By Kavita Charanji, Womens Feature Service
The telephone rings persistently many times a day at the North East Support Centre and Helpline, located in New Delhi. Run by crusading lawyer Lansinglu Rongmei, 36, the organisation responds to calls from distressed women and men from the North East, who are victims of acute harassment and discrimination in the workplace, in educational institutions, on the streets or even at home.
The number of women callers far outstrip that of men. Rongmei, herself from the North East, explains that of the 100 cases that the helpline has taken on so far since its inception around two years ago, approximately 15 relate to sexual assault and sexual harassment. “Six are in the trial courts because a lot of women are reluctant to file complaints with the police,” she says. And those courageous enough to do so get very little support from an apathetic police force and a slow-moving judicial machinery.
The gritty Rongmei, an advocate in the Supreme Court, remains unfazed however. One of the less publicised cases she took on pro bono last year was that of 24-year-old BPO employees, Niang Mary and Daisy, who were molested on December 11, 2008, by their landlord, his friend and the domestic help on the very night they had shifted into their rented flat in Sikandarpur, Gurgaon. The girls originally hail from Churachanpur in Manipur. Unfortunately, the nightmare was not over for the traumatised women: The police initially refused to file their complaint and even treated them as criminals. While the authorities should have immediately arrested the culprits and taken the injured and traumatised girls for medical examination and treatment, they were questioned and treated with suspicion as though they were the perpetrators.
Today, the case has moved ahead a bit. The police have given their statement to the trial court in Gurgaon and a doctor has corroborated the case of molestation after a medical examination. The three culprits were arrested but are now out on bail. “We are hopeful that Mary and Daisy will get justice,” says Rongmei, who believes that the guilty trio could be put behind bars for at least two years or be fined, or both, if found guilty under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code. Section 354 pertains to assault or criminal force with the intent to outrage the modesty of a woman. The helpline is also considering whether the culprits can be booked under The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which carries a minimum sentence of five years.
Mary, who now works for ICICI, and Daisy, who has moved to another BPO job in Chandigarh, plan to soldier on till the culprits are brought to justice and emphatically refuse to accept the handsome compensation that the counsel for the accused has offered if they withdraw their case. “No amount of money can compensate for my loss of dignity. Even today, I have nightmares and they just won’t go away,” says Mary.
The workplace, too, is often a venue of sexual harassment. Recently, a 20-year-old Naga girl from Manipur was molested by a showroom manager at the Metropolitan Mall, Gurgaon. The distraught girl approached the North East Support Centre and Helpline. The police have identified the manager and registered her complaint. However, as always, Rongmei had to contend with police reluctance to register the case immediately. Fortunately, when pressure mounted from both the helpline and the victim’s community, the police were compelled to take action. It helped that Gurgaon-based Pastor Angam also spoke out in their favour. However, the manager is yet to be charge-sheeted.
In addition to the apparent hurdles in the path to justice, Rongmei points out that the public in the Capital can often be apathetic. When witness to harassment, Rongmei points out that “most people see it as a ‘tamasha’ (drama)”. While all women may face such a situation, for women from the North East things are even worse. They have to contend with a police force that is inadequately sensitised and attempts to browbeat the victim by delaying the filing of the case. Asserts Rongmei, “The police may also scare off the victims by saying that if they lodge a complaint they will have to make endless rounds of the police station and courts.”
Rongmei observes that such incidents of assault on the North Eastern community are not new. However, the community’s increasingly awareness of their rights and increased media attention has brought cases of harassment and discrimination into the public domain. But, according to the crusader, the media may have touched only the tip of the iceberg. “Around 10-20 such incidents that have come to us have been reported in the papers, but there could be 60-70 cases which go unreported,” says Rongmei, who adds that there are some out-of-court settlements particularly in the area of the illegal termination of services or non-payment of salaries which are not publicised in the interest of the victims.
While the whole of the National Capital Region (NCR) is a zone of concern for intimidation of women from the North East, Rongmei believes that a region like Gurgaon has more cases because most of the youngsters from the North East work in BPOs, as sales executives in malls or as waiting staff in restaurants. They are also the most vulnerable as their services can be terminated at any point.
The helpline is the combined initiative of various human rights activists, social workers, students, journalists and lawyers, with the prime movers being Rongmei herself, social activist Madhu Chandra and senior journalist, Dr John Dayal. Taking her experience and commitment beyond the Capital, Rongmei frequently visits Kandhamal district in Orissa – the worst-affected in the communal riots of December 2007 and August 2008. Working in tandem with organisations such as the Human Rights Law Network, she has taken on cases of abuse, one of them being the alleged assault and rape of a nun by around 40 men, on August 25, 2008.
The Human Rights Law Network strives to see justice meted out to 50,000 victims in over 800 cases of communal violence in Kandhamal. Social activism came early to Rongmei, who grew up in Dimapur, Nagaland, influenced by her school teacher father, the late G.K. Rongmei, who would assist community members to deal with day-to-day problems such as getting ration cards, school admissions or jobs. The fact that she has had her own brushes with racism – remarks like “chinki”, “Nepali” have sometimes come her way – has only made her more determined to fight such behaviour. This determination, along with her zeal and legal experience, has ensured that callers on the North East Support Centre’s helpline – the numbers are 9868184939 and 9818314146 – get a patient hearing.