Three Brahmins arrested for burning a 12-year-old tribal domestic worker to death in Assam

Members of the Karbi Students Association protest in East Karbi Anglong district’s Bakalia town, in Assam, following the suspected murder of a 12-year-old Karbi domestic worker, on 3 May. COURTESY BISHNU TERON

On 22 April, the charred body of a 12-year-old domestic worker from the Karbi community was found outside her employer’s house in the Khaighar village of Assam’s Nagaon district. The Assam Police suspects that Rina, Prakash and Nayanmoni Borthakur—her employers from the Brahmin community—murdered her. Her family told us they had not received her post-mortem report till the time this report was published. The 12-year-old was a fourth-standard student from the Sar Kro Kudam Ronghang village in West Karbi Anglong district. Like many minors from tribal communities in her district, she migrated to a neighbouring district to work as a domestic worker in an upper-caste household so that she could afford to get educated. The police has arrested the suspects and said it is further investigating the case. Student groups from the Karbi community, that fall in the Scheduled Tribe category in Assam, have since been protesting for the police to take strict action and charge the suspects with rape.

Mongol Singh Ronhang, the victim’s 17-year-old brother, told me that she had been working for the Borthakurs for four years. “She went there in 2018,” he said. “We used to talk to her over phone and she would say that her studies were going well.” Ronhang said that she wanted to visit home during her school vacations, but the Borthakurs did not allow her even once in four years. “Even when she wanted, they did not let her come home,” he told us. “During Bihu, I asked her to come home, but she said that they won’t allow it.”

Ronhang told us that after Bihu this year, on 22 April, he had planned to visit Khaighar to meet her, but could not find any transport due to COVID-19 restrictions. He said the family’s only communication with his sister was through a phone owned by Rina Borthukar, Prakash’s wife. “I was making calls there, they did not pick the calls,” he said. “At around 2 in the afternoon, Prakash Borthakur called me and told me about the incident. Prakash Borthakur said that they asked her to have a meal, but she did not. He said, ‘We were having a meal and watching TV, when she took the kerosene can outside to the backyard. She poured kerosene on her body and burned herself.’ That’s what they said.”

Her brother told us that he immediately went to Khaighar along with his parents, other relatives and several people from his village. But he said the police did not allow them to see his sister’s body until after the post-mortem and shortly before the funeral on 23 April. “We reached Khaighar at around 5 pm,” he said. “When we reached, the police were there. Even the villagers”—from Khaighar—“were saying that at least the parents should be allowed to see her. The police did not let us enter the home.” He said they later found that the police had taken his sister’s body to Nagaon town.

Ronhang said that he believed that Prakash and Nayanmoni had raped his 12-year-old sister. “The people in Khaighar told us that those two raped her and killed her at night and she was burnt the next day,” Ronhang said. “They said that if she had committed suicide, she would at least cry for help when she was burning, but the villagers who live nearby did not hear any screams.” However, Ronhang said that they had only local reports as proof of sexual violence. “The police didn’t let us see the post-mortem report,” he added. The victim’s brother said that Prakash had himself gone to the police station and reported that the 12-year-old had died by suicide.

Bishnu Teron, the vice president of the Karbi Students Association, said that the KSA was demanding that the state government give the victim’s family Rs 16 lakhs as compensation. “We think this murder happened because of caste. The Borthakur family belongs to a high-caste Brahmin family.” He also claimed that the victim had been raped. “She was raped and after that she was burned, put some kerosene oil on the whole body and then burned her down till death,” he said. “As far as the post-mortem report is concerned, though the report said that the child was not pregnant. But they have not shown the report to anyone, so we think that there are some loopholes.”

A letter by the Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights could have further confused claims that the victim was raped. Sunita Changkakati, the president of the ASCPCR, said that certain media organisations had misreported the case. “I have come to know that many media have published that the Child Rights Commission prepared a report that the child was pregnant,” she said. “But let me clarify that we have not prepared any report. See we are not supposed to prepare a report, so that is a misunderstanding by the media houses. Many media houses, national papers have also published.”

Changkakati told me that she had heard about the incident on 22 April, and contacted Kavitha Padmanabhan, Nagaon’s deputy commissioner, and Gaurav Abhijit Dilip, the district’s superintendent of police. “I told them that the girl has been suspected to be a victim of murder and she was a child labourer,” she said. She had requested that the suspects are booked under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act of 2015 and the Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986, alongside relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code. “Since she has been murdered, these sections should be incorporated and the charge sheet should be prepared in such a way that there is no any scope for the accused to escape,” she said. “Meanwhile, we got information from some of the neighbours that they suspected that the girl was pregnant. Then we wrote another letter to the SP, that as per information received from the neighbours, we request you to incorporate the sections of POCSO Act.” She was referring to the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences of 2012.

