In the wake of rising crime against women in Assam, Anuraag Baruah takes a hard look at what went wrong in a state where once women enjoyed safe public places.
Kunjarani Kalita from Guwahati’s Noonmati has been fighting a lone battle. Her 22 year old daughter was allegedly gang-raped and murdered, the body dumped only to be recovered 2 days later. Noonmati Police Station first refused to file a complaint citing trivial reasons. After repeatedly visiting the police station, someone suggested her to visit the Forensic Laboratory at Kahilipara where she was told that the chemicals necessary to conduct the tests to determine rape and murder of her daughter were missing from the laboratory since July 2015. Kunjarani is still fighting for some semblance of justice.
The cost of the necessary chemicals is around Rs. 35,000 that can be used for up to 50 such cases. In almost all the divisions of the Forensics Laboratory like serology, drugs and narcotics, photography, chemistry, toxicology, ballistic and question document, they haven’t been able to conduct tests due to lack of materials.
“The accused people will soon get bail for the lack of evidence and what saddens and shocks me is the fact that my girl is not the first such case. Thousands of such cases are happening across the state and girls are disappearing everywhere.” Manjurani wipes her tears that she wouldn’t hide anymore.
About 16,419 samples are awaiting test reports in the Forensic Laboratory at Kahilipara involving thousands of crime against women reported across Assam and the Northeast.
Assam has been one of the most affected states in terms of women safety in the Northeastern region. With total 19,139 cases of crime against women, Assam recorded the highest rate of crime against women in the country in 2014 with a 123.4 percentage, which was almost double of the national average of 56.3 percent.
The Disappearing Girl Child is not a metaphor anymore and according to the 2011 census, the ratio has slipped to 918 girls to 1000 boys (0-6 age group) in India. They are not disappearing only through sex-selection techniques before birth. Reports suggest that 40% of the total crimes against women happen before a particular girl becomes 18 years old. We need to look beyond the 0-6 year age group which is regarded as the most vulnerable stage of a girl child.
The declining child sex ratio points towards a dangerous trend in the future with the backdrop of a country with a comparatively young population where soon, as years pass by, the overall sex-ratio will bear the brunt as the discrepancy in the 0-6 age group will soon reflect in the future generations. And this with the spate of various other crime against the female population in the country, a balanced future in terms of gender certainly looks bleak.
The ‘myth’ of a dowry free Assam has been finally shattered as news and reports of dowry related crimes including death are coming to light in the state over the last few years. Showing an upswing, according to reports, 205 dowry-related deaths were reported across the state in 2014, which adds up to 850 deaths in the last six years. Surveys conducted by various agencies revealed that girls from economically backward families in various parts of Assam often remain unmarried because their parents cannot meet dowry demands. This on the other has led to sex selective elimination since the girl child is regarded as a burden especially for economically backward families. The 1991 census revealed that there were 975 females for every 1,000 males in Assam, which came down to 964 in 2001. In some cases, it is just the preference for a boy rather than a girl child that has led cases of sex selective elimination.
Arunima Baruah (name changed) 29, who was married to a well-off family in Guwahati was forcefully compelled to get her female foetus eliminated after her in-laws got to know about the gender of the foetus through a pre-natal sex determination technique. Arunima was lucky to have survived the ordeal but many more unlucky ones often lose their own life because of cases like septic abortion or infections due to abortion, one of the major causes of almost 30-40 per cent of maternal deaths.
Trafficking of girl-child has been a major crime against women in Assam and there are hundreds of young girls from Assam being illegally sold away to brothels all across the country. Runumi Devi from Morigaon was sold to a groom in Haryana for Rs. 1 lakh after being trafficked from Assam. Her family members had no idea of her whereabouts till one day they suddenly got to know of her death under mysterious circumstances through one of their acquaintances in Haryana.
According to CID reports, 4754 children have gone missing in the last three years which included 2753 girls. They either succumb to the atrocities or still toil away somewhere in Indian cities. They disappear the moment they are abducted from their villages and towns, often alleged as elopement cases by the relatives as well as the police in case of girls. Girls being trafficked from flood and violence relief camps are common in the state known for being prone to floods and conflicts.
Most of these girls are sold like slaves by agencies who double up as placement agencies- as bonded labourers, as wives to men across the country, as sex workers as domestic helps in metros making them susceptible to mental and sexual abuse. Around 4000 girls go missing from the state every year according to official records while unofficial accounts say a much bigger number. Recently, a 15 year old Assamese girl was recovered from a remote region in Haryana. According to state home department records, during 2012, a total of 2,109 cases of abduction of women were registered in Assam, of which 1,398 were rescued from various places. At least 894 women, mostly in the age group 15-30, were rescued from outside the state.
Witch-hunting is another major crime against women in the state. According to the Assam government, from 2006 to 2012 105 “witch-hunting” cases were reported across the state. Sikuni Rabha, a middle aged woman was killed at a remote village in Rongjuli under Goalpara district of Assam in 2014. The villagers had blamed her for deaths owing to water-borne diseases that seem to have engulfed the place at that time due to the lack of proper drinking water facilities in the village. They chased her out in the fields, first setting fire to her legs and then to her face. They beat her up repeatedly till she died. The Assam Assembly has unanimously passed the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Bill, 2015 making any offence under the Act as non-bailable, cognizable and non-compoundable to eliminate the superstition from society but lack of proper education and healthcare in the remote regions has made matters only worse.
Unless these crimes against women are checked, we cannot expect the dismal child sex ratio would improve. The actual benefits from the numerous government and NGO schemes regarding protection of the Girl Child can only be successfully derived if the rate of crime against women comes down. Assam surely needs to do a lot in this regard given its crime graph is steadily rising and the government priorities severely misplaced.
(Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals and avoid identification.)