Is Mizoram’s low crime rate a result of enforced forgiveness?

Security personnel patrolling on the streets of Aizawl in Mizoram in November 2003. While discussing the police’s response to crimes in Mizoram, several Mizos said criminal cases often do not get the attention they deserve in the sparsely populated state because a culture of enforced fraternity at times gets in the way of justice. PTI
31 January, 2021

On 26 October 2020, a 24-year-old woman told her family that JH Vanlalnunmawia, a government doctor in Sakawrdai town of Mizoram, attempted to rape her earlier that day. The woman’s brother, R Lalengmawia, told me that the family filed a complaint at the Sakawrdai police station that night, but the officer in charge, VL Zawmliana, did not register a first-information report in the matter until the next day. When I asked Zawmliana about the delay, he said, “There were some corrections to be made. And the parents of the accused came on the night itself seeking to ask for forgiveness and they requested us to wait for them. So we registered it on 27 October.” Lalengmawia said, “I don’t know if this is what the police are supposed to do, but he asked us to forgive the accused.” 

Families of complainants in three criminal cases told me about the difficulties they faced while dealing with the police. All three said the police were disinclined to help them, which made them doubt the investigation. In two cases, the families said they had mentioned cognisable offences in their complaints, but the police was reluctant to register FIRs, despite a clear Supreme Court directive that it is mandatory in such cases. In the third case, concerning the killing of Jackie N, a 32-year-old, his family told me that they informed the police that they had a doctor’s prescription mentioning that he was assaulted, but the officials made them write “fight” in the complaint. 

Mizoram is among the states with the lowest crime rates in the country, with only 163 violent crimes in 2019. While discussing the police’s response to crimes in Mizoram, several Mizos told me criminal cases often do not get the attention they deserve in the sparsely populated state because a culture of enforced fraternity  at times gets in the way of justice.

This was reflected in the police’s initial response to the 24-year-old woman’s case as well, according to her brother’s account. She lives with her family in Sakawrdai, a hilltop village in Aizawl. Lalengmawia told me she had gone to the neighbouring town of Darlawn for a work assignment on 26 October. She and one of her friends hitchhiked with Vanlalnunmawia, whom they knew of through another associate, to get back home that night. According to Lalengmawia, his sister said that Vanlalnunmawia first dropped her friend, and then began harassing her. Lalengmawia said his sister told him, “He tried to force me to take intoxicants, I refused. Then he tried to touch me, and I refused. He kept forcing me.” He added that Vanlalnunmawia was drunk and threatened to kill his sister if she continued to resist.

According to Lalengmawia, around three kilometres away from Sakardai, the doctor steered the car towards the edge of the road and rammed it into a tree. “They might have died if the tree was not there,” Lalengmawia said, before adding that his sister then managed to escape—she stopped a car that was passing by and asked the passengers  to drop her back home. 

Lalengmawia told me that the family filed a complaint at the Sakawrdai police station the same night, but it was not registered as an FIR at the time. He said he visited the police station the next day as there was no update from the police. According to him, Zawmliana said that there was a lack of evidence to file a case. Lalengmawia said he told the official “that I want the accused to be booked for attempt to rape, attempt to murder and forceful intoxication. But he responded saying, ‘He didn’t lay a finger on her so we cannot say attempt to rape or murder ... He did not hurt her physically, and there is no evidence for an attempt to murder’” Lalengmawia said that the Zawmliana deduced that Vanlalnunmawia did not touch his sister because her clothes were intact and there was no other evidence to prove it. 

According to Lalengmawia, Zawmliana tried to deter them from pursuing the matter. “We will file the case, if you want to go ahead,” the officer said, according to Lalengmawia. “But even if you do, since he is a doctor, he might not go to jail because it is likely that the medical officials may issue a certificate saying he is not fit to go to jail and he will be released.” Lalengmawia said the Zawmliana also told him, “And even for you, you will have to keep travelling to Aizawl. You will have to keep going to court in the city and it will be difficult for you to travel from the village.” 

