Women's activists throughout the country have reported the hostile attitude of the police and the judiciary when it comes to punishing perpetrators of violence. But when a high-placed government functionary faces similar hostility, and finds herself powerless to deal with it, it is indeed an eye-opener.

Planning Commission member Syeda S Hameed is one such person. In her recent book, 'They Hang - Twelve Women in My Portrait Gallery', she narrates her personal experience of trying to help 12 wronged women get justice. Syeda Hameed's book, based on her work as Member of the National Commission for Women (1997-2000), is an explosive account of the impotence of this institution. Not only does she document, in brutal detail, the violence committed on women in a range of contexts, but also the chilling refusal of `the system' to bring the guilty to book.

The atrocities Syeda recounts are not unusual, nor are they unknown to us. Several have been in the public eye during the late 1990s. For instance, Ila Pandey's case against her husband Rajneesh Pandey, who was repeatedly raping their 10-year-old daughter in Karvi, Uttar Pradesh. Or the story of Lalita Oraon, raped by Amrit Lugan, India's First Secretary, Economic Affairs, Paris, while she worked in his house as a maid and nanny.

Syeda provides information from her role as investigator in these cases: she took down testimonies of hundreds of people, and wrote detailed reports. Her Karvi report clearly indicated the culpability of Rajneesh as well as the virulent campaign launched by his supporters against local women's groups who took up the case. Entitled `Case of Child Sexual Abuse and Targeting of Women's Rights Groups', the report received media coverage and "momentarily shook the establishment". Years later, however, Rajneesh remarried, while the case filed by Ila drags on.

Similarly, Syeda wrote an NCW report entitled `The Alleged Exploitation and Abuse of Lalita Oraon in Paris, France' and sent it to all relevant government departments authorised to present an Action Taken Report on the issue. But the report was stillborn. Says Syeda, in the book: "I was anxious to begin taking action, but the matter never saw the light of day. No matter how I tried, I could not get the report released. It disappeared mysteriously from the scene, fell between the cracks of procedure and protocol.... Lalita Oraon vanished into thin air. Years passed without a word about Lalita."

One NCW report, `Come In, but One by One: Sexual Harassment at Delhi Public School' - connected with the alleged harassment of women by the DPS NOIDA principal Varma, was released at a crowded press conference in New Delhi. It got media attention, but soon vanished from the public sphere. The school protected its principal, despite concrete evidence of sexual harassment of at least three women teachers (whose services he had terminated as soon as they refused to comply with his wishes). Varma served his full term and, after superannuating, was given an extension for another three years. Syeda notes bitterly, "My report probably still lies (in NCW), carefully preserved in files which no one ever opens, or it may have been shredded with all other five-year-old documents...."

Syeda's book displays strong personal commitment as well as rare honesty. The book is uncompromising in its recording of experiences. At places she moves beyond precise facts into an imaginative reconstruction of events and persona - always clarifying which of the writing is fact, and which is `faction'.

One disturbing aspect emerging from her accounts is the nasty role played by `society' - families, relatives and neighbourhoods - in instigating violence. In Haryana's Sudaka village for instance, 15-year old Maimun's family forced her to marry Aijaz. This was to protect their `izzaat' (honour) that was compromised by Maimun's affair with Idris, a man from her own village. Aijaz and his cronies gang-raped Maimun, slashed her with a knife from neck to midriff, and left her to die.

"My report probably still lies carefully preserved in files which no one ever opens, or it may have been shredded with all other five-year-old documents..."

 •  By choice and circumstance Later, strangers found and nursed Maimun, and then Idris located her. Her parents filed a case against Idris, and the police arrested Idris's old parents. When Maimun and Idris came to NCW, Syeda and her colleagues were moved and angry, and immediately drove to Sudaka village. There they faced an extremely hostile mob of villagers, who dragged Maimun out of the vehicle. The Haryana police did not move a muscle to prevent this. The NCW team returned empty-handed - no justice delivered. Instead, they had actually handed over the lamb for slaughter.

All the 12 stories indicate that NCW lacks infrastructure, back-up, and `teeth'. Although it is the apex body for women in India, it is powerless to actually move the administration, police and judiciary, to make them take appropriate action. Gross violations of women's human rights carry on with impunity. Everybody knows that the guilty are seldom punished. Even though, NCW members and hundreds of other women's groups might work tirelessly to handle the deluge of cases that pour in, their efforts could still end up in vain.

In the same book, Syeda also highlights the stories of fighting women, those who speak out against exploitation - file First Investigation Reports (FIRs); refuse to succumb to brutal backlash; and refuse to kowtow to the powers-that-be. Thus, one elderly trustee of DPS, refused to condone the principal's misconduct, rather she testified that the principal "used his power and position to extract sexual favours from women teachers...." Sometimes, Syeda `imagines in' a woman who fights back - Rajneesh Pandey's second wife perhaps; or Chaddo, who becomes a lawyer after her elder sister Shaddo was killed by in-laws. She imagines Sajoni - a tribal woman from Bagjori village, Bihar, branded a witch, thrashed by villagers after she ploughed her fields - leaving the village with her five children to find a better place to survive in.

Sheila Rani, a sweeper in DPS, provides incisive analysis as well as ground-level strategy. When the principal tried to molest her, she fought back, and later told a teacher of the school, "Every dog in this place wants a piece of flesh.... We can fight our battles in our own way. We can kick and bite and scratch. Your court-kacheri will never get us a scrap of justice." She asked for a transfer saying, "There is no dearth of toilets to clean. If not here, I will find them in other schools. But the shit has become JK cement on these haramis ('bastards' in Hindi); only a bolt of lightning can shatter it. I am going where, if I clean hard enough, the dirt will come off!"

Sadly - nay, tragically - the NCW has been unable to send the bolts of lightning needed to shatter the concrete structures sheltering criminals and routinely abetting crimes against women.

Syeda wrote the book because she doesn't want these stories of terrible violence to disappear from public memory. She also wanted to highlight that NCW is unable to achieve justice in these cases because it is toothless: "The Commission's reports are not binding on anyone, and its jurisdictions stops at its front door." (Courtesy: Women's Feature Service)