Mourning Reingamphi Awungshi: Pratiksha Baxi
This is a guest post by PRATIKSHA BAXI:
When the police found Reingamphi Awungshi, a twenty-one year woman from Ukhrul district in Manipur brutalised, assaulted and dead in her rented apartment in Chirag Delhi on 29 May 2013, they did not file an FIR. Rather, the Malaviya Nagar police station, a site of anguished protests, began by designating her death as suicide, even as they waited for a post mortem report! Although the family argued that the state of her bloodied and injured body clearly indicated sexual assault and murder, the police ended up filing an FIR, after three days, as a case of abetment to suicide.
It seems very clear that the aftermath of the Delhi gangrape protests have not made a dent in practices of policing—it should not take hundreds of protestors to ensure the registration of a police complaint. Nor is it reasonable for the police without thorough investigation and competent medical examination of the body to conclude that the death was a suicide rather than murder; and that the injuries on the body, the outcome of substance abuse rather than assault. This is evidence of bias, rather than an impartial investigation.
But for protests, the case would not have been transferred to the Crime Branch, nor an FIR filed for murder.
The police’s initial stance that this was suicide illustrated bias. The dead woman’s character was maligned to generate a motive for suicide. The police claimed it was suicide since the door of her room was locked from inside, ignoring the fact that her room led to another door opening into the landlord’s house. The police concluded that she overdosed herself without forensic analysis to determine whether or not the medicines found in her room, if consumed, could have led to toxicity. The police concluded that rodents nibbled her face and other parts of the body leaving her eye and nose in a bloody mess, without waiting for forensic analysis to establish rodent bites. The police assumed that this young woman who had shopped for her next breakfast would kill herself and then rodents in a reasonably well-kept room would assault her. Thereafter, the scene of crime was not secured and it is not even clear whether forensic samples were collected from the scene of crime.
The second post mortem, while the histological reports are awaited, after five days by a three-member panel of forensic experts, concluded that opinion of death could only be offered after the analysis of the viscera by chemical analysis and histopathology report. The PM report further held that two-fingers could easily pass through the vagina, hence the dead woman was habituated to sex—making it impossible to determine whether she was raped, without other forensic tests. Yet again the Delhi protests failed to persuade doctors that while clinical findings of whether or not the vaginal passage is distensible in a dead survivor may have very limited evidentiary value, such a victim cannot be characterised as a habitué. To characterise the victim as a habituated to sex, especially when she is dead, is to assume that the vagina can be examined as if it were a record of past sexual history of consensual sex. Surely it is equally possible that the vagina is a record of past sexual history of sexual violence. To characterise the victim, as a habitué is not only unconstitutional, it prejudices investigation and the framing of charges, if any person is ultimately held responsible for sexual assault.
Surely it is reasonable for Reingamphi’s family and supporters to suspect sexual assault and murder. It is reasonable to suspect the landlords’ relative who was stalking this young woman for over a month. It is reasonable to be suspicious because the family was not informed when the landlord called the police to break into the dead woman’s room. It is reasonable since sexual assault; stalking and/or murders of women from the North East in Delhi are a statistical high.
Why is there such toleration of violence against women from the North–East in Delhi? The fact is that sexual harassment of women from the North East is both sexist and racist. It is also a social fact that women from the North East are targeted as sexual objects. They are subjected to a racist and sexist gaze, which positions them as vulnerable “outsiders”. Branded, stigmatised and caricatured, they are extremely vulnerable to violence, in particular, to sexual assault.
Such forms of targetted violence of tribal women in Delhi is sufficient to declare Delhi a scheduled area or zone of emergency on the grounds that targeted atrocities against tribal women by non–tribal men is routine. A provision permitting such declaration is available under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 which specifies that the state government is under obligation to identify ‘the areas where the members of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes are likely to be subjected to atrocities’ and adopt ‘measures so as to ensure safety for such members’.
However, the police almost never mobilises this law to protect Naga, Manipuri or Mizo tribal women from the discrimination they face in the city. Surely the police know that as a form of historic discrimination, such forms of violence have been classified in the law as atrocity. They should also remember that as per Section 4 of the PoA Act ‘whoever, being a public servant but not being a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe, wilfully neglects his duties required to be performed of duties by him under this Act, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to one year’. Non-registration of an FIR in sexual offences is also an offence, by virtue of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013.
Let alone do their duty under these laws police officers routinely treat a complainant from any North–Eastern state as an exceptional and abject subject. It is as if the zone of exception—dramatized by the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act—lives in the heart of our city in everyday and ordinary ways.
The impunity and immunity bestowed on men who think that a Tangkhul Naga woman’s life can be exterminated without any investigation, prosecution, or without inciting a collective demand for justice has been permitted by our legal system. Our politicians too permitted this by ignoring the powerful protests against the AFSPA—a demand to recognise citizenship and justice—instead of repressing populations and suspending constitutional law. Our city permits this by creating zones of sexual exceptionalism where some cases find horrified publicity and others do not produce similar public anguish.
Our city does not experience the same horror today, as it did months ago, at the painful and brutalised death of this young woman—perhaps the details of brutalisation are not titillating enough! Perhaps most of us do not identify with a woman whose identity seems so far removed from what we know as familiar? Perhaps it is less disturbing to believe the police version of suicide?
Yet even as we recall every painful instance of violence that was called out, in the aftermath of the December protests, we must remember than Tangkhul Naga women struggling to make the city their home also want azadi from violence. Tangkhul Naga women also protested with us to make Delhi safer.
As we mourn for Reingamphi Awungshi, we must also continue to raise our voices against violence against women, especially sexual assault. Yet, should we also now not reflect where we failed? Fact of the matter is that far from creating prevention of violence and increased safety for women, the forensic detailing of what men do to women’s or girl’s bodies in the media, even though their names were withheld, acted as public pedagogy of what men can do women. Sadly, rape cultures thrive despite the protests, and some may argue, because of the voyeuristic representations of the protests.
Alas, change is a long way away. The cry for transformation demands the sustained energy of the Delhi protesters, who should not be satisfied with increased punishment in the statutes. The aspiration for freedom demands that minimally we say to Reingamphi Awungshi, we are desperately sorry.
Pratiksha Baxi is Assistant Professor, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University