That day, Vanlalnunmawia’s parents were also present at the police station. “The doctor’s parents asked for forgiveness, stressing how God gives importance to forgiveness,” Lalengmawia said. “It made us panic. But my sister said the memory of the panic she felt when he tried to touch her, and how she had cried, called out for our mother out of fear, was fresh in her mind. She pleaded with them, ‘I cannot forgive him. Please go forward with the case.’” Lalengmawia told me that the police, too, tried to convince the family to forgive Vanlalnunmawia.

When I spoke to Lalengmawia a couple of weeks after the incident, he said, “My sister can’t sleep, she wakes up screaming and every time she talks about the incident she starts crying.” In another conversation, in January 2021, he told me that she had resumed going to work after taking a break from her job. 

According to Zawmliana, the accused was detained on 26 October and arrested the next day. but Lalengmawia said he was released on bail before Christmas. “We did not know about the bail, and by the time we found out, it was late to take action,” he said. The police could not confirm when Vanlalnunmawia was released on bail. When I asked the accused, he said, “It might have been around November.” Vanlalnunmawia told me his lawyers have not allowed him to comment on the matter. When I asked him about his parents’ apology, he said, “They will not have heard any apology from my side, only my parents. I don’t know what they said. My parents did not know the facts in the beginning.” 

Zawmliana, the officer in charge, denied that he had asked the 24-year-old woman to make a compromise. “The parents of the accused had come to ask for forgiveness and even the victim’s side had responded saying they might come to an agreement,” he said. The officer, however, did admit that he held off registering the FIR to give the accused’s family a chance to seek forgiveness. He added that Vanlalnunmawia has been booked under several sections of the Indian Penal Code, including those that pertain to cognisable offences—assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty; and kidnapping, abducting or inducing woman to compel her marriage. 

Many Mizos spoke to me about this practice of “settling” cases rather than filing FIRs. Vanramchhuangi, also known as Ruatfela Nu—a social activist who was formerly an official of the state-run child welfare committee—told me that the process of getting justice is very long, and at times unfruitful, because of which “people prefer to settle themselves.” Emmy Lawbei, a professor at Christ University in Bangalore, said, “Police may be law enforcers but I believe they are Mizo first and protecting the victim’s reputation or the Mizo society’s reputation is a much larger goal for them. Hence, they encourage victims to resolve the issues without the larger public’s knowledge.” These opinions pointed to a certain distrust among citizens with the justice process.

This distrust stood out in the case regarding the death of Jackie also. In late October 2020, I met his family of seven—originally from Manipur—who live in a small house in the Dam Veng locality in Aizawl. The family runs a small shop, and apart from Jackie, who was a technical engineer, only his youngest sister knew how to read and write. Bipenda N, his brother, told me that on the night of 23 September, Jackie had gone to attend the birthday party of Zorinchhana, their neighbour. The party was at an area known locally as “picnic spot,” referring to a location a few kilometres away from the city with a swimming pool, a hall and kitchen for recreation purposes. 

Jackie’s mother, Nehma, told me that his friends dropped him off in a car that night. According to her, the friends told her that Jackie had met with an accident on the way home. As Jackie’s mother did not see any physical bruises, she said she presumed it was a minor accident and let him go to bed. 

But Jackie began vomiting blood the next morning, Nehma said. He had no sense of direction and he could not speak properly. According to her, the family checked his bag and found a prescription for a check-up in the Civil Hospital Aizawl. The prescription, which the family shared with me, clearly mentioned, “Assault today evening at around 5 pm.” It also noted “bleeding from the nose” and “swelling—forehead.” The family took him to the hospital, where they were asked to register a FIR. Jackie’s youngest sister and her father went to Kulikawn Police Station to file a complaint. According to Nehma, when the family tried to write “assault,” as written in the prescription, the police stopped them and insisted that they write that he was part of a fight instead. 

Jackie’s mother told me that by the time they reached the hospital and conducted the required tests, he was already showing signs of severe brain injury. He was unable to hold a conversation with his family to talk about what happened to him. He died three days later.

She told me several individuals who were at the picnic spot during the incident blamed one person for the assault, F Lalremsanga. Nehma said they told her that Jackie was trying to resolve a fight at the party, during which Lalremsanga hit Jackie, and he fell and his head hit on a tile. The police arrested Lalremsanga. I visited his house on 26 October, after he was released on bail, but he refused to talk. 

