It is the last day of February. Assam newspapers and websites are abuzz with election news. From electoral alliances to words exchanged between rival parties, the front pages of Assamese and English newspapers are full of exciting developments.
Except for the anniversary of the ghastly Gohpur rape and murder, which occurred today, last year. An 11-year-old went missing on February 27, and a day later, she was found hanging by a tree, raped and murdered.
The 2012 Nirbhaya rape case was a pivotal moment in the history of India’s struggles against an epidemic that has never found any solution. Since then, it has become common practice to refer to ghastly rape and murder cases as some form of a Nirbhaya case. But such labels often ignore the caste, geographical and social locations of rape incidents in India.
Take the Gohpur rape case. The girl belonged to the indigenous Mising community and was the daughter of a marginalised farmer. Gohpur is a small town in the Biswanath district of Assam that few outside Assam know. All this meant that her case barely found mention even in local dailies, let alone national media. The past year has been traumatic for the family, to say the least. It is also a familiar story of how marginalised communities continue to struggle for justice.
No wonder, people now see through the shallow demands of ‘stringent laws’. “People are often heard saying that a tough law can bring change. But what is this tough law that people talk about? Laws need to be effective. The investigating authority and prosecution must be more proficient and efficient,” says Pooja Singh, a 27-year-old lawyer. Singh works on women’s rights issues and spoke with EastMojo about the Gohpur incident.
“I reached out to many national as well as local media channels, and their replies broke my heart and my hope to get justice to some extent. Some well-known media professionals said that the Gohpur case does not have TRP. The case is not a national issue or that it would not give them the required views and audience traffic,” Saikia told EastMojo.
The aftermath: Arrests, intimidation and release
After the incident, the victim’s father filed a complaint at the Gohpur police station in Biswnath district. In his complaint, he said his daughter was abducted by four boys, gang-raped, murdered, and hung. However, the locals found five more boys involved in the alleged rape and murder of the girl. According to sources, the Gohpur police picked up the nine accused and sent them to a juvenile home in Jorhat district.
The police registered a case within 90 days as prescribed by Section 167 (2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure and took all the juveniles in custody by March 1, 2020.
They were charged under Sections 366A (procuration of a minor girl), 376D (gang rape), 302 (murder), 34 (crime committed by several persons with a common intention) of the Indian Penal Code besides Section 4 (penetrative sexual assault) of the Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012 on February 28.
The victim’s family was shocked when seven months later, the accused got bail from the magistrate’s court. The accused were later roaming in the same village, threatening and intimidating the victim’s family.
The magistrate in the order said that the children in conflict with law (CCL) were in the observation home for more than 80 days. Hence, considering the period of detainment and investigation progress, the magistrate deems it fit that CCL can be allowed to go on bail.
Sources close to the family told EastMojo said the victim’s father alleged that the accused belong to well-to-do families. They were harassing him and his family ever since they came out on bail.
The government’s priorities are wrong
Ever since the incident took place, protests occurred in and around Gohpur town. The All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the Mising student group Takam Mising Porin Kebang (TMPK) are among several organisations that staged a protest and formed a human chain in June last year, demanding the case move to a fast-track court.
On January 9, over 50 protesters staged a protest in front of the sub-divisional officer’s office at Gohpur, seeking justice, security and compensation for the victim’s family. Senior Congress MLA Rupjyoti Kurmi joined the protesters.
Kurmi submitted a three-page memorandum to the Chief Minister, seeking protection for the girl’s family. He demanded an immediate trial, proper investigation, sending accused juveniles to correctional homes, and compensation for the family.
A government official told EastMojo that they provided permanent patta for three bighas land to the victim’s family, besides allotting an extra bigha of land, a job card, and a ration card. They also adopted the village under the Jal Jeevan Mission and provided electricity to the family through the Saubhagya scheme.
Dhrubajyoti Bora, the general secretary of the All Assam Student’s Union (AASU), Biswnath Chariali unit, while talking to EastMojo informed, “the victim’s family got police protection. But more than police protection for the victim’s family, the police must arrest the nine accused and put them behind bars.”
Bora said from the charge-sheet against the nine accused, to forensic reports related to the case, all processes were delayed. He added the police officials gave COVID-19 pandemic as the excuse.
“The case should be referred to the fast-track court. The victim’s family must get financial help since they belong to the marginalised section. Moreover, the police probe is far from satisfactory. If possible, we want a reinvestigation by a high-ranking police officer trained in such cases,” Bora added.
Subhalaxmi Dutta, Gohpur sub-divisional police officer (SDPO) said that the investigation is on, and the victim’s family has been provided police protection.
Understanding rape in the context of Assam
Academics, activists and researchers have, for long, said that the rape problem in India is not only a legal issue. The social angle cannot, and must not, be ignored.
High-profile cases involving urban, educated women tend to get much more attention than poor, marginalised women from lower castes belonging to indigenous tribes in rural areas.
Pranab Doley is the former advisor at JEEPAL, a farmers organisation and a member of the Mising community. He has, for long, spoken against atrocities committed against tribal women. In a conversation with EastMojo, he said, “Caste-based discrimination is embedded in the system. There were protests and voices, and even today there are people raising voices against the case. But I don’t think the police department, the media or even the judiciary tries to uphold such incidences.”
Across Assam, the police department doesn’t even consider the implementation of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act (PoA) in such cases. This proves that there is this strong caste-based bias and discrimination in the system. When the victims are from the SC/ST status, things or cases are hidden and put under wraps. This very idea of not wanting to acknowledge or give recognition to the acts and laws which are for the marginalised communities proves the strong embedded caste-based hierarchy or discrimination.Pranab Doley, advisor JEEPAL
The indifference towards crimes against women from marginalized communities explains why there were no protests in the state capital Guwahati against the Gohpur incident. Despite so many women’s rights groups in Assam who have time and again spoken against various atrocities, none came forward against this case.
It is important to point out that the Gohpur case is not a one-off incident. Assam has seen a very high rate of crime against women in recent years. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, Assam recorded the second-highest crimes against women in 2016.
In 2018, Assam recorded the highest rate of crime against women at 166 per 100,000 populations, almost three times the national average of 58.8, beating Delhi’s crime rate of 149.6. The crime rate is calculated as the number of crimes recorded per one lakh population. The NCRB statistics also reveal that crimes against women in Assam have been on the rise. The figure was 20,869 in 2016, which rose to 23,082 in 2017 and 27,728 in 2018.
Probably the most disturbing trend is the rising number of crimes committed by juveniles. It is shocking since all the accused are juveniles. How do minors in remote villages of Assam commit such horrific crimes? What is driving them to do so?
According to Madhumita Basumatary, a former Psychology teacher, “Not only should the victim’s family get immediate justice, but there should also be a deeper sociological and psychological study on Assam minors. This case may be the symptom of a bigger illness plaguing our society.”
She added that there are complex reasons that force or drive minors to commit such juvenile crimes. The major contributing factors to juvenile crimes include peer pressure, poor education, substance abuse, neglectful family, lack of adult interaction, among others.
The low conviction rate, coupled with the trauma that families have to go through, make justice a far-fetched, rarely-achieved idea.
These factors, combined with society’s apathetic attitude, explain why today, the Gohpur rape and murder case has become another tragic footnote in our traumatic history of violence against women.