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India: Impunity for diplomats; eleven years and counting

Jan 21, 2011

The recent incident of an Indian diplomat involved in wife-beating has refreshed the memories of a similar case of sexual harassment of a tribal maid by her diplomat employee eleven years back. Sayeeda Hameed, Member, Planning Commission, relives the agony with a hope of justice being delivered this time.

Neighbours woke up one morning to find a woman with a bloodied face, the wife of the diplomat Amit Verma, running out of her house. This incident, which occurred last month in Golders Green, a residential area in London, has unleashed a debate across the globe on whether an individual should be protected against the law of the land simply because he happens to be a diplomat, no matter how heinous his crime.

Eleven years ago in 1999, I spent many agonised days and nights over this very issue. It was a case of another Indian diplomat in Paris, who in this case had sexually abused a 17-year-old tribal girl from Ranchi. As a member of the National Commission for Women, I investigated this case. The story was broken by The Indian Express on September 15, 1999. Two of us NCW members arrived in Ranchi on October 1, 1999. The Indian Express had reported the story about Lalita Oraon, which began in Serum Tola near Ranchi and ended in Paris. The girl had allegedly been assaulted by her diplomat employer, who was the first secretary for economic affairs at the Indian embassy in France. She fled from his house and was found on September 5 by the French police. The police took her to the Convent of St Joseph of Cluny. There, in a state of terror and mental trauma, she leapt over the six-ft-high wall of the Convent. The police then moved her to Cochin Hospital, in a Paris suburb. The report added that “Lalita’s age has been put at 17 by the French doctors who examined her on September 6, as opposed to the 19 years stated on her passport.”

In Ranchi, we met Lalita’s mother Karmi and her brother Alvis. Meticulously we gathered facts of the case from the distraught mother and brother. Our visit was triggered by media reports, and by a letter received from four women activists of Ranchi with whom I had worked in the past. Two of the older women were academics, Professor Malanchu Ghosh and Dr Rose Kirketta; the other two were young journalists, Vasavi Kiro and Dayamani Burla. The day before we arrived, 27 organisations, acting together, staged a dharna outside the district commissioner’s office. We received a charter of demands from them at a town-hall meeting, which, among other things, stated that Lalita’s case should be tried in Paris under international law so that it did not become a casualty of political pressure, and that Lalita should be repatriated and rehabilitated. Another petition came to us from the Kendriya Sarna Samiti on the larger issue of Nari Dasta. They demanded that all police stations, especially in rural areas, should maintain records of all girls who in the garb of employment are forced to migrate.

During the two days at Ranchi we heard testimony after testimony from civil society, human-rights and tribal-rights activists, all seething with anger at this heinous assault. Besides Karmi and Alvis, we spoke to her employer’s family, police officers, district administrators, tribal NGOs and the media.

In Delhi, it took me 10 days to write my report. We were then tasked, under the NCW Act, to release the findings and ask for an Action Taken Report from government. I was anxious to begin taking action; but no matter how hard I tried, I could not get the report released. It fell between procedure and protocol and never saw the light of day.

For months after that I hid my face from my Ranchi friends and stopped taking their calls and answering letters. I was ashamed of my inability to live up to their hopes — and in a larger context, the hopes pinned on the commission by women’s groups who had struggled post-Beijing to create the National Commission for Women.

The French government too did not pursue the case, although many rights groups agitated in both countries. The story of Lalita Oraon was forgotten. I lived with a sense of guilt and sorrow for a few years. Then I did what writers have done from times immemorial. I wrote the story of Lalita along with stories of 11 other women, victims of violence, the landmark cases of my three-year tenure.

The case of the two diplomats, straddling 11 years, brought to the forefront the issue of violence against women compounded with diplomatic immunity, which needs to be placed and debated in the public domain.

Recently we passed the Domestic Violence Act, landmark legislation for India where most people still consider wife-beating to be a private matter to be settled “amicably” between partners. The act requires that institutional mechanisms be created to ensure that its benefits percolate to women all over the country. Similar legislation protects women from brutalisation by husbands, partners, etc, in many countries, including Britain. It is clear to any right-minded individual that there should be no immunity whatsoever for any one who indulges in violence against women. To throw the blanket of immunity over the perpetrator is to make a mockery of the law.

Unfortunately, this mindset prevails among top people in every field of public life, which forces victims to seek redress in countries which have far better record of protecting gender rights.

Eleven years after I wrote that report, I know why it disappeared. During these years we have progressed on many gender-related concerns, including creating a gender lens through which we try to view our polity. We need to now have the moral courage to acknowledge the ugly truth about gender abuse, and offer redress to the victim. I write today in the hope that gender violence will never again be hidden, condoned or glossed over under any false cover, not even of diplomatic immunity.

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