~ Thelma Ramthienghlim

Geoffrey Chaucer in his seminal literary work The Canterbury Tales (1343–1400) has made the pilgrims tell tales so as to shed light on the pretentious nature of religious nuns and monks during the Middle Ages in England. Chaucer’s voice echoes and rings a bell when I think about the incident that happened on the deathly night of February, 2017 in Hmarveng, Churachandpur, and Manipur (Fox Journal and Virthli). A pious, God fearing gentleman raped a teenage girl at her own home, when her family members were away. The girl child was in trauma and emotionally injured inside her own home. Her honor is wounded and punctured in a society where a woman`s chastity is everyone`s business. It was the darkest period of her life. In a traditional and conservative Hmar society, it is disheartening to learn that sensitive and serious issues like the Hmarveng rape case has been settled with an Archaic Hmar customary law in an age ripe with violence, crime and gun culture. The Hmar Customary Law is filled with limitation, shortcoming, and disparity as it is outdated, irrelevant and biased in nature. It doesn’t meet the demands of the Age. The gap in the Hmar Customary Law lies in the kinsmen incapability to fix the Hmarveng issues and its inability in holding accountable for such serious issue. Adding to this, the shortfall and defect of the Hmar Customary Law lies in its failure to respond to the needs of the society. Few years back I have had a close reading on the Archaic Hmar Customary Law and have been very disappointed as I absorb the laws bit by bit. In an age that we live in, to rely solely on our coded Customary Law which is hand in gloves with the Hmar patriarchal society is inadequate and inefficient. Further, it is another form of discrimination and subjugation towards women in the society. From a reliable source, I have learned that the rape incident in Hmarveng has been settled in a very farcical manner. The feast for peace was arranged and as dictated by the decision makers, a handsome amount of money- 3 lakhs along with a big Pig (fun nga) was rewarded to the victim`s family as a form of compensation for being rapped . This implies that a woman`s honor is negotiated with monetary values. Further, the victim`s honor is seen as a material object which can be easily consumed and compensated by money. I hope we still remember the NECA`s case; the shocking news about child molestation and sexual abuse of several girls in the locus of North Eastern Children`s Academy school and hostels. Those days our community was embroiled in disputes between different groups. I can still feel the confusion and horror embedded in our faces.  Due to the corrupted judiciary system in Manipur, the culprit has been bailed out without much difficulty. But the irony is that the victims are yet to appear in the courts. In other words, the case remains pending and the culprit enjoys full freedom at home. We are all aware of how the state legal services function nor ignorant of the systems and dynamics of Manipur’s state machinery. Nonetheless, we haven’t taken our Archaic Customary Law very seriously to an extent that it attends the social evils that have gradually taken a toll in our society.  Basically, in Churachandpur, since all the communities have our own respective Customary Laws, we don’t consider settling any kinds of issue beyond the convention of the tribal culture which is fine and fair enough. But, if we amend and reform the customary laws as per the needs and requirements of the age so many complex and sophisticated issues would have been rectified. The NECA case would have been taken care of in a more effective manner if we have added and included laws that strictly deal with such heinous issues. The rape case in Hmarveng would have been tackled in a better way had we amended and included penalty that hold accountable for rape case in the pages of our Customary Law. Had our customary law been amended, the kinsmen would not have referred the matter to the other higher authorities.
