Julius Kitbok Dorphang’s arrest for the rape and sexual abuse of a minor has opened up the possibility of many more big names being involved in trafficking rackets.
New Delhi: The Northeast is widely considered to be a relatively safe place for women. However, annual statistics on crimes against women in some of the northeastern states is increasingly exposing that myth. In spite of being the only matrilineal society in the region, Meghalaya certainly belies that myth.
On January 7, people of the state saw yet another example of it when an independent state legislator – nabbed at a bus terminus in Guwahati the previous night – was brought to a district court in Shillong on the charge of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl on two occasions.
Julius Kitbok Dorphang, the former chief of the separatist outfit Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), who went on to support the present Congress government after winning the Mawhati assembly seat in 2013, is among 12 people arrested so far in a case of sexual abuse and illegal trafficking. The arrests came after nine FIRs were filed by the state Commission for Protection of Child Rights (CPCR) besides one by the victim herself on December 16.
Dorphang went into hiding after a district court issued a non-bailable warrant against him on January 4, leading the police to embark on a manhunt in neighbouring Assam too.
That Dorphang was alleged to have committed the crime on December 15 at a guesthouse in Shillong owned by the son of state home minister H.D.R. Lyngdoh has raised suspicions of the involvement of some more powerful names in the case.
Many women’s organisations took to the streets of Shillong on January 11 to not only demand action against Dorphang and others, but also call for Lyngdoh’s resignation from the cabinet. A waitress at the guesthouse has also been apprehended, leading to two women’s organisations – Civil Society Women’s Organisation (CSWO) and Thma-U-Rangli-Juki (TUR) – filing an FIR against the owners of the guesthouse for twice “receiving” and “harbouring” the minor victim of trafficking.
“The victim has named not just Dorphang but another person of raping her on two occasions at the guesthouse,” said Agnes Kharshiing of CSWO.
According to the police, the girl was brought from a poor family in the East Khasi Hills district to Shillong and was harboured by one Mamoni Parveen who, in collusion with some others, brought her on more than one occasion to the guesthouse run by Lyngdoh’s son in the Moti Nagar area.
Sensing wide public outrage, opposition parties have also stepped up their efforts to push the chief minister to drop Lyngdoh from his post. Though a section of media stated that Dorphang was soon to join the BJP, the party has denied it.
While both Lyngdoh and chief minister Mukul Sangma have maintained silence on the issue, the sensational case that has been rocking the state for the last few weeks, however, points at an ugly truth – an alarming rise in cases of sexual abuse of women, particularly minors.
An emerging pattern
In the last few weeks, besides the case involving Dorphang, a series of rape and sexual assault cases have been reported from different parts of the state. This includes the gangrapes of a 17-year-old girl from Mawryngkneng in the East Khasi Hills district and a 13-year-old girl in the South West Khasi Hills district on January 1.
As per media reports, six persons have been arrested in the Mawryngkneng case. Among the arrested is a younger brother of the village headman.
The police also registered two other cases of rape in the Garo Hills region of the state on December 15 and December 24, and made a few arrests in both cases.
These cases add to the long list of such incidents registered in 2015. The 2015 statistics of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) released in September 2016 highlighted that 94 cases of rape were registered in various police stations of Meghalaya, six of which were of gangrape, 23 were of attempt to rape and 12 of kidnapping and abduction of women for marriage under compulsion, besides a case of dowry death.
The report said that about a 101 cases of assault on women with the intent to outrage modesty were also reported across the state in 2015, besides 44 cases of cruelty by husbands or his family on married women. In 2015, the overall figure of sexual offences in Meghalaya stood at 231.
The NCRB report also mentioned 212 cases of kidnapping and abduction and 257 cases of crimes committed against children in 2015 – which included the murder of six children and the rape of 39 juveniles. As per the CPCR, the number of such cases against minors has risen to 318 since. These numbers are alarming in a small state with a total population of only 27 lakhs.
Significantly, women activists in the state have been raising the issue alleging that many policemen, headmen and local politicians, in collusion with some of the state’s high profile names, have been “protecting culprits”, thus leading to the rampant rise in such cases.
“The arrest of Dorphang only vindicates our stand. Not just politicians but many policemen and surrendered militants too are involved in such cases,” said social activist Jaynie S. Sangma.
She reminded this correspondent that in 2014, the Garo National Liberation Army militants blew off the head of a woman in a village in the South Garo Hills district after she resisted their attempt to rape her.
In September 2016, a 13-year-old girl was allegedly kidnapped by a local politician, Ram Sangma, in the West Garo Hills district and reportedly sexually abused her in various locations – including in a resort owned by a former Congress MLA-turned-BJP state district council member.
“After a news report came out mentioning the resort, the district council member visited the house of the victim and tried to intervene in the case. We arrived on the spot and informed the district child protection officer who shifted the child to a children’s home,” Jaynie related.
