Syed Sarifuddin Khan, 35, a father of a three-year-old, married to a Naga woman of the Sema tribe in Nagaland allegedly raped another Naga woman of the same tribe. Little did he know that this allegation could bring him a kind of death that would send chills down the spines of many people. Apart from being accused of committing a rape, Khan was also accused of being an alien – an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh.
So far, both the allegations have not been borne out, which has only left everyone wondering whether Khan actually became a victim of the rage of some indigenous Nagas against infiltration by Bangladeshi nationals.
On 23 February, Khan had allegedly taken the complainant to a hotel at Dimapur in Nagaland, forced her to consume alcohol and raped her.
What followed after Khan was arrested was shocking. On 5 March, groups of protestors, including students in school uniform, gathered in the hundreds, broke into a prison, dragged Khan out on to the streets, stripped him naked, tied him to a motorcycle and dragged him for some distance before beating him to death – all in full public view.
That was not all. The mob tied Khan’s body to a clock tower right in the heart of the city. Some protestors could be seen clicking photos and shooting videos of the macabre sight.
Soon after, certain facts emerged and it became known that Khan’s brother was a Havildar in the Indian Army and his father retired from the Indian Air Force. The family had been living for decades in the Karimganj district of Assam.
“My brother has been made a scapegoat,” says a devastated Jamal Khan, a brother of the deceased. “He was framed. There is no evidence of rape. The police are not giving the medical report. They have used my brother to establish that illegal migrants are causing crime. They have accused my brother of being an illegal migrant but we are Indians.”
“I am a havildar in the Army,” a visibly agitated Jamal Khan continues. “They have treated my brother like an animal.”
The family blamed the Nagaland government and police for failing to handle the crisis.
The allegation of rape has not been backed by any evidence, except for the statements made by the alleged victim.
“He forced me to accept money, so I took Rs 5,000 but later I handed it over to the police. He also forced me to drink,” the victim told Tehelka when this correspondent met her at her Dimapur home.
The CCTV footage of the hotel on 23 February, the day of the alleged rape, did not bear out the alleged victim’s version. In the footage, the woman appeared to be relaxed in Khan’s company.
Jamal claimed that she had asked his brother to cough up a sum of Rupees two lakh, failing which she would complain of rape.
Some civil society groups believe that this episode was used by a handful of people to address their concerns about illegal immigration.
“Whatever happened can never reflect the larger view of the Nagas. This is a Christian state and such a barbaric act is very much against the values of Christianity,” said a civil society member who did not wish to be named.
While rumours swirled that the police might have deliberately not acted to quell the protest before it got out of hand, a statement made by LL Doungel, the director-general of police of Nagaland, did not help matters either. Doungel had emphatically said that Khan was an illegal migrant, only to back off soon thereafter. Subsequently, the police said that Khan’s identity had not been confirmed.
The big question is: How justified was the act of lynching?
Preliminary investigation by the police indicated that the whole issue was provoked by certain hate messages about illegal immigration and the indigenous Nagas on social media –an issue that has plagued the entire northeast for years on end.
It poses another perplexing question: Who cried wolf on the social networking sites?
Upon sensing the spread of the hate messages, the district administration had ordered for a complete shutdown of Internet and SMS services for 48 hours across Nagaland.
And then there are some more. For instance, why was the police complacent in handling the protestors? Why, despite knowing that the alleged rapist’s family had a bona fide background of serving in the Indian armed forces, did the police still raise doubts over Khan’s identity?
Some civil society groups, both within and outside Nagaland, went to the extent of asking whether the police was trying to justify the actions of the mob by not acting hastily.
This incident has also brought back memories of how social media was put to use in the past to created panic among the people living in the northeast.
Clearly, the public outrage is directed as much against the police as the mob. “It is a true fact that there is a complete failure of law and order in the state,” said a journalist based in Dimapur who did not want to be identified.
Even after the situation has returned to normal in Dimapur, the civil society continues to debate whether there should be zero tolerance to vigilantism even while voicing concern over the unresolved and contentious issue of illegal immigration and how it affects the local population in Nagaland.
“What has happened is something we condemn outright,” says a social activist who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The truth should eventually come out. On the day of the incident, several shops belonging to the Muslim community in the predominantly Muslim areas of Hangkong Market and Haji Market were attacked. While the liberals in the Naga society said that they were a peace-loving people who espoused brotherhood, the ground reality is different. The Muslim traders would not say whether they felt safe anymore but one can detect a sense of deep-rooted fear in their minds.”
The problem also lies in how the Inner Line Permit is implemented in Dimapur, a commercial hub of Nagaland. It is the only place that doesn’t require settlers from outside to get the mandatory Inner Line Permit, a document that is necessary for outsiders to visit and work in the state. This has led to many outsiders, mostly Muslims, to settle in Nagaland. Some of them have married Naga women and bought property there.