Dimapur lynching: Law follows the mob. And media?

Will the next Naga man who rapes a Naga woman be lynched or is this treatment meant only for an outsider?

Patricia Mukhim Shillong 

People from india’s Northeast often complain that the region is ignored or stereotyped by the national media. But the blanket coverage of the grisly lynching of an alleged rapist in March proved that even Nagaland can take over television screens—if the images are gruesome enough, and the narrative suits broader India’s perceptions of the region.

Somehow that is the opposite of reassuring.

We in the media know better than anyone that good news is not news, and the commitment it takes to travel the length and breadth of the region to ferret out positive stories—only to see them sink into oblivion when readers ignore them.

The fact is that the audience is conditioned to look for salacious gossip as part of their daily fare—particularly when it comes to television news, which has replaced the principles of journalism with the masala of cinema. The audience is now used to gore, and the shaming of individuals caught in compromising situations. 

Moreover, the commercial compulsions of television news—which depends on ratings to attract advertising revenue—means that nobody can draw a line between news and sensationalism. Self-regulation is an euphemism for licentiousness. It never happens and will never happen.

But the (gleeful) theatre of shock and horror with which TV stations treated the torture and hanging of Syed Farid Khan after he was falsely labelled an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant was a particularly egregious example.

Of course the incident made national news. It had all the ingredients of a horror story enacted in a conflict zone. And it coincided with the release of Leslee Udwin’s controversial documentary, India’s Daughter, which presented India as a medieval nightmare of violence against women.

But avid Facebookers have long been aware of the rabid exchanges in social media where the spectre of the illegal Bangladeshi immigrant is presented as the source of all the ills afflicting Nagaland and its people. To these more savvy observers, it was immediately clear that the lynching was a result of accumulation of public anger against a perceived enemy who is allegedly taking away their livelihoods and their women, rather than a garden-variety rapist.

There is a lot that has gone wrong with Nagaland. Successive governments (politicians and bureaucrats) and their business cronies have used public money to generate private wealth. The single arterial connection between Nagaland and Manipur, which also connects Dimapur to the capital city of Kohima, is depressingly decrepit. Apparently, the people of Nagaland can afford Mercedeses, Hummers and BMWs but do not have the spine to point out that the money intended for their roads has obviously been stolen.

Perhaps that’s why successive central governments led by the Congress have looked the other way as far as Nagaland is concerned. The view in Delhi seems to be that as long as the Nagas only kill each other and the fighting doesn’t spread to other parts of India, they can do whatever they want.

Dimapur’s economy is in a shambles. There is rampant benami trade going on with Naga women acting as fronts for non-tribal traders, so they can avoid tax. And even where legitimate trade is concerned, the system has become so convoluted that it’s impossible for the government to collect much revenue. Everyone has perfected the art of defeating the system!

Crime rates, too, have spiralled. Most ministers and bureaucrats are so busy pursuing their own businesses that they really have no time to discuss issues that matter to the people. The police is deeply compromised, and public anger is justifiably high. But whatever the failings of the legal system, there can be no excuse for the public lynching of a man whose crime was not yet established beyond reasonable doubt. 

Yet, instead of making the mob follow the law, Nagaland seems intent on making the law follow the mob.

Even the medical report of the college student who had claimed she was raped seems to have entered a zone of community honour versus truth. To save face, the medical report will have to state that the girl was raped.

We are in dangerous territory here. Feminists will not agree to give a man accused of rape the benefit of the doubt. They are conditioned to believe that no woman would willingly go to a hotel to have sex with a man or lie about it afterward, so they assume that the accused must have lured her to his room and raped her, as she alleged. But gender politics cannot be allowed to replace proof.

As a woman, I am sensitive to the horrors of rape and its aftermath. The trauma is impossible to imagine. However, I also recognise that men are part of the world, too, and most of them find rape as repugnant as women do. Men have daughters, sisters, wives and mothers whose worth they value. So the idea of labelling all men as perverse is an injustice. Those who commit rape deserve the severest of punishment by the law, not by a violent mob.  And to think that the mob included young girls and boys in uniform whose passions have been whipped up beyond control is a frightening scenario. Will the next Naga man who rapes a Naga woman receive the same kind of punishment? Or is this reserved for the despicable outsider who can do no right and has no human dignity he can be proud of?

Like the infamous Delhi gangrape at the heart of Udwin’s documentary, this lynching exposes the desperate need for debate about sexual violence. But it also illustrates that the debate cannot stop there. It must also encompass the nature of justice and the demonisation of certain castes and communities. If we have reached the point where just a woman’s deposition is enough to give a man a bad name and lead to his public hanging, surely we are only retreating further into medieval brutality. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2015