Code of injustice: Silencing sexual assaults in the military

Gunner BD Khente killed his commanding officer because of repeated demands for 'unnatural sex.' He is hardly an exception yet the Indian military has no sexual harassment laws, and is exempt from the civilian kind.

Lakshmi Chaudhry March 15, 2013 11:10:56 IST
Code of injustice: Silencing sexual assaults in the military

Tucked away on page 15 of the 14 March edition of Times of India is a story about BD Khente, a young army gunner who has been sentenced to life by the Armed Forces Tribunal for killing his commander, Subedar Randhir Singh. His reason: Singh made persistent and aggressive demands for "unnantural sex" -i.e. sodomy- and meted out severe physical punishment when Khente refused.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, two women and a man are making history as the first military sexual assault victims to testify before the US Senate. Former army sergeant Rebekah Havrilla was raped by a superior in Afghanistan, but "chose not to do a report of any kind because I had no faith in my chain of command". She spoke instead to the Army chaplain who advised her to accept the assault as an "act of God."

Havrilla's view of military justice was echoed by BriGette McCoy, raped at the age of 18 in Germany. “I no longer have any hope that the military chain of command will consistently prosecute, convict, sentence and carry out the sentencing of sexual predators in uniform,” she told the Senate committee. And when former naval petty officer Brian K. Lewis reported being raped by his superior officer, he "was misdiagnosed as having a personality disorder".

Code of injustice Silencing sexual assaults in the military


The Pentagon estimates around 19,000 personnel are victims of sexual assault -- which is a vastly underrported crime since any attempt to seek justice is usually met with reprisal, denial or further humiliation.

There are no comparable statistics available for the Indian military, but the cases that have made headlines mostly follow the same, tragic pattern. Squadron Leader Anjali Gupta of the Indian Air Force (IAF) charged her senior Air Vice Marshal Anil Chopra of making sexual advances on her, and was immediately fired for indiscipline.  Chopra went on to become Air Marshal while Gupta later committed suicide. In 2008, Army Captain Poonam Kaur was dismissed from service after she accused her senior male officers of sexual, mental and physical harassment. (Though in few incidents -- like that of Megha Razdan -- military justice has been swift and decisive.)

Defence Minister AK Antony claims such incidents are “aberrations and not the rule”, and in 2009 he told Parliament there had been only 11 such reports in the past five years. The absurdly small -- and statistically improbable -- number ought to give us pause -- and ask if it is instead damning evidence of the extent of silencing. The little reporting there has been on the subject indicates that sexual harassment is hardly rare in the armed forces. And one can safely assume male rape is even more under-reported given the greater shame surrounding the issue --- and a government that refuses to recognise men as rape victims (see latest draft of the anti-rape bill).

Yet, the Indian armed forces have no specific provisions pertaining to sexual harassment -- the person is charged with "conduct unbecoming" -- and yet have consistently rejected the jurisdiction of the Indian Penal Code.  "The army has a standing policy that every case of serious nature invariably goes to the military court. The Supreme Court guidelines are not applicable as we have the Army Act," former judge and advocate general of Indian Army Maj Gen Neelendra Kumar told Mid-day back in 2009. A stance the military still maintains and protects in 2013. The latest sexual harassment bill passed by Parliament does not cover the armed forces.

The mystique of the military relies on three fundamental premises. One, the armed forces take care of their own. Two, its judicial process is swift, fair and more effective than its civilian counterpart. And three, the code of military honour is higher and more enduring than any law of the land. These claims to exceptionalism are also the reason why sexual assault victims rarely receive justice within the armed forces.

The very fact of sexual violence -- especially of a junior officer -- shatters the mythology of the military code. It shows instead how the iron-clad chain of command and demand for unquestioning obedience can become powerful tools to silence, humiliate and dismiss those who dare to report the crime.

During the Senate hearing, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand told US military officials, "I don’t know how you can say having 19,000 sexual assaults and rapes a year is discipline and order… I appreciate the work you are doing, I honestly do, but it’s not enough. And if you think you are achieving discipline and order with your current convening authority framework I am sorry to say you are wrong.”

Sexual harassment is not sufficient justification for murder, but Khente was driven to desperation by a military code that refused to protect him. A judicial process that didn't intervene against a subedar with a known reputation for sodomising new recruits, but made an example of Khente by sentencing him to life imprisonment.

And yet, despite the many complaints about the current anti-rape bill, there has been barely a murmur against the exemption it continues to offer armed forces. There are many reasons why the military has its own judicial system, and in most areas, deservedly so. But sexual violence cannot be one of them, whether committed by or within the military, whether the victim is a civilian or a gunner, in Jaipur or Srinagar. The claim of exceptionalism cannot become a claim to immunity from the law of the land.

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