Death of Babysana Reveals Our Subverted Life
By Angaomcha Bimol Akoijam
The death of Ningthoujam Babysana Chanu, a young child who was found hanging in her school hostel, is indeed a deeply disturbing incident. There is no doubt that it must have been a very painful moment for her near and dear ones. And any society with an iota of sanity left would have been bothered by such an incident. In this sense, the upheaval that followed her death is understandable. However, the controversy that marks her death is also symptomatic of a tragedy of a society which has been afflicted with lawlessness, trust deficits, estranged social relations, dysfunctional institutions, and intellectual and political bankruptcy.
Signs of Lawlessness
Subversion of lawful existence defines Sanaleipak. For a long time, the invocation of sovereign-executive decisionism as a framework to address historically rooted political issues and govern life through the notorious legal fiction called AFSPA has been one crucial systemic and insidious subversion of rule of law in the state. Such sinister subversion that turns exceptions into norms has also been duly complimented by the general public with their own brand of vigilantism and so-called “mob-justice.” The state of affairs almost comes as a hopeless catch-22 situation with the proverbial “who shall bell the cat”. Indeed, any hope to see our political leadership to steer us out of such a situation is brutally and cynically belied as our elected political leadership indulges in open and brazen disregard for the constitutional laws such as the anti-defection statute. Babysana’s case is a reminder of that subverted life of our collective existence.
In a normal functioning society wherein rule of law is not under strain, the case would have proceeded with the prima facie evidence and/or materials, both tangible and intangible, that the investigators have to solve the case. And if and when they share any development on the case with the public, if there is any inconsistency in their narrative, responsible members of the public (such as professionals and those in the media) would have pointed out those lacuna. And in such engagements, one would have also seen a modicum of informed deliberation. Alas! That’s not to be the case in Sanaleipak.
In the ongoing controversy, there is this unmistakable distrust of the criminal justice system, especially the police. And that trust deficit pervades various spheres of our collective life and it seems almost incorrigible. Thus, in Babysana’s case, people seem to have misgivings about practically everybody--from the magistrate who was involved in the inquest proceeding to the doctors and forensic experts who have conducted the relevant investigations. In fact, so overpowering is the distrust that two separate autopsies--including the second one which was carried out on the insistence of the family members and agitating public and reportedly involved their “representative”--which have arrived at similar conclusions have failed to dispel the doubts about the cause of Babysana’s death. Indeed, the distrust is not merely about the other but of oneself; what else would explain the fact that the second autopsy has failed to clear the doubts of the agitators?
Incidentally, called it self-admission, people seem to believe, let alone the professionals who run and manage our institutions, that practically everyone in the state are dishonest or gullible enough to be bought to be on the side of injustice. This is part of our psyche which also gets expressed in common refrains such as “people/electorates are being bought during elections”, this/that “committee” demanding “justice” is all about “money” (“peisagini”, “sen-da loisinna-khidoini) or this/that pressure group is looking for their “share” or “contract works” etc. Sometimes, one wonders whether people do feel offended by the racist insinuation of people in metropolitan cities that “our girls” (or “chinky girls”) are promiscuous and could be bought!
Fact is, sadly, we seem to be a people who have been left only with our guilt, cynicism, instincts and hearsay, not established legal or ethical principles and institutional mechanisms or informed deliberation, to guide our life. Incidentally, the other side of the characteristic distrust that marks our society is the impulse to take law into one’s own hands. After all, people being lynched or houses being burnt down by mobs as “retributive justice” are familiar aspects of our socio-cultural landscape. And AFSPA or vigilantism, the ethos has been predominantly that of “give a dog a bad name and hang him”, if not “hang him and give him a bad name!”
Ironically, for a people who have been agitating against AFSPA, it seems that basic cardinal principles and mechanisms of criminal jurisprudence--such as “presumption of innocence” (or the principle is to err on the side of those who defend allegations against them rather than those who accuse them) or that truth has to be based on admissible evidence in a court of law or that one cannot be simultaneously the prosecutor, the jury and the executioner--seem to barely matter to our battered life.