Based on a complaint by Babu Ronhang, the victim’s uncle, the Khaighar police registered a first-information report against Prakash, Nayonmoni and Rina. The FIR charges them with several sections of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 and the Child Labour Prohibition Act. It does not include any sections related to rape. D Bora, Nagaon’s additional superintendent of police, told us that investigation was still going on and the details are not clear as of now. “The charge sheet has not yet been filed,” he said. “Three persons in this regard have been arrested.”

“There have been more than fifty protests in West Karbi Anglong district,” Teron, from the KSA, said. “There have also been protests organised in other districts. Like on 27 April, the Nagaon district unit of the KSA organised protest rallies in Nagaon town. Various students’ organisation submitted a memorandum to the deputy commissioner of the district for the quick delivery of justice to the victim.” We spoke to Teron on 3 May. Earlier that day, he participated in a rally in Bakalia town, in East Karbi Anglong district, demanding a speedy investigation of the case and compensation for the victim’s family. “Today, it looked like 300 to 400 people protested,” Teron said. He told us most of the protesters were students. Teron said that as a result of several protests, and “a lot of social unrest in the region,” Jagdish Mukhi, the governor of Assam, had constituted a one-man commission to investigate the incident.

Changkakati told us that two members of the ASCPCR visited the site of the incident, and will be giving recommendations to the police based on their findings. “We were informed that the girl was not sent to school often,” Changkakati said. They found that even if the 12-year-old was sent to school, her employers often called her back for house work before school hours ended. Changkakati said that the victim’s younger sister, who is six years old, had been staying in the house of the daughter of one of the accused. “We have got this information and we are going to take a suo moto case,” she told us.

“It is the duty of the police to verify whether it was self-immolation or murder,” Changkakati said. “Even if it was self-immolation, though, we need to ask under what circumstances the girl was compelled to do it. She was staying in that particular house, not anywhere else. So, what were the instances that compelled her to do that?” She said that a police investigation should not stop at only investigating the Borthukar family alone. “There are many issues. How did the girl come to this place; somebody must have brought the girl? It is a case of trafficking,” she said.

Miguel Das Queah, the executive director of UTSAH, an Assam-based NGO that works with child-rights, pointed to holes in Assam’s child protection system. “When I look into this entire migration of children to Nagaon, Raha and Moriagaon area, I perceive that there is a huge gap in the child protection system,” he told us. The three areas Queah mentioned are where children from neighbouring tribal majority districts tend migrate to work. “There is a huge number of children who come to these places to stay and work as child labourers. If the number is so huge, why could the district child protection system not identify it? There is a narrative that these children come for studies, now these children come from very vulnerable families and they are living with people who are biologically not related to them—which is not permitted. They have to be under the state’s child protection supervision. The state needs to reflect upon the issue of the years of unsafe migration of children to such areas.”

Data from a 2017 report by UNICEF titled, “Assam Child Protection Factbook” described the scale of child labour in the state. The report noted that five in every 100 children in the state between the ages of five and 14 are working. The report, however, did not mention which communities child labourers are from. UNICEF’s district-wise break down suggested that tribal majority districts are a larger source of child labour out migration. A vast majority, 91.2 percent of child labourers are from rural Assam. A significant percentage, 5.4 percent, come from tribal-majority West Karbi Anglong district. Many, however, work in the neighbouring districts. Nagaon district, which has a relatively smaller tribal population, is where 8.7 percent of the state’s child labourers work.

Queah noted that vulnerable children are the responsibility of the state, particularly if they come from marginalised backgrounds or economically fragile backgrounds. “Has the state done enough in reporting such vulnerable cases?” he told us. “Do we have a very robust reporting mechanism? The system needs to be questioned a lot. Is the response system strong enough for people to have faith in it?” He said that even if state mechanisms were working efficiently, the punishments under the Child Labour Prohibition Act were weak and unlikely to seriously discourage people from violating the law.

Ronhang told us that with the limited resources his family had had, working while studying in Nagaon had seemed the only option. “Rina Borthakur met my sister at the market and told my mother that she would take her home to help with her studies,” he said. “Many girls from our villages are sent to live with privileged families. The villagers think that they will become successful while living with the privileged.” Teron also said that structural issues such as the lack of educational facilities in predominantly tribal regions was the root cause of child labour. “When you speak about the education scenario of the West Karbi Anglong, it is very poor. That is why her parents had to send her to Khaighar in the first place,” Teron said. “We would like to request the government of Assam to build a residential school in her memory in the village where the girl hails from. We cannot let this keep happening to our people.”