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State or tribal laws? Chakma couple death in Tripura Police custody falls in grey zone

The couple, who were having an affair, belonged to the ethnic Chakma community. On Sunday, the Tripura Rejyo Chakma Samajik Parishad, an apex customary body of the community, sought a judicial enquiry into the deaths.

Written by Debraj Deb | Agartala |
Updated: May 2, 2022 2:35:42 am

The death of a minor girl and a youth in Silachari in Tripura’s Gomati district, while they were in police custody, is growing into a controversy over the grey zone between tribal customary laws and regular penal provisions in the state.

The couple, who were having an affair, belonged to the ethnic Chakma community. On Sunday, the Tripura Rejyo Chakma Samajik Parishad, an apex customary body of the community, sought a judicial enquiry into the deaths.

The Parishad said the two of them had run away thrice together from home. Incidentally, under the Chakma laws, a couple who have eloped thrice are considered married. But for that both have to be above the age of 18. While the youth was an adult, the girl was 16.

The Parishad said after they eloped the first time, the elders intervened as per their customary laws and didn’t allow a marriage as the girl was a minor. She was handed over to her father. The second time too, she was handed her to her guardians, Parishad Secretary Shanti Bikash Chakma said.

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On April 1, the girl left again, to be with the youth. The Parishad admitted that while the Chakma community need not have done so, under its laws, they decided to involve police to stop the two. So, at the advice of community elders, the girl’s father filed a complaint with a local police station at Rashyabari.

According to the Parishad, they moved police only as a precautionary measure, and their elders urged police to allow them to deal with the issue as per the Chakma customary laws, especially since the area the girl and youth belong to falls under the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council.

They accuse police of having taken custody of the two instead, and turning away the elders and their guardians.

Soon after, word got to the parents that the two had consumed poison. Rushed to a local hospital first, they were referred to the Udaipur District Hospital on April 23 and to GBP Hospital the next day. On April 24, the girl succumbed while being brought to Agartala, and the youth died the next day.

The Chakma community Parishad accuses police of negligence and blames them for the deaths. “They took the boy and girl into custody. Why were they not searched? Why were they not subjected to a medical check-up? Why was there no monitoring? Since the girl was a minor, why didn’t police send her to a juvenile home? We want a judicial enquiry and strict punishment for everyone involved,” Shanti Bikash Chakma said.

Tripura royal scion and TIPRA Motha chief Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma has also taken up the issue and, on Saturday, asked the police officers involved to be sent on leave till the investigation was over.

While police refused to talk on the matter, an officer, who did not want to be named, said two FIRs had been filed, at Raishyabari and Silachari Police Stations, over the incident, by the relatives of the dead couple. While refusing to say more saying scientific evidence was still being gathered, the officer also said that the two had started throwing up soon after they were put in custody, implying they might have ingested something beforehand.

Shanti Chakma said they had submitted a memorandum to Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb through officials in all Chakma-majority areas of the state, like Pecharthal, Kanchanpur, Longtraivalley, Ganda Twisa, Karbook, Shantirbazaar and Agartala. “The onus is on the OC (officer in-charge) to explain how the two got hold of the poison.”

The tribal body has also asked the government to provide financial compensation and jobs to the families and demanded that tribal elders be treated with respect and dignity in such situations.

Incidentally, given the possibility of such a conflict between customary tribal laws and State laws, in 2019, Deb had held a meeting with samajpati or elders from all tribal communities, where he had asked police to respect tribal elders.

The customary laws refer to the age-old traditional judicial system governing a tribal community. In February last year, the Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council had moved resolutions seeking that the customary laws of the Mizo, Kaipeng and Molsom communities be codified. It was also contemplating granting legitimacy to customary laws of different indigenous communities.

Tripura houses 19 recognised indigenous communities. Many of them have submitted codified customary laws as proposals to the tribal council.

In 2017, the state government had recognised the customary laws of the Jamatia community.

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