On the evening of 7th July 2017, Yakub Khan Nongkynrih, an alleged sexual offender, was killed by a mob at Nongkseh, Shillong. He was accused of having sexually assaulted an eleven year old girl who is the daughter of his landlord. After an interrogation of the victim, Vivek Syiem, (SP Shillong City) declared in an interview with Batesi TV (8/7/2017) that Yakub’s abuse of the girl had been a year-long affair and that the assault consisted of undressing, taking inappropriate photographic images of the victim and molestation. However, there has been an inconsistent narrative built by various media outlets, some alleging Yakub with the crime of rape and others with molestation. As the police investigation carries on, one which seeks clarity to the crime committed, Yakub’s punishment was more swiftly delivered by a mob through an act of lynching, ultimately resulting in his death.
Violence against women in Meghalaya has escalated to an alarming degree this year, whether in the rural or urban areas and domestic or public and professional spaces. Crimes would range from murders, rapes, various kinds of sexual assaults and domestic abuse. In most of these cases, victims are still waiting desperately on the door of justice and the lack of Fast Track Courts in the state even now is arguably one huge impediment to the deliverance of the same. Interestingly, in some of these episodes, sexual offenders would even get an unofficial social pardon by the community or locality before the trial is over. The Mawrynkneng rape incident that occurred in January 2017 is one classic example where the victim was being actually cajoled into “forgiving” her rapists since they also happened to be her friends and neighbours. Some of the officials of the village traditional institution (Dorbar) played a huge role in these back-door negotiation.
Further, in a huge sex racket this year involving the MLA Julius Dorphang and tangentially the Minister of Home, H. D. R Lyngdoh in whose son’s guest house Marvelene Inn, illegal sexual activities were conducted and the rape of a teenager took place, there were circumstances which did not exactly articulate for a strong and urgent redressal to these crimes. For one, people in the constituency of the latter came out protesting calling out for his innocence. Second, despite strong indications of H D R Lyngdoh’s potential implication in the crime, the Chief Minister Mukul Sangma still refused to take the Home Department from the latter’s hands, let alone suspend him from Office. On the 7th of this very month, the jailed MLA-cum-rape-accused Julius Dorphang was unabashedly appointed to be member of the State Assembly’s Committee on Privileges and the Committee on Subordinate Legislation. Of course, Dorphang was later removed from these committees after there was a petition filed against this move by a few concerned citizens and pressure groups, but the fact that he was still briefly allowed to be part of a significant political platform speaks volumes about how the state of Meghalaya treats crimes against women. Even we, as citizens have failed to deliver the kind of political outrage against such a situation and against our own matrilineal society which constantly exercises the virtues of forgetting and forgiving in matters of gender violence. But do we wash our hands clean, sit back and relax in every situation or do we selectively react when the culprit in question is of a vulnerable class, religion or community?
In this context, the death by public lynching of Yakub Khan Nongkynrih may appear to be one great retrieval of public conscience in Meghalaya, where collective rage is let out and is manifested in counter violence, one which “just happened” to result in the accused’s death. But it may also appear to be an incident of ruthless killing thriving outside legality, but completely within the communal sensibility of the Khasi Nongkseh lynchers. Reportedly, the lynching had taken place in the landlord’s house, where along with his son and people from the locality, had locked Yakub in a room and beat him mercilessly. It was from this same room, that the police collected him hours later, only to declare him dead within a few minutes. The victim’s father and brother were arrested immediately for the murder. In an interview with Batesi TV, a member of the victim’s family quite overtly condemned the arrest of the men, who he hinted, were acting out of fury and offence, them being the father and the brother. He seemed to be implying that the filial connection between the victim and her father and brother (mostly governed by patriarchal logic) motivated the crime and hence was somewhat pardonable. He also suggested that this incident is a lesson for other landlords and landladies to be careful with their choice of tenants, and to actually filter out “kine ki jaitbynriew” (people of this community-insinuating non-tribals). Thus, it is difficult to deny that ethnic identity of the accused (being half Muslim and half Khasi) is not completely removed from people’s understanding of this case. So is there a possibility of us reading Yakub’s death purely as an act of retributive justice for his alleged crime?
