As a society, it is unthinkable that even today women are used as a means to take revenge in a conflict. Women were paraded naked and the whole mechanism shamelessly remained a spectator until they saw the incident became viral and there was no other way to hide it. On the one hand, it shows the ugliness of a patriarchal overview of women and on the other hand, it exposes a grave failure of the rule of law and accountability within our society.
The gruesome details of the Manipur incident are not hidden from anyone but unfortunately, what happened after the incident is even more disturbing. The police took no action to trace the family that was abducted from their custody and no action was taken for 2 months. The proximity of this heinous crime to India & police station, Nongpok Sekmai police station, (as reported in Indian Express December 2, 2020 & India Today Jul 21, 2023) also adds to the sense of disillusionment among the public.
The lack of action for a prolonged period of time following the incident, till the video went viral, prompts questions not only regarding the police inaction but the ineffectiveness of oversight bodies, such as the State Human Rights Commission, State Women Commission, National Commission for Women (NCW) or National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). This inaction raises serious concerns about the integrity of the police and other Institutions responsible for upholding the rule of law.
Regrettably, the Chief Minister is found to be playing theatrics to the crowd by demanding that the accused be hanged. This is a clear display of chaos and crippled leadership where the chief of the state is clearly unaware of his own duties. The Chief Minister forgot the role of hanging an accused falls under the purview of the judiciary.
The viral video of this gruesome incident has not only tarnished Manipur's image, but the entire nation feels embarrassed. As a former member of the NHRC, I feel that the inaction of these oversight bodies is due to the feeling of no actual obligation towards the citizens until either the video goes viral or there is no option but to save their own image.
At the Commissions, there are no oral hearings, and the cases are handled in a very routine manner. The complaints are initially dealt with by junior consultants, who take a call on whether this complaint is serious or not. There is no formal and regular training for them to be sensitized on what are grave and urgent matters and how should they be dealt with. In any complaint, it might take more than a month to pass the first order in the complaint. On the other hand, the emphasis had always been how many complaints were being disposed of. The focus remains on reducing the pendency, forgetting that the purpose of Institutions is to protect Human Rights.
We should also not hesitate to say that the Manipur High Court also failed to protect human rights and fundamental rights. The inactivity of these oversight institutions raises a basic question: what purpose do these bodies have if they are failing in their basic duties? The delayed response from the NCW and NHRC until the video went viral reflects poor functioning and accountability toward the public.
It is imperative that these Commissions take immediate action when presented with such complaints. Accordingly, this incident should be taken as a wake-up call for the Commissions to re-design their functioning and focus more on the protection of Human rights by associating more people working in the field of human rights. It is the commissions that have the responsibility to enquire where the state fails in the prevention of human rights violations, it is they who should have stepped in when these complaints from Manipur started being reported to them in May. The public outcry on the waste of the taxpayer's money on such Institutions needs to be addressed.
It is necessary to understand that these institutions acting neutrally and promptly is fundamental for a strong democracy. At least, the police officials should have been held accountable for being negligent or complicity, under Section 166A of the Indian Penal Code. The Commissions must find out what went wrong and why action was not taken promptly. They must have special and fast-track mechanisms for handling grave and serious cases and should have had a ready mechanism for sending the teams for spot inquiry in such crimes. Even a mere belief among the public and the police officials that the Commission team is coming for a spot inquiry would have changed the situation on the ground. Unfortunately, in this scenario, none of this happened.
As a nation, we believe in Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, the idea that the world is one family. Yet, incidents like this demonstrate that there are dark elements in our society that resort to gruesome acts of revenge, particularly against women. Our system has built-in redundancies if the state is unable to uphold the rule of law. However, if our commissions fail to live up to this responsibility, we are looking at a grim future.
( Writer is an Advocate-on-record Supreme Court of India, Former Member National Human Rights Commission )