The family was unconvinced with this narrative of Jackie’s death. Firstly, because the police did not let them describe the incident as an assault. Secondly, the family told me that one of two doctors they consulted had told them that it was unlikely that only one person beat him up. In January 2021, when they told me about this, they could not recall the name of the doctor. I spoke to one of the two doctors about this comment. The doctor, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, said, “There is also the possibility that a person hit him and he fell and injured himself severely. But since we were not witness to it and the head injury was quite serious, what I said was that it did not look like a usual punch.” The second doctor has not responded. The family also thought that the police deliberately ignored one testimony that cast aspersions on the narrative that Lalremsanga had assaulted Jackie. 

Paul Lalvensanga, a man in his thirties, was among the 30 or so people who had attended the party. Lalvensanga did not witness the assault but said a violent group at the party attacked him and could have assaulted Jackie too. I visited his house in late October 2020. Injuries were visible on his face. He said that during the party, “me and my girlfriend were swimming, and at around 5 pm, we were planning to eat food when we saw Jackie lying on the floor.” Nearby, he said, he saw a group of around three or four people—whom he could not identify—fighting. “When I went there, I asked them to stop fighting and four people got together and assaulted me. My jaw was fractured as a result,” he told me. “My girlfriend tried to stop me and they hit her also,” he said. Lalvensanga said that then, Jackie had begun vomiting blood. After this, Lalvensanga and Zorinchhana told me, around four people at the party took him to the hospital and then dropped him home.

Lalvensanga said that a group of attendees—which included Zorinchhana—asked him to give a false testimony to the police and blame Lalremsanga too. It included Zorinchhana and his girlfriend, Allison, who is also Lalvensanga’s niece. Lalvensanga received a call from Allison about the case. In the audio, Allison does not ask him to change his testimony but he can be heard saying, “It’s their circle, and they might say why are you involved in our fight. … I am just letting you know that the police are going to put the blame on you.” She can also be heard asking him to not “get involved.” 

Lalvensanga recorded the call and circulated it on social media. “When I tried to make the police listen to the call record and to show the pictures of my injury, they paid no attention to it,” Lalvensanga said. “They said, ‘It’s not necessary.’” R Darliansanga, a convener of the Mizoram Basketballers Association—Jackie was a member of the association—said that it was suspicious that the police did not pay heed to Lalvensanga’s statement. “It is clear that what the statement says—that Jackie was hit once and fell to the ground and died—is a one in a million chance.” 

On 30 October 2020, I met Lalramlawma Hnamte, the officer in charge of the Kulikawn police station. He said the theory that a group of people assaulted Jackie was “based on assumptions.” He denied asking the family to not write “assault.” By then, the case had been transferred to the West Phaileng police station, in the Mamit district, where the incident took place. 

In January 2021, BK Singh, the sub-divisional police officer of the West Phaileng station, told me that after the case was handed over to his jurisdiction, “we collected some other evidences to strengthen the case.” He said that the police re-examined nine eyewitnesses and that Lalvensanga’s audio recording did not appear to be strong evidence. Further, Zorinchhana denied asking Lalvensanga to give a false testimony. He said that after they found Jackie, it did not seem like he was severely hurt, but they wanted to take him to the hospital as a precautionary measure. He added that one of his friends told Nehma that he was in an accident out of panic and because Jackie seemed alright. 

But the family remains dissatisfied with the investigation—partially due to the police’s initial response to the complaint, and also because the Kulikawn police refused to consider Lalvensanga’s recording. N Chanchan, one of Jackie’s sisters, told me in January 2021, “We are discouraged and have no hope for a positive outcome of the case.”

The experience of a complainant in such a case can also be dictated by their social position. Ruatfela Nu told me, “As I have created a name for myself as an activist, they pay attention to my complaints but the police should pay as much attention to the general public as they do to people who have fame and riches.” A local journalist, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, said that due to the low population of the state “when a case involves a group of people, there is a high probability that at least one person from that group will have a link with law enforcement officials.” This, he said, could influence the outcome of the case. Bazik Thlana, an artist from Mizoram pursuing a doctorate in visual studies, told me that the media does not cover crimes in the state much. “The general public is not informed and made aware of most crimes unless it involves controversial stories or rare cases,” he said. 

