On February 12, a five-year-old kindergarten student went missing from near her home in Namgo Mishmi village in eastern Arunachal Pradesh’s Lohit district. A week later, her decapitated body was found in a tea garden, barely 300 metres away from her home. The police said the child had been raped. A photograph of her body was widely shared on social media.

On Sunday, February 18, a day after her body was found, the police arrested two people – identified as Sanjay Sobor, 30, and Jagdish Lohar, 25 – in connection with the case. That afternoon, the two men, migrant tea garden labourers, were taken to a police station in the district headquarters of Tezu.

On Monday morning, the confessional statements of the labourers were widely shared on social media in the area. In his statement, Lohar said that Sobor had raped the child.

Matters quickly spiralled out of the control of local authorities.

According to the police, around 1,500 people surrounded the Tezu police station at noon that day, demanding that the two accused men be handed over to them. Armed with hammers, iron rods and sticks, the mob then attacked the police station, ransacked it, and broke open the cell in which the labourers were held. The crowd dragged both the men onto the street and paraded them at a nearby traffic junction. Within less than 30 minutes, the two men were lynched. The police said that the mob then attempted to burn their bodies.

A police station was ransacked in Yingkiong in the Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh.
A police station was ransacked in Yingkiong in the Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh.

Social media celebrations

The murders were celebrated on social media. Several messages described the act as “mob justice”. One WhatAapp message read: “It is a perfect statehood day gift.” Arunachal observed its 32nd statehood day on February 20.

The police has registered a case against unknown persons at the Tezu police station in connection with the lynchings.

On Monday evening, the state government transferred out an officer of the rank of superintendent of police, who was in charge of the district. Three other police officers have been suspended and an enquiry ordered.

Chief Minister Pema Khandu criticised the mob action. In a statement, he said: “We are citizens of a great country who abide by the law enshrined in the Constitution. Our laid-down rules and regulations do not allow us to take the law into our hands and so have placed the police and judiciary”.

He said that the police and the judiciary should be equally respected “as these machineries are for the safety and security of the people, and for giving them justice”.

Political parties silent

So far, barring the chief minister, no organisation or political party in the state has issued a statement condemning the vigilantism. Human rights group Amnesty International, however, issued a strong statement. It said:

“Impunity for violence against women and girls is a real problem in India, and needs to be addressed seriously. But the answer can never be vigilantism. Members of the lynch mob who killed the two suspects must be brought to justice. Nobody should be allowed to take the law into their own hands…These attacks undermine the rule of law and the functioning of the criminal justice system. If the administration fails to punish those responsible, it will send the message that public anger justifies cruel vigilantism.”

A social worker in Arunachal Pradesh, who requested anonymity, said: “Though this should not be a justification for the lynching, there has been spate in rape cases in the state, sometimes involving very young children. The judiciary is slow and conviction rate is almost nil. It is obvious that people are angry.”

Rape cases in Arunachal

Between 2015 and November 2017, 225 rape cases were reported in the state. The highest number of rape cases – 91 – was reported in 2016. In some cases, no arrests have been made months after the assault. In cases where accused persons have been arrested, mobs have sometimes attempted to deliver vigilante justice of the kind seen in Tezu.

Last August, a university student was found dead near Itanagar, the state capital. The police said that she was sexually assaulted. No arrests have been made in the case so far.

In December, a 13-year-old schoolgirl was killed in Namsai district, barely an hour’s drive from Namgo Mishmi village. Two people were arrested, including her uncle. The police said that she was killed and then raped. After the arrests, an angry crowd had gathered near the police station, demanding that alleged rapists be handed over to them.

Two more rape cases were reported from the state in February. In Yingkiong, in Upper Siang district, a five-year-old girl was reportedly raped by her teacher on February 17. Fearing a reprisal, the administration shifted the accused person to a more secure jail in Aalo, about 150 km away. The girl’s upset relatives ransacked the police station.

An 8-year-old girl was allegedly raped on February 14 in Daporijo in Upper Subansiri district. The alleged rapist, a 23-year-old government employee, was paraded naked in town and later handed over to the police.