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The dark shadow of impunity

The northeast used to pride itself on its gender equality. But the gory sexual violence against a teenager in Assam shows the region is no different from the rest of India

The sordid sexual violence by a group of thugs against a young woman in Guwahati has stunned people not just in India but across the world with reports of indignation, anger and disbelief as well as verbal exchanges between members of social networking sites, especially from Assam.

Charges of media involvement as well as of police incompetence are flying fast and furious; demonstrations have taken place in Assam and New Delhi against the alleged molesters, whose leering images have swamped the Internet, street hoardings and print and broadcast media.

The News Live reporter who called his office to summon a camera team has since quit, denying any charges of involvement although he did qualify his statement by declaring that the “incident was a heinous display of humanity.”

One presumes that he actually meant inhumanity — this is a real problem: many reporters and editors these days do not seem to understand the difference between what they mean to say and what they actually say or write. The reporter even tried to claim credit for the detentions, saying that the “culprits have been identified” because of his footage.

We shall come to that point later. But what needs to be reflected upon is a set of very fundamental issues which are not being adequately discussed, especially in the northeast, where the furore is the strongest.


The first is that the incident has shown up the degree of hypocrisy that exists in society, in Assam or elsewhere. The outrage must be tempered with the realisation that we are not very different. Drunken thugs are drunken thugs, in the northeast or outside. A molester does not recognise borders of state, caste, creed, age, geographical location or ethnicity. One recalls incidents of this nature taking place in Mumbai, Delhi and the National Capital Region.

For decades, the northeast rightly prided itself on the equality it shows to women compared to many other parts of India, forming part of a “unique” image. The recent incident and others show that the social fabric is not just under stress but is being torn apart, especially in its urban centres, where new trends extolling violence and lawlessness have taken root.

Take the following events: On November 27, 2007, a young Adivasi woman, who was involved in a protest march demanding rights, was stripped and chased in broad daylight through the streets of Guwahati by groups of thugs who filmed her. The media, as in the recent case, also filmed the horror and broadcast it. The leering faces of the perpetrators were captured on camera. There was an outcry then too. The young woman, who was saved by an elderly man who wrapped her in a cloth, was 17 years old at the time. Only three persons were arrested although dozens were involved.

Four major incidents have been reported since then, including the most recent assault on the teenager on July 10. Three of these took place in Guwahati. How many remain unreported one does not know.

There are many factors at play here: from the collapse of social systems, under strain for decades by a deep sense of alienation, injustice, imbalance and confrontation and conflict. The sense of societal stress has been accentuated by extensive migration to urban areas from the 1990s by people, young and old, in search of jobs, education and space, fleeing poverty and insecurity. We cannot forget the violence that plagued Assam during those terrible years of conflict. Many poor rural households and villages suffer from an acute feeling of desperation; from a clutch of districts, there are regular reports of displacement by flooding and erosion in addition to trafficking of women and children.

Add to this dangerous cocktail the all-invasive presence of a powerful new visual media where no limits are observed in reporting or even during discussions, where anchors and editors position themselves as demi-gods to declaim on any issue, drawing in more and more people who watch in fascination, actually beginning to believe that the media is above the law.

There is another issue at the heart of a growing darkness: put simply, for decades, many of us in the northeast, especially in Assam, have either turned our backs or closed our eyes to the kind of violence that is perpetrated on “the other”, whether the “other” belongs to a different ethnic, religious or linguistic group. Our intolerance levels have increased. We extol the rich heritage that saints like Sankardeva and others bequeathed over the centuries. But we refuse to condemn the discrimination and violence against “the other” in our midst — in the hill states or the plains.

We are swift to sit in judgment on other parts of India, and rightfully so: the discrimination and molestation of women in Delhi, not just from the northeast, and other metros are visible and must be resisted. But how long can we go on blaming others? The Guwahati incidents and others elsewhere in the region have shown that seeping intolerance and sexual violence that go hand in hand have established deep roots in our own region.

Strengthening this is a growing belief that violence and breaking the law actually pay. A sense of impunity is visible and flourishing, partly due to the short-sighted policies of the Centre and the State governments. This cloak of impunity is not selective: it wraps itself around those in the government as well as those outside of it — and even some who are completely opposed to the state.

But there is a common connection: all of the above believe they can get away with violence, extortion, corruption and intimidation of every kind. Those involved in aggression against the state are rewarded with a share in political power, for short-term gains. They certainly, on the whole, have not been punished. Land grab is easy and getting your rightful property back is no easy task, as some of us have personally experienced.

Remember the “Secret Killings?” So many deadlines have passed in the process of catching (forget about punishing) those who murdered family members of leaders and cadres of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). And despite the agitation against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act for so long, by so many, in so many places, it continues to haunt and brutalise the innocent although the courts finally are stepping in to denounce it, saying that such a draconian law cannot condone murder and rape.

Disturbing trend

In addition, a most disturbing set of silent social trends is emerging: we find that the ratio of girl children being born is falling in Assam and Manipur. We note that despite the government’s best efforts, the maternal mortality rate in Assam remains the highest in the country at 380 although this is a dramatic improvement, the best in the country, from the 480 per 100,000 births a decade back.

These trends are connected and hence all the more challenging. They show that discrimination against women is a bitter reality and our romantic notions of a just and equal society are just that — notions.

In this climate, what chance does a child, alone, outside a bar, have against those who break the law with impunity, in a situation when law breakers are supported, not just condoned, and where most people remain onlookers?

Finally, a word on the duties of journalists and the media, an issue that is discussed often. If our job is to report the facts as we see them, it is also to save lives, to speak the truth to power and protect the vulnerable. That comes with sensitivity, understanding and learning on the job. It’s a daily test and most journalists and editors fail it on a regular basis.

We are human beings first; our duties lie as much in protecting rights as in exposing their violation. That’s our talisman, the core of the code of conduct that journalists and editors wilfully and obdurately oppose but which they should willingly embrace.

(Sanjoy Hazarika is Saifuddin Kitchelew Chair and Director of the Centre for North East Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and founder of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research in the northeast.)

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