The Northeast is witnessing a sharp increase in crimes against women. Ratnadip Choudhury reports

On 6 October, the decomposed body of a teenage girl was found in Meghalaya’s East Garo Hills district. The corpse was found naked and beheaded in a densely forested area. The 15-year-old had gone missing 10 days earlier. Policemen investigating the case suspect it to be a case of rape and murder.

This is only the tip of an iceberg. Crimes against women are on the rise in the eight Northeastern states. Although the communities in the region have allowed the men to venture out of their homes but the plight of women in these states is no different from the rest of the country.

Interestingly, the prime suspect in the 6 October case is the victim’s stepfather. He was arrested on the basis of an FIR filed by the victim’s mother on 2 October. The mother stated that her husband’s behaviour was suspicious after the girl went missing. In fact, the stepfather had lodged a complaint at a nearby police station on 28 September, after the girl did not return home.

“We have two FIRs in this case; the stepfather was arrested on the basis of the mother’s complaint. She revealed that her husband used to sexually abuse her daughter. We will investigate it. Over the past few years, we have seen many cases of sexual attacks that resulted in murders as well,” says Davies Marak, the superintendent of police, East Garo Hills.

Reported cases of crimes against women have seen a spike in the Northeast in the past few years. In Assam, cases of crimes against women rose from 13,544 in 2012 to 17,449 in 2013. Tripura, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh were not far behind. In Meghalaya, cases saw a sharp rise of 23.14 percent compared to 2012.

People in Meghalaya were shellshocked by the horrifying incident of 6 October. But this isn’t a first. On 13 December 2012, an 18-year-old girl was gangraped by 16 men in East Garo Hills. After TEHELKA reported the incident (Gangraped by 16 Men. Yet No Outrage in the Hills, 9 February 2012), the victim’s family was put under pressure to withdraw the case. The victim’s parents were apprehensive about her future and their worst fears came true, revealing the ugly side of the social prejudice in Meghalaya. The victim, who moved to Tura, the main town of Garo Hills, was denied admission by a school and private girls’ hostel. Back home in Williamnagar, people tried to photograph her every time she stepped out of her house.

In the past decade, Meghalaya has seen more than 800 rape cases, 500 of which are still pending in various courts. In fact, there was a six-fold rise in cases of rape registered annually in the state between 2001 (26 cases) and 2010 (149 cases). In a state that boasts of women’s empowerment — where women inherit property and are seen at the forefront of domestic and public life — 830 rape cases between 2002 and 2012 shows that all is not well.

“In Meghalaya, we are alarmed by the increase in the number of such cases. We have tried to study the reason. In the past five years, even in rural and remote areas where there are neither roads nor access to drinking water, people have access to popular media through cable tv and dth connections. In popular media, crime is glamorised and it impacts the lives and thinking of the villagers in remote areas. People in these regions are gullible and do not have any orientation about what is good and bad on television. This cycle continues and perhaps might be triggering the crimes as well,” says Hasina Kharbhih, a women and child rights activist. A closer look at the incidents would reflect that many of the sexual crimes in the Northeast are taking place in rural and remote areas or sleepy towns.

On 27 September, a tribal woman was raped and murdered in the monastic town of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. The victim was a resident of Jang village, about 30 km southeast of Tawang, and worked as a casual labourer with the Border Roads Organisation, which maintains the roads in the frontier areas of the country. The accused strangled her to death after raping her.

A few months ago, a minor was raped and murdered in Arunachal. Eight people were arrested in connection with the case. On 29 August, a tribal woman, who was working in a paddy field in Likabali in West Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, was raped and murdered and her body thrown into a stream.

“Crimes against women are on the rise across the country and in Arunachal we have witnessed some horrifying cases. One striking thing is that in most of the cases, the culprits are migrant workers. Now, this has a potential to turn into a new social menace and create a divide,” says Jarpum Gamlin, a media entrepreneur and columnist.

Only a fortnight ago, two girls were raped and hung from a tree in Tripura. The state leads the chart with the highest number of pending cases under the crime against women category. The incident took place on 11 September and the story unfolded along expected lines with the cops initially terming it a case of suicide.

“The dead bodies were found hanging from the tree like in the Badaun case in UP, but the media never paid attention to the case. Since the media did not report it, the cops initially tried to cover it up, but now it is clear that it was a case of rape and murder,” says Rajeshwar Debbarma, former MLA. Later, three tribal youth from the area were arrested in connection with the case.

In 2013, 1,937 incidents of rape were reported in Assam; 233 in Tripura; 183 in Meghalaya; 75 in Arunachal Pradesh; 72 in Manipur; 89 in Mizoram; 43 in Sikkim; and 31 in Nagaland.

“The biggest problem in the Northeast, when it comes to handling crimes against women, is the fact that there is a lack of understanding and subsequent lack of sensitivity within communities. The lack of education and orientation is a barrier. This can only be fought with proper sensitisation. But at times even the media is prejudiced,” explains Partha Prawal Goswami, a journalist from Guwahati who specialises in gender sensitivity.

A survey in Assam last year suggested that 70 percent of women in Guwahati feel unsafe due to the lack of effective and visible policing in the city. The survey also found that over 56 percent women in Guwahati have experienced some form of sexual harassment. “We have taken several measures to check the menace and have developed a special urban women commando force to patrol the streets at night. We have also sensitised the city police,” says Anand Prakash Tiwari, senior superintendant of police, Guwahati.

Perhaps, the need of the hour is to think out of the box. Women in the Northeast have been in the forefront of every sphere of life. From the likes of MC Mary Kom to Irom Sharmila Chanu, the list is actually endless. But will they feel secure enough to protest against such atrocities?

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