Customary Laws and Outlaws

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Discussions on the lynching incident in Dimapur continue as much as its images haunt. But these are no longer in the same hysterical tone as it was last week. More sober assessments which should make observers educated and insiders want to introspect are now beginning to appear. Sanjib Baruah`™s article today in the Indian Express, titled `Reimagining Dimapur` is one of these. Trust Baruah to introduce new, illuminating ideas and jargons in the discourse on Northeast, and in this article too, he comes up with the term `moral panic` to describe the lynch mob`™s response. `Moral panic` he says is the heightened public anxiety, triggered by media frenzy, about an individual, a minority group or a subculture seen as an imminent threat to social order. The term evokes an uneasy feeling, for it might as well describe the entire Northeast today, not the least Manipur. And this feeling is uneasy precisely because things can indeed go terribly wrong, and we must add, as it did in Dimapur. The negative image the incident has earned Nagaland in the eyes of the world is unprecedented, and it will take years for the state to purge itself of it. The image also rubbed on to the entire Northeast, and indeed India, as is evident in another article yesterday in The Mail, London, which published graphic images of another lynching in Nagaland`™s Meluri town in Phek district in September last year of a Manipuri carpenter also accused of rape. Most of the petrified commentators obviously see these only as images of India, and had very disparaging words to say of India.

Clearly, there is a warning signal in these developments and in what Baruah called `moral panic`, and Manipur must take heed. It must be careful not to slip into a xenophobic hysteria and instead be able to assess its current concerns of demographic imbalances rationally. Measures must be taken to address the issue, for indeed the concerns are genuine, but there must be extreme caution so that frenzy does not take over. Such an eventuality can cause damages which will take generations to heal. They will also take discourses away from the central issues, again just like in Dimapur. The shock of the lynching for instance has almost overshadowed the other important question of the possibility or rape and the trauma of the rape victim. Tragically, even now few talk of the unfortunate girl with sympathy, or as a victim. This is true of Nagaland as a whole at this moment. It is anybody`™s guess that even the peace talks between the Government of India and the NSCN(IM) would have lost much empathy in the rest of India and the world after the incident.

From the discussions on the Dimapur lynching as also the Meluri lynching, one other prominent discourse thread that has emerged is on the dangers of customary laws. In times like this, its beauty, which undoubtedly is also its priceless attribute, seems outweighed by its ugliness. Lynching happens everywhere, and Manipur is no stranger to the phenomenon too. Not too infrequently, front pages here too are scarred by reports of thieves and rapist succumbing to injuries they receive at the hands of mobs, houses of criminals and sometimes child recruiters of certain underground groups being dismantled and burned down etc. These crimes are obnoxious, but even then these are generally handiworks of rampaging groups of men, running amok and blinded by fury momentarily. They do not however suffer from the delusion of impunity from the law of the land, and have no customary law to put above the law to defend their actions. In both the Nagaland cases, the opposite was true. In the Dimapur case, the victim was dragged out of a jail, as if as a metaphor of the belief that the law is secondary to customary justice, then stripped and tortured to death in public. In the Meluri case, the naked man was strung up on the crossbar of a football goal in the village ground, and even as a huge crowd watched the gory spectacle from galleries, some of them sporting umbrellas, the man was slowly tortured to death. The cold-bloodedness is scary, but all this because obviously customary law permits it. Surely, it is time for moderation, so that customary laws do not promote what is ghastly and inhuman.

Leader Writer: Pradip Phanjoubam

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