During one such intervention in 2014, Jaynie said, “I was put behind the bars by the police, instead of the accused. They often side with the accused. Though we continue to work under difficult circumstances to get justice for the victims, even local media avoids reporting such cases.”
Following the recent case involving Dorphang, the Shillong police has issued a notification to all the guesthouses and hotels to follow certain guidelines including fixing CCTV cameras. Jaynie added, “Such a notification should have been issued to hotels and resorts in the entire state. In the 2015 case involving the politician’s resort, the CCTV camera content was tampered with.”
Besides politicians, a number of policemen have also been accused in rape cases. In June 2015, a police officer was arrested from chief minister Sangma’s constituency for allegedly raping two teenage girls some two years ago. He was later dismissed from service.
Jaynie, based in Tura of the West Garo Hills district, recalled, “Also in 2015, a minor was molested inside the Jengjal police station by the officer-in-charge. The witness was called to the police station for recording the statement and the accused himself tried to intervene. Though he was suspended for a month, he was never arrested. Worse, he soon got a promotion and was put in charge of the main police station in Tura.”
Kharsiing said, “Getting justice for sexual abuse cases is anyway hard across the country but in Meghalaya it is extra tough because of this police-politician nexus. Even if a case requires that police arrest an accused under the POSCO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act, the police usually avoids doing so as that would make it difficult for the accused to get bail.”
Dorphang was arrested under the POSCO Act besides being charged under various other sections of the IPC, but Kharshing pointed out, “The POSCO Act was added only after the case was transferred to the Laitumkhrah police station. It was not mentioned in the FIR filed by the victim on December 16 in the Laban police station under whose jurisdiction lies the guesthouse where he was alleged to have committed the crime on December 15.”
One of the accused in the Dorphang case, she said, “has his shop just opposite the Madanrything police station.”
The call for justice
Most activists pointed to the absence of a full-fledged director general of police in the state, for most of 2015 and then again in 2016. While B.R. Rana and S.K. Jain were kept in charge of the post in January and February 2015, respectively, Rajiv Mehta was not made a full-fledged DGP till June 2016. Thereafter, Jain was again made in charge of the post till October 2016. A new full-fledged DGP, S.B. Singh, was appointed only on November, 2016.
Alongside the protest on January 11, CSWO, TUR and other women’s organisations submitted a joint letter to the chief minister demanding – among other things – a 24×7 hotline number to be set up with the state CPCR, where complaints on trafficking and sexual exploitation of minors can be lodged.
Speaking to The Wire, Meena Kharkongor, chairperson of the state CPCR, agreed such a helpline would be of help but asked, “Where are the funds for it? Where is the manpower for it? We have no funds even to send people to different parts of the state to enquire about a case. We are also responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Right to Education Act, but don’t have enough funds to even do that. I have written to the national CPCR commissioner informing such constraints. We are in the process of building a state CPCR website on the NIC. Right now, we just have an office, I have to run everywhere, everything is on my shoulders.”
The state CPCR was set up only in 2014. “It is still in a nascent state. Also, the willingness of the state government to make changes is missing,” she added.
When she found out about the case involving the MLA, Kharkongor met the victim. “She was traumatised by what had happened to her. She was in fear and couldn’t at once recall the names of people who assaulted her. After she named Dorphang in her FIR on December 16 where she mentioned that she was sexually abused by him on December 15, we filed four FIRs on December 19 after she voluntarily named more people and then filed five more FIRs on January 5, mentioning some more names.” She said, “It looks like a huge racket. If the case is investigated properly, more high profile arrests could be made.”
Activists like Kharshing and Jaynie also lamented the slow progress of such cases in the courts. In a joint letter to the chief minister on January 11, the activists demanded that the “government immediately set up fast tract/special courts in all the districts of the state to ensure speedy and time bound justice to the victims of violence and trafficking.”
“We do have some special courts to deal with the rape case but the judges assigned to such courts are also burdened with other cases – it defeats the purpose,” pointed out Kharkongor. Jaynie added, “There is also the pressure on the victim and her family from the Nokma councils (council of headmen) and the Mahari clan to reach a compromise with the perpetrators, discouraging them to go to the court for justice.”
Among the possible trigger for the rising cases of sexual assault in the state, Kharsiing said, “are easy availability of alcohol and sexually explicit content on the internet.”
“Anybody can access such content on the internet with high speed connectivity, including the juveniles. We need to address this issue urgently,” she pointed out.
Kharkongor agreed, saying, “We do workshops to address such issues. We plan to intensify it and rope in village elders to address the problem.”
The Wire tried contacting both the state police chief and the home minister’s office for a comment on the rising cases of sexual assault in the state but got no response.