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Exclusive: Women In North East India Are Saying #MeToo. Are You Listening?

As the #MeToo movement hits the North East, close-knit communities and regional complexities still curtail victims from coming out in numbers.

Guwahati, Assam: In the past few weeks, social media has been a triggering space for victims of sexual harassment and abuse in India . As editors step down, entertainment projects get canned and internal complaints committees are revived with renewed enthusiasm, the shock waves are slowly hitting the digital space in the North East. 

On Saturday, Mary Therese Kurkalang called out two Catholic priests — Brother Francis Gale of The Christian Brothers and Brother Muscat — for sexual abuse. In her Facebook post, the 40-year-old art and literary critic accused the two of molesting her as a child in Shillong when they were serving at St. Edmunds and Don Bosco, respectively. 

She wrote, “He (Francis Gale) was a trusted ‘friend’ to my family and was held in great esteem as a ‘religious man’. I was sent to him for tuitions – I was 5 when he first showed me his penis and asked me to touch it.”

Referring to Muscat, she added, “This man would sit behind his huge desk in his office, where he had drawers of sweets and toffees- as a child, in the presence of adults on the other side of the table- he would call children to his side of the table and ask us (children) to choose toffees from his drawers and while we did, he would slide his hands up our thighs and feel us up.”

In her post, she also wrote about attempting suicide thrice when she was younger.

For Mary, going public with her story has helped her get closure after three years of counselling that helped her find the courage. “I don’t plan on pursuing legal recourse but in terms of moving forward, I would like to work towards building a safe space with the NGOs here for victims to come out and get help,” she said. At the time of writing this story, the accused had not responded to her allegations. 

When asked to comment, the Principal of St Edmunds told NewsCentral24x7 that Francis Gale was never posted at the college. The Congregation of Christian Brothers told IANS on Saturday that an investigation will be carried out against Brother Francis Gale. Reportedly, the Congregation had earlier carried out an internal investigation on similar allegations against Gale, who now resides in West Bengal. The outcome of that investigation remains unclear.

Despite attempts to reach Don Bosco for comments, they did not respond.

A 2003 Sexual Harassment Complaint against the 1975 Sahitya Akademi Award winner, Homen Borgohain

A decade before the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act was enacted, Sabita Lahkar kicked up a storm in Assam by filing a police complaint against Amar Assom Editor, Homen Borgohain. Borgohain is a renowned poet and recipient of the 1975 Sahitya Akademi Award.

Lahkar, a journalist in Guwahati since 1988, also wrote to the Assam State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), State Commission for Women (SCW) and the President’s Office.  However, she received no relief despite the overwhelming support from journalists across the country and SHRC ordering Amar Assom to conduct an inquiry and submit a report within three months.  

“The media house conducted an internal inquiry but never called him in for questioning. Borgohain asked me for proof but there’s no proof I can furnish for an incident that happened behind closed doors,” she told NewsCentral24x7. 

She says her only proof is that after she raised a verbal complaint to the then Executive Editor, Manoj Goswami, he altered her reporting line. “I started reporting to him and the News Editor, Pranay Bordoloi, until they both left in 2002”, she said. Soon after, she said, Borgahoin resumed his harassment.

“I tendered my resignation to him and he did not comment or respond. So I went to his office on 4 September and he said that I could continue if I was willing to comply with his requests. That’s when I reached my boiling point and lost it in front of all my colleagues in the newsroom”. She quit shortly after and filed a complaint at the Paltan Bazaar police station on 17 September 2003. 

When NewsCentral24x7 reached out to Goswami to confirm the verbal complaint, he said, “Please check your facts.” However, Bordoloi did corroborate Lakhar’s account of the verbal complaint as well as the change in her reporting line from Borgohain to Goswami.  

Borgohain quit Amar Assom soon after. When asked about the progress of the police inquiry, Lahkar said that the investigation was not allowed to go ahead because of the then Director General of Police who was in good terms with Borgohain, a powerful figure in Assam’s literary and media circles.

“Around the same time, they (Amar Asom) published an interview of the DGP Harekrishna Deka and his poetry,” she said.

Speaking to NewsCentral24x7, Deka called her allegations ‘wild’. “She came to me for help when the police were not registering an FIR. As DGP, I instructed the station to register her complaint, after which the law took its own course. There’s no way that I can interfere or obstruct her case”, he said. He described his relations with Borgohain as ‘cordial’ — limited to a few social occasions where they met as writers. Deka retired in 2005 to pursue a writing career and briefly served as the Editor of The Sentinel. 

The Paltan Bazar station officer-in-charge, Inspector Dharani Burman, told NewsCentral24x7 that the investigation in the case was completed and the case diary was sent to the lower court on 12.12.2004. 

While she has guest-written columns for several dailies, Lahkar said that nobody offered her a job after the incident. “I lost my job, position and livelihood. That time, I used to earn a salary of 8000 rupees, which was higher than any other newspaper at that time. Even my husband resigned from the same organization,” she told NewsCentral24x7.

Although she brought her case to the media again in 2013 after Tarun Tejpal was arrested for allegedly raping his colleague in Tehelka, there was no progress. However, she feels optimistic with the #MeToo movement. 

“Many people have shared my post this time. People are writing about my case independently. So I hope this time, things will be different.” 

Despite attempts, NewsCentral24x7 could not reach Borgohain, currently the Editor-in-Chief of Niyomiya Barta, a local vernacular daily. An email query was sent to Rinkin Bhuyan Sharma, the Chief Managerial Director of Pride East Entertainment Pvt Ltd which owns Niyomiya Barta. Sharma is the wife of Bhartiya Janata Party MLA and State Health Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma. This report will be updated as and when she responds.

Close-knit networks in small towns protect perpetrators  

As seen in Lahkar’s case, the cozy network of powerful players in small cities ensures that victims’ voices are drowned out and forgotten.

Tongam Rina, a Senior Editor with The Arunachal Times, recalls a sexual harassment case in the early 2000s from a state department in Itanagar, “An Engineer had molested his colleague, who was a peon in the department. Since both of them belonged to a tribal community, a women’s rights group came and settled the case (a common practice in Arunachal Pradesh). People, then, started blaming the victim and maligning her character.” The episode sent a clear message to everyone about reporting sexual harassment, Rina added. 

Moreover, she says, with decades of militancy-related violence and human rights excesses in the North East region, sexual harassment tends to pale in comparison. 

In 2012, a Manipuri actor, Momoko, was molested and assaulted by a Livingstone Anal, a leader of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak Muivah), at a concert in Imphal. When the actor asked the security for help, they reportedly refused citing that the group was under ceasefire with the government.

Grace Jajo, a journalist in Manipur, agrees that context makes all the difference. She says that in Manipur, every powerful and influential person’s proximity to a militant group makes it too risky for people to be a part of the #MeToo movement.

“Although we admire women who have come out but we are not only looking at a legal backlash here but a direct threat to our lives if we expose ourselves,” she said.

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