Mob (in)Justice in Dimapur

By Parvin Sultana,

Dimapur is regarded as the business capital of Nagaland, a state in the Northeastern region of India. This small town was jolted by a series of horrific incidents that took place on 5th March, 2015. A man accused of raping a college student was murdered by a mob. Videos of the 35 year old Syed Farid Khan being paraded naked and beaten to death became viral. His lifeless blood drenched body was then hanged.

A cursory look at the incident would make one feel that it is the justified outrage against the heinous crime of rape. But if one delves deeper one can see some other factors being at play. The accused is a Bengali speaking Muslim from the neighbouring state of Assam. Stories of him being an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh was doing the rounds. Ironically two of his brothers are serving in the Indian Army hence disproving these accusations. His father served in the Indian Air Force and one of his brothers lost life in the Kargil war. But the damage was already done. Despite being aware of the growing tension, administration did not put to rest such suspicions rather expressed their own doubt regarding the person’s nationality.

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Outrage pore against such crime being committed by an ‘outsider’. When it became clear that the person is from Karimganj district of neighbouring state of Assam, the mob turned its ire against these people. This has threatened the lives of many people from Assam who are based in Nagaland for earning their livelihood.

There was already great discontent over the increasing population of alleged illegal migrants from Bangladesh in Nagaland. The influx of people from outside the state has deprived many natives of Nagaland of employment. Opportunities to start businesses have also shrunk and there is stiff competition from the said migrants. The combination of factors accounted for deep resentment against the ‘outsiders’ among the residents of Dimapur.

In a shameful failure of law and order situation, the security apparatus failed to anticipate such an attack when 10,000 people barged into the high security Dimapur Central Jail. Tragically a large number of women and children formed a part of the mob. The aim and intention of the mob was to clearly dispense instant justice and kill the accused. The only achievement of the police has been preventing the mob from hanging Khan’s body from the clock tower which is at the centre of the town.

The failure of the administration has emboldened the perpetrators of such vigilante justice. Leaving the women’s safety issue on the backburner they have turned their ire to people from other states who are there for their livelihood. While the murdered person’s brother accused that his brother was made a scapegoat, the incident needs to be seen closely.

While the Delhi gang rape brought the entire civil society out to launch a discourse at every level to ensure women’s security the recent incident points out where we are failing. More than India’s daughters it is about India’s sons who are not getting any concerted societal attention. The lynching points out that xenophobia and misogyny are not the monopoly of any religious or ethnic group. What the local Naga men opposed is not just rape as a heinous crime against women but rape by an outsider. The entire political discourse of the region is based on the ‘insider-outsider’ dichotomy. Secessionist movements couching xenophobia as the right to self-determination re-entrenches the hatred for non-natives.

The complicity of the administration is disturbing. The jail authorities according to a newspaper let the protestors inspect the crowded cells so that they could then identify the accused. And then the horror was unleashed. The mob lynching cannot be seen in isolation to the kind of problems the region is seething with. The incident must make one revisit certain issues. The region suffers from a number of secessionist movements. Those talking about autonomy want indigenous people to be safeguarded against migrants moving from other states.

A sparsely populated under developed region saw the massive flow of people from nearby areas. The shifting demography made the locals wary of becoming a minority in their own homeland. A competition for scarce resources and the people moving from outside having an edge over the locals made things worse. Despite having regulative rules like Inner Line Permit system which regulated the movement of people from outside into the states, they are not insulated from such movement. The development deficit, sub national politics, secessionist movements have together put in place an insider-outsider dichotomy. Every state of the region have time and again fallen victim to such conflicts based on who is a local and who is an outsider. While in Tripura, the indigenous people have been turned into a minority, Arunachal saw clashes of locals with environmental refugees of Chakma and Hajong community, Assam have been suffering bouts of violence in Bodo territorial council areas.

The situation has worsened with the frequent failure of law and order situation. Militants and insurgents have often taken the security agencies for a ride hampering lives and property of common people. In a similar trend there was a failure of administrative machinery when they could not stop a mob of executing an under trial person. Administration also failed in countering the rumours of the alleged accused of being an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh. This further instigated the mob’s anger against him.

But amidst the cacophony, the talk of the rape victim got lost. People seem to be divided in two camps- those who declared that an outsider have come and violated a local woman and hence needed to be taught a lesson and those who feel the woman have falsely accused the person of rape as medical tests show otherwise. One minority pitched against another leads to a loss of empathy for both. A Bengali Muslim accused of raping a Naga woman falls victim to the pent up anger of the locals’ against people from other regions.

This is not only a failure of administrative machinery but a failure of collective imagination which continues to see people in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. With a violent history, violence seems to have seeped into the social spaces of the region as well. The government must relook at the federal set up and its exclusivist nature, the security scenario and address the genuine grievances of the people. The fears of indigenous people must be abated along with ensuring that Muslim minorities are not easily targeted as immigrants and harassed.

The writer is an Assistant Professor in Goalpara College of Assam. Her research interest includes Muslims in Assam, development and northeast, gender etc.