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.