Historically speaking, lynching as a phenomenon is an unlawful but to a degree, socially sanctioned kind of punishment, more often enacted by a majoritarian or dominant group over minorities. It is thus an act which revolves centrally around a politics of power, racial and otherwise. Of course it is a criminal offence but it is also an act of violence which necessarily involves public participation, either through the actual release of physical force, verbal abuse, or merely through a visual consumption of the spectacle itself. Lynching thus functions outside the rule of law and hence, the lynched is someone who is denied social and political equality by the lynchers and spectators. I understand that the people present at the lynching site at Nongkseh were all driven by the emotions of justice for the victim but one cannot deny how that seems to have been conflated with the hatred for the accused, seemingly coloured with a racist impulse. When the news of abuse had emerged, the mob (who were reportedly enjoying a neighbourhood football match minutes ago) rushed to the victim’s house and decided to take matters literally into their own hands and immediately suspended Yakub’s right as a non-Khasi Indian citizen to be surrendered to the police, have a fair trial and finally to live.
Yes, Yakub needed to be met with punitive action, kept in jail and given a sentence, according to the alleged crime committed. Yes, justice for the victim needed to be given, speedily and affirmatively. But was the suspension of law for the accused equal to justice for the victim? Yakub’s lynching video was heavily circulated on social media and people consumed it for different purposes. Some comments on YouTube and Facebook resented the act, while others applauded it. Some even saw it as a lesson for Khasi women who are romantically involved with non-Khasi men- how it was a lesson,I struggle to understand. In such a comment, one sees a clear lack of understanding between romantic and sexual relationships with consent and those without; in fact, the writer quite obviously sees no difference between the two and merely emphasised on the case being a sexual encounter between a Khasi woman and a non-tribal man, who here, happens to be Muslim. The more I look at these comments, the more I realise that the viral nature of the video somehow extends the phenomenon of lynching to the realm of the inter web, expanding it in terms of time and space and allows for some, if not many viewers, the vicarious pleasure of visually partaking in the violence- all in the name of a justice collectively defined at that moment.
I cannot help but also locate this episode in the context of a contemporary Meghalaya which is writhing in the shadow of communal tension. Protesting against the coming of the railway to Byrnihat, in Ri Bhoi District, some members of the Khasi Students ‘ Union have been caught throwing petrol bombs at houses and shops of non-tribals in the state, apart from government cars and buildings. The arrival of the railway is seen by them as a situation which would allow for unchecked movement of migrants and outsiders into the state. A general sense of insecurity is thus already prevalent. Of course I don’t dare argue that there is a direct correlation between this and the lynching but one ends up asking- if it is so easy for some factions of the Khasi community to irrationally injure and harm innocent non-tribals citizens of Meghalaya, why would it be difficult to unleash (fatal) brutality on one who is actually accused of a crime, that too, one allegedly inflicted on a Khasi girl? As evidenced in the social media discussion, there is a sentiment which fixes the emotion of offence to the idea of Khasi honour, where “our girl” is being violated by “an other.”
On reading the online debates on the issue, one also understands that part of the reason why people were endorsing the lynching was their general lack of faith in the legal and judicial system of the state and the country at large. Many argue that the law is not “strong enough” to deal with such cases. The failure of courts to provide swift justice has made people question the power of law itself; after all, Meghalaya is reported to have a high percentage of bails on sexual offenders. While some may see logic in this reality, it is worthy to note that lynching across the Garo, Khasi and Jaintia Hills is a standard method of punitive action exercised by communities outside the law. Victims of lynching in the state are not only sexual offenders but also people who are merely suspected to be robbers, murderers, witchcraft practitioners, and the like. Several cases of death by lynching have been reported in the past five years alone from various corners of the state. The Khasi word for lynching, “bom shnong” is a widely accepted terminology and the practice itself is very much a part of public consciousness. In fact, the idea of lynching in the local discourse, does not necessarily stand antagonistic to the idea of law; it is seen as a localised, non-State enactment of justice. The cathartic and orgiastic display of brutal punishment serves the purpose of purging social fear, maladies and unwanted elements from the community. Crime, in this sense, is not understood as a systemic crisis, nor is it seen through the lenses of psychology. Most incidents of lynching in Meghalaya are viewed as isolated scenarios where the lynched is somebody who represents a society’s anomaly and her/his death serves as a moral lesson to the rest of the community. Yakub’s murder is hence intended to carry a didactic language, not only to non-Khasis but to anyone who could potentially commit the same alleged crime.
This entire episode throws huge ethical and legal questions to all of us; not only the State but us as a community, as citizens of Meghalaya and as human beings. Yes, we do need to demand more out of the legal and justice system, but we also need to reflect on our shared belief systems and ideas of sociality, our understanding of crime, the notion of good and evil, our racism and finally our easy adherence to practices of violence. The public fatal lynching of Yakub Khan Nongkynrih (regardless of whether he is guilty) is just another reminder that as a society, we have have blood in our hands.