Framing "Nattaba Lamchat", the mob trial of women's morality

Rubani Yumkhaibam *

Few civil society collectives in Manipur punishmen and women from time to time for committing nattaba lamchat. What is nattaba lamchat? It does not have a name; we do not call the supposed "offender" a rapist, a murderer, a drug peddler, a hacker, and so forth. For the most part, nattaba lamchat is a vague attribution of immorality to people's intimate concerns, especially sexual conduct.

What is moral and immoral is defined by the norms of the particular society, here the Manipuri society, and it is not always associated with violation of law. More fundamentally, the construction of moral/immoral agenda is distinctly coded in the language of women's sexual morality.

In this context civil society collectives are playing a custodian part in preserving the morality of women. The article is a reflection on the mobtrial and punishment (mostly violent and humiliating)of women accused of sexual immorality, framed in theconcept of nattaba lamchat. Men are also victimised by the construct of nattaba lamchat, however given the centrality of women in the culture of moral censorship in the Manipuri society, the article addresses the women's question.

The 21st century Manipur is ridden with mob violence- lynching, punishing, trials - which is often projected as delivering "justice". Whenever an unfortunate incident happens in the neighbourhood it could be a petty instance of thievery, or a gruesome instance of inadvertent killing - people waste no time, and the self-made platoon of justice raises its fangs and sets on beating, humiliating and even killing the persons involved.

In order for a fruitful critique of such a violent behaviour to emerge, it will be required to analyse the socio-psychological motifs of the people occupying an unstable political and economic zone. Given the festered bureaucracy of the land, deliverance of justice is often difficult and delayed. Such a frustration enthuses people to take law and order in their hands.

We live in a time in which we can rely on neither the governmental rationality nor the "mob justice". (The moral decline of the revolutionary ideals of justice and liberty in the hands of the mob haspreviously been seen in many intellectual movements in human histories, like the French Revolution that ultimately descended into the Reign of Terror.)

Can a frustrated society like ours handle mob justice? However, we are fed with many manifestations of mob trials. That being said, nobody needs a telescope to see that the culture of dialogue and construction inthe Manipuri society is dead long ago!

Many people in the mob brigade are driven by a misguided sense of justice, verging onto retaliation thereby ending in a complete disregard for humanity. It is in this violent culture of mob trial, which involves physical punishment and public humiliation, that we see women's morality being monitored in the public domain.

In one of the most unfortunate incidents in the past few days (happened at Bishnupur district), a man and a woman became victimsof a mob "trial", the crime being nattaba lamchat. There was a filming of the entire trial and the video became viral on the social media.

Lame is the age deluged by smart phones, unemployed and frustrated youths looking for heroics! The law of the land intervened and the culprits, the locale mob, mostly women, were arrested by the police. Many such incidents of violent mob trials have happened in the past, but the public anger at the particular incident is almost unprecedented. What angers the public?

The anger rises from the beating, humiliation and the spectacle of the shameful trial to which the man and the woman were exposed. More critically the exposure of a child (of the woman being punished) to the public humiliation of the mother, and the resultant abusive handling of the child was particularly distressing for the people.

The culprits may legally be punished in the days to come. But the lessons we learn are not just about the inhumanity of the mob trial and the punishment of the culprits; policing of women's morality in the public domain is the critical issue at the core of the incident.

What fares as tenacious in such cases is civil societies' taking on the role of moral guardians (not benign though), especially when women's sexual morality is involved. We as a society believe that public morality will be kept intact if women's sexuality is kept under control. From the dresses women wear to the tone of their voice, women's presence in the society is sexualised and moralised, and is linked with the larger project of cultural cleanliness.

Women are continuously projected as having potential for moral/sexual offences. Subsequently women's sexuality is channelised within the sanctity of marriage, the failure of which leads to the public (read mob) trial of the moralaberrance. So, when a married woman is found out to be engaging in an intimate relationship with another man, she is charged with nattaba lamchat. Such women are given speedy trial in full vista of the public, by civil society organisations.

