looking away.
But then, this is exactly what the women of this POSCO-infested village (to borrow from the mainstream media that refers to all such areas as ‘infested’ by this or that dissenting group) have been forced into. The desperation betraying the decision is unmistakable. It can startle even those who deal with such stories of despair day in and day out. Last time one had seen such a protest taking place was in Manipur in July 2004. The situation, however, was a little different in that case. Manipur has always been a ‘disturbed’ area for the Indian state and condemned, therefore, to be reined in by brute force. Brute force in military parlance, in turn, has always included sexual assault as a weapon of shaming and controlling the enemy.
Elderly women of Manipur were aghast at that and decided for going that protest in sheer desperation. They were a people who had completely lost their faith in the nation that claimed to be their own but acted as an occupying force. It did never treat them, or their menfolk, as its own. Its security forces assaulted the men and raped the women at will and the state legitimised such dreadful practices by allowing the Assam Rifles deployed in Manipur to provide condoms as an integral part of the travel kit, to be used while on patrol duty. Having had enough of this, Manipuri women went to the headquarters of the Assam Rifles, disrobed and flung a banner reading “INDIAN ARMY RAPE US”.
Odisha is thousands of kilometers away from Manipur. It is not a ‘disturbed’ area with the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, a colonial relic very dear to Indian state, in force. Its women are not that alien to Indian state as Manipuri women are to it, despite all its claims on the contrary. Yet, the desperation and the progressive loss of any faith of the citizenry in the state are same. This is what explains the disarmingly simple and yet dangerous message that seeps out of the statement issued by the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS). “Left with no other option, women from the village have decided to get naked before the Policemen tomorrow” is all that it says. The pain and agony it would take to first decide for holding such a protest and then announcing it to the public is something lost on the state and the moral guardians it deploys to keep the pretension of being a democracy on.
The women have reached the decision because the state has abandoned them for POSCO, the multinational company that has been violating all their rights with impunity. They have reached the decision after getting many of their near and dear ones killed by the hired goons of the company. They have reached the decision for the state government sending in an armed-to-teeth police force for cracking down on the peaceful protesters and forcibly acquire the lands even when the environmental clearance that is mandatory for such projects stand cancelled by the statutory authorities.
The immediate provocation comes from the stubborn refusal of the police to lodge a formal First Information Report (FIR), a constitutional right of the people, against the perpetrators of a bomb attack on the nonviolent protesters that killed several of them. Despite unambiguous indications that the attack was carried out by the hired goons of POSCO, the police have obstinately maintained that the deceased were involved in bomb-making and perished when it exploded prematurely, all this without even a pretense of investigation.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the anti-POSCO movement has faced such violence or police apathy. On one hand, it has been a victim of ruthlessly violent attacks on its activists purportedly carried out at the behest of POSCO and on the other a systematic victimisation by the state by filing fabricated cases against them as exposed by a fact finding report titled “Captive Democracy”.
The message that the state is not ready to listen to peaceful voices of dissent is loud and clear. It has abandoned the citizenry for the reasons best known to it and had decided to side with the private interests even at the expense of rule of law. It has shifted the boundaries and pushed the citizens to the extremes. It is no more a struggle for justice that had become a distant dream, but a struggle for survival that starts with being heard and noticed. It is a struggle for asserting one’s existence against those who want to erase the poor and the downtrodden from nation’s conscience. It is, therefore, a struggle for reclaiming the citizenship in a democracy that is going truant.
The signs are not good for such struggles. The wretchedness hitherto reserved for those living on the peripheries of the nation has been slowly, but consistently, moving inwards. The country has already stripped thousands of its women naked underlining what Ms. Arundhati Roy calls a ‘rape culture’. It has looked away when the non-state actors, so to say, have done the same with other set of victims hounded along the fault lines of caste, kinship and religion. It had yet not reached a stage where its women have to get naked in front of the police, supposed to be law enforcers, unlike its atrocious armed forces for their legitimate rights. It would better not let that happen.