The plan was to reach Lunglei, some 62 km from their village Rolui in southern Mizoram. If they walked along the road, it would take about 10 hours. If they could hitch a ride, it would take half the time. The roads were uneven and muddy, and the few vehicles that plied bumped along slowly.
Perhaps they would stay with distant relatives in Serchhiptlang, a small town along the way, who might empathise with their plans to elope. It’s not unusual for young people to elope in some tribal communities of the Northeast. It is often not driven by parental opposition but just to set the ball rolling for formal talks between families.
It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. The 21-year-old man in shirt and trousers, the 17-year-old girl in blouse and pyjamas, no bags between them, and no money either, it turned out.
A Class VIII pass, he was one of the more educated youths in Rouli, a small village of 100 families where most people eke out a living from patches of land on hill slopes and which was connected by road less than a decade ago. He had been planning to head for Lunglei to apply for a scholarship for a Hindi course. She was illiterate, evident from her thumb impression in the FIR she would file later on. They had grown up together. The youth says they had been in love for some time, though the girl is vague about this.
The two set out on the night of August 3 and were shielded by seven boys, all of them his friends. In case relatives foiled the elopement bid, the seven boys were to help the couple. They had barely walked 2 km, when the 21-year-old realised he had forgotten his wallet at home. He asked the seven boys to take care of her while he went to get his money. “Please stay near her. It’s dark. She might be scared,” he told them.
Far from protecting her though, the seven allegedly took turns to rape her on the side of the road. Four of them were minors — three 14 years of age, one 16; the latter pulled her blouse over her head so she could not identify him. Two were 18, and the eldest 20. She’d known the youths, all from her village Rouli, since her childhood. Police claimed the boys had admitted to their crime, saying they raped her because she verbally abused them. “They had nothing more to offer,” says a policeman who interrogated them. According to him, the accused showed no signs of being under the influence of drugs and alcohol and had showed no remorse over what had happened.
The youth returned to where he had left his friend half an hour later, around 9 pm, with his wallet. The girl told him about the “rape” and ran back to her parents’ home, crying. The youth, scared and shocked, ran to his parents’ home. “I didn’t know what to do,” he later told the police.
The only ones who showed no hurry to leave the spot were the seven alleged rapists. The girl’s parents and her neighbours took her to a primary health centre at 3.30 am. She had high fever and was in a state of shock. There were no apparent signs of struggle — no bruises, no cuts. The doctor told them to file an FIR, which they did. A blood test revealed she had malaria.
The next morning, the police rounded up all the seven boys. She identified six of them. The only one she could not identify — because he had pulled her blouse over her head — was later revealed to be her cousin. “The girl’s mother and his father are siblings,” said a police officer. They have been charged under Section 376 IPC (gangrape), and the JJ Act has been invoked in case of the four minor accused.
While the accused and the girl testified that the boyfriend was not involved in the alleged accident, her father has questioned this, asking why he had fled from the scene. The day after the crime, while police had been searching for the youth, he appeared at the police station on his own. He spent the night in the thana, being interrogated by the police. Police eventually let him go realising he may have been speaking the truth. He had just been too shocked to think straight, which is why he rushed home, the boyfriend told them.
That night the seven were sent to Lunglei for a hearing with the magistrate the next day. Soon, a horde of villagers from Rouli came to the police station at Lungsen, the nearest town, asking for mercy for the seven accused. Police attribute this to the local tradition of sorting out issues without filing official complaints in the village. “But the law has to take its own course,” a policeman says.
A woman social worker who has worked in the area for half a decade says social norms in the area “are a century behind the rest of the state”. “People in general simply do not recognise the outrageousness of this incident. Feminism and women’s rights are alien concepts, and sex is not much of a taboo. But rape should be. It must be.”