TW: Graphic violence, sexual assault.
Assam, with its complex geography and multi-ethnic society, battles with a unique set of issues every day. The state either comes under good light or under the worst limelight because of the politics of identity that serves as an interesting case.
A 12-year-old tribal girl from Karbi Anglong was set ablaze on April 22, 2021. She was working as a domestic help in the house of Prakash Borthakur of Raha, Nagaon for the past four years. She was tortured to death by Prakash and his son Nayan Jyoti Borthakur and they have been arrested under section 120B/302 of IPC.
Social media abuzz was not as immediate and impactful as it should have been. In the Assamese scenario, employing young girls or boys from tribal communities is quite common among the people of Brahmaputra valley. A ‘plains people’ hegemony, oppression, and domination upon nearby hills people are very obvious. Every time the oppressed are met with rude behaviour. This has its roots in casteism and racism, no matter the denial among the influential and the influencers that Assam is supposedly a caste-free state. Well, for starters that never was the case.
More importantly, employing her was a clear case of child labour. With a few videos surfacing on social media platforms, where activists are seen speaking against this atrocious and inhuman act, it has been learnt the young girl was sexually assaulted and postmortem reports indicate that she was pregnant. This also means the perpetrators should be tried under the POCSO Act of 2012.
In a Twitter post, the chief of Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA), Pradyut Manikya wrote, “What happened to Surmilla (sic) is not just a shame but a dark reality on how young women girls are taken to urban places and kept as slaves’. The government of Assam must act.” He tagged Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal in the post. Consequently, Governor Jagdish Mukhi has ordered for the constitution of an enquiry committee to be led by IAS officer Moloy Bora.
In 2018, Karbi Anglong was in the news when two Assamese speaking musicians were brutally lynched to death by a mob as fake news spread across the village that the duo were child-lifters/kidnappers. There were online and offline protests seeking justice and the intensity of the course of action by the civil society was very swift. In fact, the voices were so strong that the entire Karbi community was stereotyped. But, such has not been the case with the young girl.
It must be noted that Karbi Anglong is the largest district area-wise, yet most people are marginalised here with low levels of development. It is again interesting, in my opinion, that the reversal of identities and geographical location of crimes can show the collective mentality and mood of the people. Are young girls and women really safe in the state of Assam, is the question.
Assam made headlines last year for being the most unsafe place for women as per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, as the state topped the list in the rate of crime against women. The crime rate stood at 166 (per lakh population) whereas the national average was 58.8 in 2018. Such a sorry state of affairs is only going to deepen the pre-existing gender imbalance ensuring that they are systemically left out.
Cases of witch-hunting are very high within the state, wherein women after being branded a witch or daini are at the receiving end of torture, extreme forms of physical violence including rape and murder. Sometimes, as mob mentality is involved in punishing or beating up such women, it becomes an arduous task to identify the perpetrators.
This entire episode reminds one of the Adil Hussain-starrer Assamese film, Maaj Rati Keteki, directed by Santwana Bordoloi, released in 2017. The film tries to portray the complexities between different ethnic groups and caste and class groups within the Assamese society. There was one character of an unpaid servant played by young Mahendra Rabha that was so poignant that it would lead the viewers to introspect upon the different relationships that exist among groups within the state.
Every region in India has unique social evils that are a product of a patriarchal mindset. These social evils are fraught with extreme forms of violence, mental and emotional harassment. Assam and other Northeastern states, in general, have been portrayed as places where women are respected, empowered and comparatively live in safer environments. While this can seem to be true to many of us living here, but the facts say something else. Societies in the northeast are equally patriarchal if not less, giving rise to unique cases of violence against women.
Will human rights organisations now step in?