Don't touch 'our' women : Dimapur lynching was never about justice

(The article is reproduced from Firstpost.com, Sandip Roy March 9, 2015. The author is Senior Editor at Firstpost.com. Rape charges against Syed Sharif Khan cannot be dismissed as ‘false charges’ as Government authorities of Assam and Nagaland are now doing. This is because ‘medical reports’ cannot ‘prove’ or ‘disprove’ rape, ever. But whether or not the rape took place, the lynching of Syed Sharif Khan is a display of patriarchal, xenophobic violence, not justice for women. – Ed/)

In India there is rape and then there is rape.

The newest shocker in the Dimapur lynching case is that the rape accused was not a Bangladeshi migrant at all. He was not someone who had crossed a border illegally. As if those acts make him automatically prone to raping. The Indian Express reports that Syed Sharif Khan actually came from an army family and had a driving license issued in Assam. Now Tarun Gogoi, the Assam chief minister is claiming that medical reports show there was no rape.

The real shocker is none of these claims and counter claims. The real shocker remains that on 5 March, a mob broke into a jail, dragged Khan out, stripped him naked, pelted him with stones and displayed his body on a clock tower.

And yet, speaking about Mukesh Singh, the unrepentant convict in the India's Daughter bus gang rape case, Pooja Gupta, a young woman in his neighborhood in Delhi tells the New York Times “People like this should be killed immediately. “They should leave them in a public place and let the public sort it out. The way they did in Nagaland.” Nagaland is held up as the example of quick justice rather than a cautionary tale.

But the Dimapur lynching was never about justice. It was about patriarchical power, much as in American South circa 1892, when black men were strung up like “strange fruit”.

The ugly premise behind both is the same. Women are regarded as the property of a community and what outrages a community is not rape but the temerity of the “outsider” who lays claim to another's community's “property”. Black men did not have to rape anyone to be lynched. Smiling, winking, whistling at a white woman would suffice as “disrespect” enough to be lynched. Rape is a crime about power more than a crime about sex. And when an outsider commits it against a woman of another community, it is in effect the “emasculation” of that community. The community stands exposed as not being able to have protected the honour of its women and children or so it thinks.

It's worth noting that in the US lynching was not just limited to a black-and-white story. Though they are lesser known, all kinds of “others” were lynched – Chinese, Indian, Native American, Mexicans were lynched at the rate of 27.4 per 100,000 of population between 1880 and 1930, second only to African Americans. Anyone who was regarded as “other” would do.

The rape of a Naga woman by a Naga man would be just another tragic story of sexual violence, a story that feels terribly commonplace in India. One could safely assume it would not have resulted in a mob marching up to the prison demanding he be handed over to them. But the “Bangladeshi illegal migrant” angle took a matchstick to the smouldering tensions. It became an issue of “how dare he” and his ethnicity, his immigration status, his religion all became part of the story.

Had Khan actually been a man who crossed the border illegally, it would not have in any way meant he should have been dragged to death in such a gruesome manner. It is up to a court to prove the charges. By being “shocked” when we hear he is a citizen of India from an army family, we are in effect saying we would not be as shocked if indeed he was an illegal migrant. Just by virtue of that assumption we in fact declare open season on an entire class of people and the migrant of Bangladesh becomes the whipping boy.

No one is denying that the demographic changes in the north east have meant great tensions between local groups. It's not just Dimapur but all over states like Assam, Meghalaya and others. But rape, or the accusation of rape, has become a weapon of choice in an ugly battle that is actually over land and belonging, and a lynch mob becomes a way to restore social order and teach the other a lesson in a debate that should be about immigration.

Nothing justifies rape, but then nothing should justify a lynch mob.

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