Marital rape has come under the spotlight with the recent Supreme Court judgment on right to privacy. But for those who hadn’t noticed, while most of India had 18 years as the age of consent, the same used to be 14 years in Manipur and 13 years for legal marriage — till 2012.
Even as the country debates on how the age of consent for legal marriage is lower, we look at how Manipur happened to have a peculiar situation in this case.
What is the historical context? From pre-colonial to post-colonial
Manipur’s diverse society comprising the three dominant tribes of Meiteis, Nagas, Kukis and several others had led to this peculiar legal pluralism before the British ruled the country. Even during the Raj, tribal customary laws prevailed in Manipur.
Among the tribes, Meiteis were the superior one, socially and economically, and their customary laws were, therefore, followed statewide. With the passage of time, the laws frequently governed criminal proceedings as well.
A 2008 report of the Human Rights Watch, titled “These Fellows Should Be Eliminated”, quoted Satkhojal Chongloi of the Kuki Movement for Human Rights: “There are many different groups in Manipur. Some want a separate state under the Indian Constitution. Others demand a sovereign nation. But the main concern of the Kuki people is that the customary law should be protected.”
The internal legal system of the state and the tribes did not change with the changing political atmosphere of the country with the Centre also choosing not to interfere with the customary laws until 1949.
Although by way of the Merger Agreement, 1949, the state of Manipur gave up the monarch to India but the tradition of Oath and Ordeal maintained a legal position in the Meitei society as well as with the tribals. Under the State Merger Order, 1950 and the Manipur (Courts) Act, 1953, the state adopted the central laws i.e. the Criminal Procedure Code, Indian Penal Code and the Indian Evidence Act and these were applicable on villages and tribal people.
But the prevalent customary laws in Manipur remain protected and maintained by the Manipur (Village Authorities in Hill Areas) Act 1956. Even though the 1956 Act clearly states that offences falling under the IPC shall not be tried by the village courts, the village council and the village authority continue to co-exist in the villages.
One of the other reasons for legal pluralism in the state is that Meitei customary laws owe their inspiration to Hinduism and British colonialism and wiping out mainstream Meitei tradition was never considered plausible.
Following the Meitei customary law, the valley had a Meitei court where in the name of God, the traditional ‘Oath and Ordeal’ was practiced during legal proceedings. Swearing an oath to not commit a crime in the name of God held a high value back in the time. Where an oath placed its premise on the oral affirmation of the criminal, an ordeal was a means to judge the innocence of the criminal by forcing him to perform certain physical acts.
For instance, ordeal by fire was when the accused was instructed to carry a heated iron rod and walk a few paces. The innocence of the accused was proven if the wound from the hot iron had healed. Similarly, ordeal by water was implemented to judge the innocence of the accused by pushing a person into the water. If the man drowned, he in fact did commit a crime, and if he floated, he was proved to be innocent.
How did a low age of consent come about?
Due to unavailability of text on the issue, the reason for affixing the clause with Exception under Section 375 remains unknown, so does the reason for its scrapping.
According to Binalakshmi Nepram, Founder of Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network and CAFI and Convener of Northeast India Women Initiative for Peace, no treatise exists stating the low age of consent from the past.
Interacting with Indianexpress.com, Binalakshmi held customary laws to be one of the causes for the explicit low age of consent stated in the central law. Speaking about child marriage in the Manipuri society, Binalakshmi said marriage finds its roots in the “deeply patriarchal” customary system called “Nupi Chingba” (abduction of a young girl) or “Nupi Chenba” (elopement). In some cases the elopement is mutual, however, in other instances “many others tragically “allow” a minor young girl to be abducted, raped and then married off as she is no longer “pure”.”
Voicing against rampant child marriage in the state, Binalakshmi has been working towards this cause since 2007.
Barring the missing definition of ‘marital rape’ from our central laws, a lack of certainty exists on the issue of age of consent.
Well-versed on Manipur customary laws, Dr Vijaylakshmi Brara, PhD in Sociology and Associate Professor at Manipur University, Canchipur said the innumerable customary laws of Manipur do not mention the legal age of marriage.
Are women aware of marital rape?
Simply put, the answer is no.
Unaware of the concept of marital rape, many women do not know that forceful intercourse within a marriage constitutes a crime. In such states, women-centric crimes are rampant but go unreported and an absence of a definition is much felt.
A Manipur-based organisation working for the upliftment of women, WinG (Women in Governance), has affiliated members from various organizations, working in the interest of women and the crimes inflicted upon them.
Mary Beth Senate, general secretary of the Rural Women Upliftment Society, works dominantly for the Hmar and Kuki communities of Manipur. One of her regular visits is to the Churachandpur district of Manipur where Senate speaks to women and offers them help.
Talking to Indianexpress.com Senate said, “Out of 50-100 households, 10 women at least go through marital rape and many go unreported since in the rural areas not many know about marital rape.”
Unable to comprehend the crime due to lack of knowledge, many women do not consider this an issue and the others do not feel comfortable speaking about it in a large crowd.
“We approach these women in small groups and they talk about this issue with us there but none of these cases make it to the court,” said Eche Nonibala, Conveyor of the WinG.
What is the current status of the state?
“Women sleep outside the house to avoid the sleeping husband in the house,” said Nonibala.
Among all the 29 states, Manipur ranks among the top five where women in the age bracket of 15-49 face sexual violence at the hands of their husbands or spousal violence, according to National Family Health Survey 2004-2005.
The number of husbands sexually violating their wives in the age bracket of 15-49 is the highest (83.8%) in the state; among other categories, which involve former husband, boyfriend, in-law and the like, it ranges from 0.5% and 8.7%.
Cases of sexual violence within a marriage is rampant in Manipur but they almost go unreported. Around 13.6% undergo forceful sexual intercourse in case of refusal and 14% of married women are victims of other forms of sexual violence.
According to a study by the Journal of Medical Society in 2011, ‘Child sexual assault’: A study in Manipur’, out of the 144 cases reported under sexual assault, 51.4% were children. Child victims increased in the duration of the study conducted spread in the time span of 2005 to 2011 from 6.5% in 2006 to 29.7%.