Thus, scarcely conscious and respectful of the wherefores of the fact that even confession to police is not admissible as evidence in a court of law under normal criminal procedure, some have even declared that they can “interrogate” the people and “solve” the case within a few days! Besides, the suspicion that the child has been murdered seems to come with unhindered insinuation that those who run the school are behind, if not have committed, the alleged murder, irrespective of whether one has prima facie or hard evidence to back up the insinuation or not.
Over and above the distrust and subverted lawful existence, our society also carries inimitable and unenviable signs of low level public discourse; opinions based on hearsay and ill-informed ideas as well as calumny, personalized insinuations and intimidation as forms of engagement tend to rule the roost in our public sphere. Babysana’s case is no exception. For instance, despite trained professionals in the state, and contrary to scientifically and globally known facts, hyoid gland was not broken (“gala kairamde”) and the body was found touching the ground etc have been used as “informed opinions” to counter the autopsy and forensic reports! And neither media nor the police or concerned professionals could barely be seen making substantive efforts to correct such mistaken ideas.
Lastly but not the least, Babysana’s case has also brought out our lawless existence in the form of unregulated schools and hostels. The culture of easy money by any means is what we see in the way we allow mushrooming of schools and hostels without properly regulating the same. It also shows the way we take what education is all about. Parents who think that “grades” and “cracking exams” are the measures of education and success seemed to have been duly complemented by unscrupulous people who treat education as a way to mint easy money, including quite likely perhaps, as an alibi to convert black money into white. In a way, for both, young children are means and commodities to satisfy and achieve their own needs and egos rather than that of the present and future of our young children.
Police: Shortcomings of a Professional Force
Under such subverted life, the police have obviously become suspect in the eyes of the general public. Not only that, perhaps as a sign of overall institutional decay in the state and that our police forces have been primarily accustomed to dealing with law and order duties and “encounters’ rather than such normal criminal investigation, the police too have shown palpable professional weakness in dealing with the case. Take for instance, the investigators have decided to go public with their theory which claims that Babysana’s case is that of suicide, and at the same time, they have also decided to incorporate IPC section 302 (against “unknown” persons?) in the same case! This is still a bizarre development.
As a practice, when police encounter such case, they usually carry out their investigation based prima facie evidence, and depending on the leads which they have, they may pursue all possible scenarios -- suicide or homicide (IPC 302) or homicide but not amounting to murder (IPC 304); and as the investigation progresses, and based on the evidence that they have gathered, they might come to one of the scenarios. Criminal investigation calls for marshalling of evidence to sustain one’s line of enquiry or conclusion. Correspondingly, it also entails ruling out any alternative line of investigation and conclusion. Even after having arrived at one line of enquiry, if new evidence emerges that seriously questions the earlier line of enquiry, police might change their initial line of investigation. Admittedly, this is not the case in the present decision to incorporate IPC Section 302.
In the present case, admittedly the police have decided to include section 302 as it has been demanded by the father of the deceased, not because new evidence has come up in the course of their investigation which has negated their initial line of inquiry of the case as suicide. To say the least, that is a mockery of their own professional selves, something that does not help in dispelling the dogged suspicion of the agitating public either.
If they have any shred of evidence to treat the case as that of murder, they should not have rushed to the media to proclaim it as a case of suicide. And if their investigation shows that it is a case of suicide, then they should have effectively ruled out the alternative theory. This is all the more crucial as the present case has drawn the interests of the general public and there have been rumours and considerable doubts amongst the public. It is here that we also see another crucial weakness of our police. Rather than exploiting their knowledge of “community policing”, and effective and efficient management of the media like most competent professional police forces do in the rest of the world, they have decided to crack down on the agitating public. This has reinforced the idea that the police are trying to “suppress the truth” in the minds of the doubting public.
Incidentally, this style of policing speaks of the colonial heritage of the Indian police which rests on the principle of defending the regime rather than the public/citizens, something that gets accentuated in state like ours which have witnessed armed conflict for a long time. Not without reasons, Manipur is one of those few states in India which have more number of “armed police” than “civil police”. It seems plausible that the above institutional ethos of the police in the state has allowed the controversy to sustain for months now.