A little over two years back, Mizoram saw rare protests due to the police’s inaction in a case where the accused came from a powerful family. On the night of 8 September 2018, a man who was 24 years old at that time and some of his friends had gathered at the Lyrics Karaoke Lounge in Aizawl for a birthday party for his elder brother, Zohmingliana. Stephen Lalhmingthanga, Zohmingliana’s friend who was present there, told me that there was another group at the lounge for the bachelor’s party of Zodinliana Sailo—the grandson of Thenpunga Sailo, a two-time chief minister of Mizoram—who was supposed to get married on 5 October that year. 

Lalhmingthanga told me that the two groups somehow got into a fight that night, leaving people in both groups with injuries. According to him, the injured people in their group then went to the hospital. A complaint by the 24-year-old dated 10 September 2018, filed at the Aizawl Police Station, detailed his account of that night. According to the FIR registered in the case, he wrote he was waiting outside the Lalbuaia Shopping complex when Zodinliana and a friend of his arrived in his car. The two men, according to the FIR, told the 24-year-old that one of his friends was waiting for him somewhere and asked him to get in the car. 

The complainant said that after reaching the World Bank Road near Zampuimanga point, Zodinliana and his friend asked the 24-year-old to take off his clothes and threatened to kill him if he did not comply. “It seemed to be around 4 am, and there was no one whom I could call for help so I obeyed them,” the 24-year-old wrote in the complaint, as per the FIR. When they were nearing the Zampuimanga point, they stopped the car and got down. “After I took my clothes off, they took down my boxers and took pictures of my naked body. I was made to bow with my hands on the road and threatened with a broken beer bottle when I tried to resist.” 

According to the FIR, the 24-year-old accused Zodinliana of attempting to rape him: he wrote that he was made to bend naked on a railing while Zodinliana unzipped his pants but his friend stopped him. He further wrote that the accused then lined beer bottles on the road and forced him to do an army crawl on them. “While I was crawling, they lifted my feet and threw me over the railing ledge where I lost my consciousness and was woken up with a splash of beer on my face,” he wrote. According to the 24-year-old’s account mentioned in the FIR, the accused then made him sit in the car and asked the 24-year-old for details on people who were involved in the fight earlier that day. Then, the 24-year-old wrote, they abandoned him there. 

The 24-year-old’s family said the police did not register the matter for more than two weeks even though the complaint disclosed cognisable offences. Zairemzuali, the 24-year-old man’s aunt, has been pursuing the case. She told me about the police’s response to the complaint. On 12 September, Zairemzuali said, a constable took the accused and the 24-year-old man in a car to the location where the sexual assault took place for a spot verification. “We pleaded with the police not to take my nephew in the same car with Zodinliana as he was shaking with fear after getting inside the car, but they did not listen,” Zairemzuali said. “The police did not pay attention even when he tried to point out a broken bottle as evidence on the spot. Instead, the officer in charge was focusing on plucking petai beans from a tree.” 

A day later, Zairemzuali told me, she inquired at the police station if the FIR had been registered. She said the police responded, “The two parties should settle the matter in the traditional Mizo way and come to an agreement among themselves.” Lalthanzuali, the 24-year-old man’s mother, told me, “They were trying to push us away or trying to ask us to make an agreement with the other party.” 

Lalthanzuali and Zairemzuali approached Bijendra Kumar, Aizawl’s superintendent of police, on 27 September. Zairemzuali told me that he promptly took action, and an FIR was registered the next day at the Aizawl police station. She said the accused were booked under several sections of the IPC—including those pertaining to wrongful restraint, wrongful confinement, voluntarily causing hurt and punishment for criminal intimidation. But the sections pertaining to sexual assault were conspicuously missing from the FIR. “That is the reason why our hearts cannot be put to rest, there was nothing related to our complaint,”  Lalthanzuali said. Zairemzuali told me that since there was a delay in filing the FIR, there was little evidence left in the case. 

In mid November that year, the case became the subject matter of discussion on social media and became viral. That month, hundreds held a protest shouting slogans such as “Justice for [name redacted].” The 24-year-old’s family believed the police swung into action after the protests. According to Zairemzuali, on 28 January 2019, sections pertaining to punishment of criminal conspiracy and using obscene acts or words in public were added to the FIR.