Some regular proceedings of such trials are keina katpa, shaving off the women's hair, slapping, and beating. What the moral league reads in these cases is the punishability of a woman's sexual relationship with a man other than her sexual owner, the husband, and this act of punishment must be carried out of in the public.

In the process, a victimless crime is made, the one in which the supposed offender is victimised, much like the way rape victims are portrayed as inviting the rape upon themselves by wearing this and that, going here and there. Burqa donned women are also raped, so dress and outings cannot be considered as logically provened antecedents of rape crimes.

The pivotal place of women's sexuality in constructing women's morality, and by extension morality of the society, is followed by the straitjacket classification of women into two constructs virgin and whore. In the name of preserving the moral aesthetic of the society, the guardians are continually monitoring the private ecology of a woman as either a virgin/virtuous wife or a "lamchat naidabi" whore.

The virgin will extend into the ideal of a sexually loyal wife, we are continually creating an image of an ideal wife, an ideal mother, an ideal girl. On the other side, a whore is constructed as maramhenbi, lamchat naidabi, oktabi, all built around the notion of sexual "excesses" adultery and pre-marital intimacy.

Women's sexual conduct is looked upon as a taboo that has to kept hidden in the polite society. Ironically when such an "excess" is detected, it is exposed to a chaotic degree. In this scenario, a woman earns the non-existent crime of "nattaba lamchat", a fragile framework that strikes virgin-whore dichotomy. The virgin/whore dichotomy is a neurotic split that plagues the male perceptions of women.

Is the punishment of the sexually immoral, lamchat naidabi woman in the public view enough? No, for the moral guardians, the public trial and the consequent punishment are not enough. Shaving off the hair, slapping (an extremely insulting physical response), beating, complete with keina katpa (a form of saving grace after disgrace) are acts of mutilation of the female body. These acts are a writing of a shameful history on the ecology of a female body.

The informing ideology behind the mob trial of lamchat naidabi woman is a humiliating attrition, an inculcation of fear and stigma in women, just as much as cutting up the human body in a penal revenge, so that she will atone for all time to come. (Fear is a powerful weapon that is continually fed to women; the fear of rape and the fear of public disgrace are two powerful breeders of sexual control over women.)

There is no legal and moral justification for keina katpa. Keina katpa trials neither aimed at delivering justice to the injured parties nor encouraged ethical order in the society. Such trials are a fascistic reaction born out of "moral panic" around the body and sexuality of women, the idea that if women's sexuality is not monitored, they are going to corrupt family, culture and tradition.

Infidelity and adultery are not claimed as virtues to be appreciated and cultivated, but our world view towards such complex human decisions points to the misogyny of the Manipuri society. From a technical angle, it is meaningless to forcefully marry off a wife to another man, even if the man is a lover. It is no measure of sapient moral restoration.

Has our society consented to polyandry? Patriarchy can have no liaison with polyandry. So, why are the vigilantes using keina katpa as a moral drive? Even when keina katpa is imposed onan unmarried woman, it is aimed at exposing and punishing the woman, the inscription of fear.

The fact that brigades of righteous women have taken up the torch of correcting other "deviant" women is continuously arresting the cause of women in our society. Such women have internalised the misogyny, and they are being exploited by the patriarchy as voice of morality in the Manipuri society today.

The moral agenda implied in the crimeless crime and violent punishment of nattaba lamchat will not raise women beyond the subservient role they are playing today. There is no such crime as lamchat nattaba for which a woman can be punished in the public view.

The collectives of civil society organisations run by women need to focus more on the problems Manipuri women face today, such as political effects that affect the economic activities of women, spousal abandonment, domestic violence and the restraint on women not to speak against it, increasing instances of drug peddling among the economically-deprived women, etc.

These are important ethical and social concerns that affect women's lives. One can hope that the younger generation of women are sensitive to the critical issues of inequality and subjugation that have kept the false consciousness of nattaba lamchat enforced.

Thank you, Santa Khurai, for the potent outrage.

* Rubani Yumkhaibam wrote this article for The Sangai Express and Imphal Times
This article was posted on Ocotber 24, 2019 .

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