Death Sentence – a sober chink in Naga women’s defense
DIMAPUR, SEPTEMBER 18
‘CAPITAL Punishment’ – or legally, the death penalty – is an instrument that popular governments and tyrants alike have employed to appease either administrative decorum, gratify humanism’s grievances or calm the anger of a mourning public. It is also a convenient sword for extremist and revolutionary organizations to justify reprisals against a rival political ideology – just because they can.
Likewise, Death Sentence – a notoriously controversial dimension of Human Rights and Humanism – has also become a common refrain for women in third-world countries who demand it as a remedy for sexual transgressions committed against women and the girl child. On December 16, 2012 a 23-year-old psychotherapy intern from Delhi was assaulted and gang-raped in a moving bus by six persons. The victim would later succumb to her injuries. The incident left the entire subcontinent shaken to the core and went on to generate widespread national and international outrage.
In the events that unfolded following the crime, one of the six accused allegedly committed suicide and another, a juvenile, was sentenced to three years of imprisonment in a reformation institute. On September 10, 2013, the other four accused were sentenced to death by a fast-track court. It was a verdict that resurrected the decades’ old question of ethics, legal accountability and Human Rights, in a population that either supported or opposed the death penalty.
Closer home in Nagaland, the 2013 has seen a number of rape cases and the subsequent response to each of them from civil society has been as vociferous as the next. Some instances: In September first week, the media reported that a mentally-challenged girl was allegedly gang-raped by two youths in Kohima. In July this year, four non-Naga persons, said to be illegal immigrants, accused of gang-raping a Naga woman on February 7, 2012 in Dimapur’s Burma Camp, were sentenced to 10 to 15 years rigorous imprisonment.
In all the cases, one consistent and vocal refrain from enraged civil society – especially the women organizations – has been the demand for “capital punishment” to the culprits. “It is good to give them capital punishment,” as put by Achila Imsong, president of the apex Ao Naga women organization, the Watsu Mungdang recently.
Nonetheless, the ‘Delhi Rape Case’ has placed into contrast sexual crime as a criminal offence and sexual crime as Human Rights operative that could work both ways for both the perpetrator and the victim.
However, the paradigms could be in the process of redefinition if the comments of a number of women leaders from both civil and statutory institutions representing Naga women’s welfare are to be considered. Some prefer it, while others do not. And there appears to be a hint of confusion about what the remedy could be and what a right is.
Chairperson of the Nagaland State Women Commission (NSWC) Prof. Temsula Ao made clear that the commission on its part had never sought the death penalty as a convenience that should be brandished in the face of any sexual crime. She acknowledged that the death penalty was a subject that went beyond the ambit of just sexual offense.
It enters the dimension of Human Rights, she said during a telephonic interaction on Tuesday.
“The system is so loose and unorganized in Nagaland. What happened in Delhi is not comparable to the situation in Nagaland due to various reasons,” Ao, also a noted academician and writer, said. For instance, she explained, people in more enabled communities such as Delhi have strong public scrutiny and the public and Media react differently in terms of attitude and awareness. Those could be the reasons the judicial or administrative mechanisms of other state could differ from the reality that is Nagaland’s own system, she suggested.
She also acknowledged that that the definition of ‘capital punishment’ could be in use a bit loosely from certain sections. “We have never demanded it but only for ‘maximum punishment permissible under the law (against perpetrators). We have iterated this,” the commission’s chairperson said.
Ao also lamented that crime cases – sexual crimes and others – in Nagaland are characterized by ‘outside interference’ into the administrative justice processes. Hence, she suggested, a weak justice system. “There is always outside interference. This family, that family, this union, that union,” she remarked as a way of giving reasons why most rapists – or other offenders – go free in Nagaland.
The inclination is somewhat similar. According to the president of the Naga Women’s Hoho of Dimapur, there are two instances when punishment for rapist could be either justified or negated. Naga Women Hoho’s president Hukheli Wotsa interacted with Eastern Mirror on September 17. “We are demanding life imprisonment for those who rape or commit sexual crimes against women,” she declared. But death sentence is for those who ‘rape and kill’, she explained when ask to comment on the demand for the death penalty women organizations in Nagaland raise consistently whenever rape cases occur.
“Those who rape and kill should be awarded capital punishment,” Wotsa said. However, death penalty or not, Nagaland seems to be a judicial nightmare according to her observation. In Nagaland rapists are given 8-10 years or gets bail-out. Those who have ‘good backgrounds’ go free,” she said. “The judiciary gives bail, or the (accused) serves only 2-3 years and escape instead of getting punishment. We are really discouraged.”
One of the most visible Naga women community organizations in Nagaland, the Watsu Mungdang, has been a major voice on the women rights frontline. The organization has been explicit particularly in cases relating to sexual crimes. A few days ago, on September 10 the organization joined the Naga Women Hoho and the Charkroma Women Association in protest against the alleged rape of a physically-challenged girl in Chumukedima on September 3.
President of the apex Ao women organization Achila Imsong interacted with this newspaper on Wednesday. She suggested that the judicial process in Nagaland is awkward. ‘We have had two three cases recently and we have submitted memorandums demanding punishment for perpetrators, but nothing has happened,’ she explained. The women community is demanding that the state’s administration and judiciary should be more serious, Imsong said. As for death penalty for sexual offenders, she suggested that the sentence could be a ‘good’ deterrent. “It is good to give them capital punishment,” the Watsu Mungdang president said.
Global Human Rights watchdog, Amnesty International, has always stood against the death penalty. “The death penalty is the ultimate denial of human rights. It is the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state. This cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment is done in the name of justice,” the organization states in its statement on the sentence. “It violates the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception regardless of the nature of the crime, the characteristics of the offender, or the method used by the state to kill the prisoner.”
The issue of sexual offense and what punishment its perpetrators deserve is made even more complex by the intricate and contentious dimensions of Human Rights. These dimensions can entangle not only legal interpretation and administrative objectives but also encompass both humanitarian obligations and ethical perspectives. That dilemma is real especially in a county like India where responsible governances is always a political debate and justice is a luxury.
A number of legal professionals in Dimapur and Kohima, who Eastern Mirror contacted for opinions on the legal aspects of death penalty vis-a-vis sexual crimes, did not respond.