Fact is, in the history of criminology and forensic science, there have been cases which were initially concluded as those of suicides but ultimately turned out to be homicidal ones. Besides, it is also a known fact amongst forensic pathologists and criminal investigators that sometimes it becomes difficult for the autopsy surgeon to clearly state whether the constriction in neck is homicidal or suicidal in nature due to the external post-mortem appearance of the ligature marks on neck. Moreover, any presence of external injury, especially the ones which cannot be ascribed to self-infliction, can complicate the claim of a given case as suicide. These issues, along with the dogged suspicion amongst the public that Babysana was murdered, when they have decided to go public on the case, the police should have effectively and efficiently ruled out any alternative theory than the one they have claimed. Here, a couple of issues become significant in the present case.
First, seemingly unmindful of the presence of the alleged “injury” on the knee/thigh of the deceased (visuals of the same were widely shared on social media), citing the autopsy reports, the officer in-charge of SIT insists on electronic media that there was “none” other than one small incision on the left forearm of the deceased. Although his statement does not imply that the forensic reports did or did not notice the widely circulated alleged image of the reddish swollen knee/thigh of the deceased girl, to claim that there’s “none”, except this incision, certainly does not help in dispelling the suspicion of the public or strengthen the police theory. Incidentally, the media fraternity, including in the said television programme, did not seek to clarify this aspect from the officer.
Second, the reported presence of “dirt” or “mud” (the two do have different implications in the case) on the feet of the deceased was neither explained by the police even as it has often been cited by those who suspect the theory of the police. Is it “mud” or “dirt” and what is the source the same? If it is “dirt”, not “mud”, is it possible that the “dirt” comes from the floor (mixed with urine of the deceased)? If it is “mud”, where does it come from? Such issues are not only matter related to the suspicion of the public but also bound to have implication during court proceedings.
Third, there has been this observation that hanging is not possible given the body touches (almost or fully) the ground etc. Here, the investigators should have been able to explain the meaning, variegated nature and implications of “incomplete” or “partial” hanging. For instance, had they bothered to explain that suicide by “partial” or “incomplete” hanging can even include deceased kneeling on the ground, perhaps people would have understood that hanging does not necessarily mean that the deceased body should not touch the ground while found hanging.
Fourth, casting doubt on the version of the investigating team, there is this assertion that the deceased’s hyoid bone was not broken (“gala kairamde”) and hence, it cannot be a case of suicide. The investigators should have clarified that it is not necessary for the hyoid bone to be broken in all cases of suicide by hanging.
Fifth, the investigators should have addressed a crucial suspicion that Babysana must have been murdered inside the dormitory and hung or murdered elsewhere and hung inside the residential hall. The investigators should have clarified on relevant questions such as:
(a) How many entry points (the doors or windows) are there in the hall in which Babysana was found hanging and whether those are locked from inside or outside. If all the entry points are locked from inside, as it seems to be the case, who opened the door/window for the alleged murder(s) to come inside in the night to carry out the crime (including the scenario of having killed elsewhere and hung her) inside the hall?
(b) If she was murdered inside, and subsequently hung, would it have made some commotion? Could such a crime have been committed by one person? In other words, dead body of a 14 years old girl, to be murdered and hung, could it be done by one person or would it involve more than one person?
(c) If Babysana had hanged herself, would it not make some sound? Similarly, if some people had come inside and murdered her, or murdered outside and hung her, would it not make sound? Which of the two sounds would be more pronounced or likely to be more audible to the inmates? In either scenarios, would not some of the inmates have heard some sound? If none have heard, how and why?
(d) Is it possible that none of the young inmates have heard anything because they were in deep sleep after their reported day’s rigorous routine?
Sixthly, why was an old picture of the deceased girl (probably one when she was barely 6-7 years at the most rather than that of 14 years old as Babysana was when she died) allowed to be widely circulated in public? Does it enable people to understand why would she be murdered or she would commit suicide?
These are some of the questions that the investigators should have addressed and communicated effectively while presenting their case to the public. That is what one would have expected from professionals who not only understands criminal investigation but also “community policing” and media management.
to be continued…
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