Non-negotiable Offence

It was indeed an irony that stories of young girls being raped had to find its way into the front pages of most local news daily thereby lending a painful backdrop to International Women’s Day which was observed across the world on March 8. The rape incident that took place in Phek district on February 24 is not the first of such notoriety emerging in Nagaland. While such rape cases coming to the notice of the media are few and far between it is suspected that there could be many more that go un-reported because of the obvious stigma attached to such incidents for the victims and their family. Therefore to conclude that rape in Nagaland is merely an aberration is both misleading and ignores the reality of a modern society.

Coming to the question of delivering justice to the victims, it has to be kept in mind that customary laws are found to be wanting on this score. Justice for the four girls from Pfutseromi is quite unlikely unless the State government is able to intervene and prosecute the rapist under the Criminal Procedure code. It will be of interest to note that sometime back in yet another instance of rape, a six year old girl was raped by a 25 year old man at Mon. The Konyak Mothers’ Association (KNSK) had insisted that the case be referred to a government court rather than allowing it to be taken up under customary law as the concerned mothers were naturally apprehensive that the accused may be awarded a mere ‘soft punishment’ under the traditional court. The Grace Khing rape incident where the case was reportedly settled for a meager sum of Rs 1500 is another instance which puts a serious question mark on the reliability of traditional institutions in dispensing justice. Reports have indicated that many such cases earlier forwarded to customary courts had not yielded positive outcomes in favour of the victimized. While rape is itself a grave offence, the issue that needs to be seriously delved into is on whether fair justice can be dispensed under the prevailing customary laws. 

It also goes to show that the traditional customary laws have not been able to develop effective responses to crime of the magnitude such as rape that has developed in recent times. There are reasons to doubt about the capacity of customary law to deal with issues of violence against women, particularly given women’s reticence to speak out against traditional systems. Given the extent of the changing nature of crime and violence and the concerns that most customary laws do not address them in a way it should be done, there is every reason to suggest that mainstream law should play a part in addressing such cases of rape taking place within Naga society.

Traditional law is unwritten and un-precise, and tends to emphasize the position of the community rather than the rights of the individual. While it may strengthen group solidarity it also makes compromises and this may not protect the disadvantaged, the vulnerable, the women and the children. The point raised by the Konyak Mothers to access the mainstream legal system for the sexual assault on a minor girl only goes to show that women in general are losing faith in the old ways of dispensing justice. Their message, if it is being understood correctly, is that sexual assault cannot be “non-negotiable” as an offence.