Srinagar: Following the fall of the PDP-BJP government in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir in June 2018, all the political appointees, upholding established convention, resigned from their posts. The chairperson of the State Commission for Protection of Women and Child Rights (SCPWCR), Nayeema Mehjoor, too, stepped down from the chair, leaving the commission headless for a year.
The commission, that came into being in 2000, was without a chairperson till June last year when the administration led by Satya Pal Malik, appointed Vasundhra Pathak Masoodi, a Supreme Court lawyer, as the chairperson of the SCPWCR. The Women’s Commission Act was modified in March 2019 and child rights made a part of it.
Pathak started her role with a bang, and her work was unconventional – visiting maternity hospital, doing surprise inspections, summoning police officers. The commission had steadily started functioning like never before.
But before Pathak could start making changes in the system, the commission was shut on October 31, 2019, soon after the Narender Modi government, on August 5 last year, scrapped the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and downgraded the state into a union territory. Over 100 state laws which include the law that governs the functioning of the SCWPR were repealed.
According to the Jammu and Kashmir Re-organisation Act, the National Women Commission Act has been extended to the Union territory of J&K, but three months after the extension of the National Women’s Commission Act, the National Women’s Commission (NWC) is yet to take up the pending cases of the commission, therefore leaving the women of J&K in lurch.
Masoodi, the last chairperson of SCWPR, said, “I have been a legal advisor with the National Women Commission (NCW) in 2009 and 10, so I know how the commission functions. NCW has its own jurisdiction. Just because we have a supreme court, it doesn’t mean that all the state-level cases will directly come to the supreme court; for that, you have different high courts for different states and UTs. Similarly, we should have a body in every state and UTs.”
Pathak explains that if a woman from Delhi wants to register a case at NCW, she can’t because there's a commission in place there. "NCW only takes up cases of NRIs or people who are settled in different states of India. Besides, NCW monitors’ the functioning of the commissions of other states and UTs as well,” she added.
Rekha Sharma, chairperson National Commission for Women, said, “Jammu and Kashmir will have its own Women’s Commission once the elections will be held in J&K and an Assembly will be constituted.”
Women left to fend for themselves
When Pathak received a call from a woman complaining about rats biting babies in the maternity ward of a hospital in Anantnag, she called a journalist in Kashmir, asking her to reach there. Pathak says she is now 'out of power'.
“If I were the chairperson, I would have made the authorities answerable. Within 24 hours, I would have resolved the issue,” said Pathak.
There are hundreds of cases that are pending with the Commission and now with its closure, no one knows whether the NCW will take them up or they will die a silent death.
The official figure states that over 200 cases, majority of them domestic violence, were undergoing trial at the SCPWCR, the day it was closed.
A victim of domestic violence whose case has been with pending with the SCPWCR since March 2018 says she had some hope of her case being resolved with it being handed to the new chairperson, but, with the commission being closed, she has lost that hope too. “My husband and in-laws would beat me up often and one day, on my friend’s insistence, I went to the Women’s Commission. The then chairperson of the commission was trying to settle my marital dispute, and to a little extent, things were working out well. But before my case could be settled, once in for all, the commission was closed,” said Lubna.
There are many women who had registered cases of violence– domestic violence, eve-teasing, rape, molestation, and harassment-- with the commission. Now, with its closure, they have been left to fend for themselves.
Pathak narrated some of the horrific cases that were with the commission. "A girl from Kupwara was abused and burnt by her in-laws. The girl’s family was kept unaware about the brutality till she was admitted to SMHS hospital. The police had done nothing to ensure the safety of that girl."
In another case, a girl from Udhampur district was “beaten up by her brother –in –law and tortured till she died. It was a case of dowry death. When the photos of the body were taken, there were visible torture marks on her face. The commission was trying its best to handle all these cases. Unfortunately, it was wound up before it could deliver justice in all these cases,” said Pathak, who has gone back to Delhi and is practicing at the Supreme Court.
Importance of women Commission in times of growing violence
Jammu and Kashmir has touched a new low when it comes to the safety of women. There has been a surge in the cases of crime against women.
According to the Crime Branch of police’s Crime Gazette for the year 2018, J&K has seen a wanton rise in cases of crime. The cruelty by husband is one of the top crimes, followed by rape, molestation, eve-teasing, and harassment.
In the absence of a women commission, the women in J&K are becoming vulnerable especially in times when crimes against women are showing an upward trend.
“I remember when my in-laws and husband were fighting with me day in and day out on trifle issues. One day, my husband, after beating me ruthlessly, threatened to kill me and out of anger and frustration, I told him that I will approach the women’s Commission. He stopped beating," said Kounsar Bazaz, a homemaker who left her job at a private bank after her marriage.
Approaching women’s commission was a sort of deterrent.
According to the Crime Gazette, 3363 cases of atrocities against women were reported in 2017. These include cases of kidnapping, abduction, rape, molestation, dowry, cruelty by husband and other crimes. Among all the districts in Kashmir, Srinagar has the highest rate of crime against women.
“It is sad that when the violence is on the rise, the commission has been shut. The Commission was not only meant for women but also children as well,” said Pathak.
“I still get calls from victims. The women in Kashmir can’t afford to go to courts; women’s commission was approachable, affordable and easy,” she added.
The erstwhile Women and Child Rights Commission, however, had been silent on some of the major incidents involving violence against women.
The cases include the murder and rape of an eight-year-old girl at Kathua in January 2017, Jammu, molestation of a girl at Handwara in 2016 or the case of the Insha Malik – who was blinded by the security forces during the summer unrest of 2016, triggered by the killing of Hizbul Mujahidin leader, Burhan Muzzafar Wani. The commission never took cognizance of these cases.
But, despite all the omissions, women were registering their cases at the commission with the hope of finding justice.
The closure of the commission has, however, been questioned by the members of the women and child rights commission.
Quoting a order by the central government, a member of the erstwhile commission said, “On 24 October, 2019 all the statutory bodies including the commission were asked to close down their offices by 31st of October and a day before – 30 October – an order from the Ministry of home affairs came, stating that the heads of the statutory bodies to continue till the new UT administration takes over the charge.”
“If the governor administration passes an order and the ministry of home affair passed another order related to the same subject, the order of the ministry will supersede. But the commission was closed, despite the order from the ministry,” said Pathak.