Unlike the 2012 Delhi gang-rape, the violence meted out against women in India’s north-east has not elicited widespread calls on the government to act. The silence is proving costly

All rights reserved.In early October 2014, the body of a young tribal girl was found face down in Meghalaya’s East Garo Hills. Her body had been decapitated, charred, bruised and left naked in a densely forested area near Kisumgolgre village in the sprawling East Garo district. The girl, identified later by the police as Richina Sangma, was a 15-year-old Garo. She had been reported missing a few days earlier. Parts of her body that were severed and strewn in the jungle, when discovered, had already been partly eaten by wild animals.


India’s rugged north-east — which consists of the seven states of Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and the Himalayan state of Sikkim — has seen a rise in crimes against women over the past decade. In 2014, the National Crime Records Bureau reported that six of the north-east states have witnessed an accelerated increase in crimes against women. These crimes ranged from rape and kidnapping through to dowry death and domestic cruelty.

 

Williamnagar has witnessed many crimes against young women. In March 2013, another young girl from the town was lured into the jungle, and gang-raped by four men. In December 2012, a few days after the gruesome Delhi gang rape, an 18-year-old girl was raped by 16 men on the way home after attending the Simsang festival.  Her private parts were mutilated after the brutal act. The police found that eight of the accused were juveniles. It took immense pressure from NGOs, human rights groups and the community to ensure that the accused were brought to justice. In the end, the government merely offered a compensation of 25,000 rupees to the family of the victim. 

 

The young girl’s mother helplessly asked the media: “What will I do with the money when I can no longer lead a normal life?”

In 2013, Tehelka, one of the few national magazines that followed the Sangma case, reported that Meghalaya alone had over 500 pending rape cases in court and pointed out that conviction rates in the state still remained notoriously low. The Garo Hills, for example, despite facing brutal acts of violence against women, had no fast-track court. It was only recently that the government established one in Tura, the main town in the West Garo Hills district. Crimes against women and children rose by 23 percent in 2013, according to a few sources. 

 

The pervasive apathy of lawmakers and the government has made it routinely difficult for women in the north-eastern states to report sexual violence. Often these women live with the accused or stay silent given that they have little or no power to take on authorities in their poverty-striken conditions.The apathy of the Indian state to look into this mirrors a deep societal bias against women who are poor and members of tribal communities. 

 

Biplab Dey, a journalist who works in Tura, focuses on the specific challenges that Garo tribes face in Meghalaya. Since communities follow a clan system, he says, most issues that concern sexual violence are kept within the group. Meghalaya also has a policy where rape victims are not offered more than Rs 50,000 and the waiting time involved in receiving compensation can sometimes take more than three years.

 

A pressing challenge that both men and women face is the constant threat of militancy. “Both state actors like the members of the army and non-state actors such as people from groups from GNLA (Garo National Liberation Army) have family in the town,” he observes. Anjuman Begum, a human rights expert on north-east affairs, points a serious problem of human trafficking.

 

 

Another problem is that lack of opportunity and poverty has also pushed a lot of youth to drop out of high schools. According to official statistics published in 2011, the secondary school dropout rate in Meghalya is 58.87 percent. As a result, young boys are reportedly taking up arms in the Garo Hills, while young girls are lured into the sex trade. India’s silence on crimes against women in the north-east is proving costly.