The Hmar Customary Law bears our cultural heritage and traditional knowledge and it’s no doubt valuable and prestigious. And, essentially, the Hmar Customary Law is the marker of our identity. The Hmar Tribal community is the life giver of this distinct culture; as such it differentiates us from the mainstream culture and other tribal communities in Manipur. But have we ever thought about its inherent oppressive and suppressive attitude toward women in our society. Or are we just gleeful and satisfied as it serve the demands and interests of the Hmar men in our society? As per the information and reportage from different plausible sources, I am astonished and amazed by the difficult attitudes posited by the kinsmen who stood on behalf of the culprit during the negotiation hour. They have engendered chaos and turmoil during when they deliberates this issue rather than being submissive and apologetic towards the kinsmen who are from the victim`s side. Or perhaps, they don’t consider the case serious enough to remain passive in the face of their oppositions. They should have silently acknowledged and accepted whatever the kinsmen from the victim`s family have demanded. The scenario where both the kinsmen are not in a position to resolve such issue can be interpreted as form of disrespect towards the selected kinsmen on behalf of the victims.  The Kinsmen are unable to resolve the issue, thereby, handing it over to the higher authorities to deliberate it on the table. Can’t they imagine the pains and sufferings the rapist have inflicted on the innocent child and the devastating life she has been going through in the aftermath of the incident? The Rape case is a critical case, and in the popular imaginations such insatiable predator deserves stern and harsh penalty. This is a grave situation where a woman`s honor is destroyed let alone in a conservative society where a woman has less value than man. In the light of this, the penalty should be severe.  Furthermore, the kinsmen are group of males who shared similar perspective and perhaps, this can be one among many reasons why they are not in a position to settle the issue. To pragmatically give justice to the innocent victims, we need to amend the Customary Law where educated and reliable women can be incorporated at every level of decision making or on the negotiation table. Or while the Kinsmen assemble to deliberate on the rape subjects, woman participation is mandatory as she is the only gender who has the capacity to penetrate the deep inner feelings and pains of the rape victim. Only a woman alone has the true potential of freeing the suppressed pent-up emotions of the victim in such situation. The Rape Case in Hmarveng manifests that as long as we conform to our Archaic Customary Law based on exclusiveness, there will be more complexity and complications within our society.
Moreover, the social status of the victims and the culprit are another factor that comes into play not only in the Hmarveng scenario but also in any matters that requires the involvement of Kinsmen as far as my observation is concerned. If the culprit has wealthy and powerful kinsmen, there are high chances of winning the case. As such, in a tribal community there is always a tendency of inviting and selecting powerful kinsmen to participate in the negotiating table. Further, it also boosts the courage and confidences of the culprit and his family. Knowing that they have the back up and support of their wealthy kinsmen, there is a high probability of them coming up with diluted stories or half-truths.  The conscious choice of having powerful kinsmen can be interpreted as a political ploy employed by the culprit`s family to win over the less privileged family. On the other hand, the poor, helpless victim, with no powerful kinsmen to support is silently oppressed and gradually relegated. Being a marginalized family with no wealth and power, she has been obliterated at the margins. The kinsmen and leaders of various philanthropic organizations’ mindset have also been polluted as the victim belongs to the lower rung in the society. They knew that they will not benefit or gain anything from victim`s family as they are not from a moneyed background. They are not interested in sustaining the issue as it doesn’t fit their interests. They endeavor to disremember and erase the issue. The subject of rape case is an issue to be memorialize in the collective memory of the Hmar community so that with time and space, the mental soreness and misery of the girl child is bound to be remembered. Moreover, in the act of remembering, there is a probability that the present generations and the coming generations learn that such heinous actions eternally handicap the female sex physically and psychologically.
The rape case incident in Hmarveng is a prominent indicator of the need to revive, reform, amend the Customary Law in our society. So, let us as a collective amend and re- visits the Customary Law and once the Archaic Customary Law is amended, let`s make the Hmar Inpui, the largest apex body within the Hmar community, with the support and understandings of the other philanthropic organizations enforced rigid rules and disciplines to ensure that every individual abides by the Customary Law. Additionally, let our leaders be it the Hmar Students’ organization, Hmar Women Association, Hmar Youth Association etc executes the Amended Customary Law with partiality as per requirements. Also, bearers and holders of higher authorities like the church leaders’ engagement and intervention is mandatory not for the sake of preaching Christian`s piety and forgiveness but punishment that befits the culprit`s conduct. I wish and hope that the subject of Rape case will not be another social issue that befalls our society and in case it happens again the Customary Law should do justice for the victim unlike the Hmarveng case.



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