An official in the superintendent’s office, who requested to remain anonymous, said a departmental enquiry was conducted regarding the police’s response to the case. The official told me that two officers  who were at the police station when the complaint was filed were given “major punishment” for the delay in registering the FIR. In July 2020, I went to meet LH Shanliana, the additional director general of police at the time, for comments about the police’s response on the case. “I am busy dealing with corona-related matters and have no time for comments on trivial matters,” he said. I also sent questions about the police’s response to the case to C Lalruaia, the Aizawl SP. This story will be updated if and when he responds. 

Zodinliana filed a FIR at the Aizawl police station on 10 October 2018 about the fight at the lounge. He accused the 24-year-old’s friends of inappropriate behaviour and seriously injuring people at his party “using instruments such as rod and wood.” Further, he wrote, that “they tarnished his name.” According to the FIR, he wrote, “As I got married on 5 October 2018 and I was very busy before I wed my wife, and as the YMA and JAC”—Young Mizo Association and Joint Action Committee—“appealed with me to come to an agreement in this matter, I delayed the filing of this FIR.” YMA is a voluntary organisation in Mizoram that has members in almost every household in the state. JAC is a social organisation. 

The FIR booked the 24-year under sections 325 and 34 of the IPC, concerning punishment for voluntarily causing grievous hurt and acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention. I called Zodinliana for a comment on the case against him and the one he had filed, but he refused to comment on it. “I would really want to talk about it, but there’re some limitations. I wouldn’t want to jeopardise my case when it’s going so well,” he said. “Since it is an ongoing case, I am afraid I will disrupt it.” 

In January 2021, Lalthanzuali told me that the matter is in the court now and the next hearing is on 3 February. “The cross-examination is going on and it is taking very long,” she said. 

Lalthanzuali said that the family had to shut their restaurant in April or May 2019 because the 24-year-old man and his brother could no longer be active in handling its affairs. “He was not in a condition to do it anymore,” she said. “He was in too much pain. Moreover, the incident had a psychological effect on all of us, including his elder brother. Whenever he saw any new faces that were not familiar to the restaurant, he used to start doubting if they are spying on him,” Lalthanzuali told me. “I distribute paan leaves to different shops and I take him with me. I have to keep him close.” 

She said that she was worried about her son’s mental health. “He was not eating well and had grown very weak with fever after the incident.” Lalthanzuali told me he was admitted in a hospital for about ten days in December 2018. “One time, he told me he did not want to live anymore and we are very afraid that he will take a dire step,” she said. Lalthanzuali said that the case’s hearing was delayed due to the pandemic last year, which again took a toll on her son. “But I told him people are supporting us, there are groups on WhatsApp and Facebook that are still rooting for us, it will not dissolve,” she said. “In November, he collapsed and his body went stiff, he said he was not in pain but he could not move and so we massaged his body till he could move again. He told me he wants to see a psychologist, but we could not take much initiative because of the pandemic.”   

Apart from the social position of the complainant and the accused, the Mizos I spoke to also said that the state’s culture heavily influences the justice system. On 9 January 2015, Aizawl witnessed a gruesome mass murder, when a 37-year-old man named Laltlanchhuaha killed five members of a family—one as young as six years old. In November 2020, the accused was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Lalhriatpuia, the son of one of the victims, said that the family expected a death penalty for the accused. But in the order, a sessions court in Aizawl said, “This court therefore hesitate to take away of another life in addition to deceased victims, which seems inimical to the gospel of  Biblical principles. It is the Almighty alone who can breed the living soul.”

Lalhriatpuia said that the order “did not do justice” to his family. “I found it very strange that one’s personal religion has room in a court’s decision,” he said. “I expected that religion will be religion and law will be law. Our religion and society pressure seemed to be included in decision making.” He added, “If this did not take place in Mizoram, I believe the judge would have pronounced a death sentence.”

Like other Mizos I spoke to, Thlana said that the state had taken the principles of “forgive and forget” too far. “The message ‘forgive and forget’—another rationalised form of Christian morality—has been echoed in many of our songs post counter-insurgency period urging the downtrodden to rise up and move forward,” Thlana told me. “While this seemed a positive vibe, it gives way for the prolonged injustices.”