On the Prevalence of Domestic Violence in North East India

Ningombam Captain *

 Domestic Violence  :  A woman confronting a man in the Manipuri film 'Khujin Gee Mami'
Domestic Violence : A woman confronting a man in the Manipuri film 'Khujin Gee Mami'

The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

— Sylvia Plath, 'Daddy' (1963)

There is the highly likely predicament of a working family man getting dismissed by his employer on accounts of a newly-surfaced information on his past substance abuse; and no matter how much he tried, he could not change the irrevocable dismissal brought about by his past undoing. Venting his anger or reprimands directly to his employer would not only be unwise, but might also lead to legal consequences. Instead, he suppresses his emotions until the end of the day.

Also, in order to cope this frustration he stops by an unregulated wine shop to consume alcohol. As soon as he gets home, he may unleash this anger on his wife or find himself overreacting to daily events like his children misbehaving. His reaction that is out of proportion might be further stimulated by the repressed fact that he does not bear any male wards to inherit his immovable properties much to the disapproval of the local customary law that is inclined to patrilineal inheritance.

In this setting, the man might start to get triggered at insignificant faults made by his intimate ones, most probably, his wife. Hence, the pandemonium of a typical domestic violence scene, ensues: the din of verbal abuses alloyed with the bustle of utensils falling out of place, the helpless shrieking of the wife that calls into chorus with the cries of the children— shrieks that will reverberate throughout their entire lives— whose esteems and potentials will then succumb to the traumatic experience.

Domestic violence, which is in the universal set of domestic abuse, includes any form of violence suffered by a person from a biological relative, but typically is the violence suffered by a woman at the hands of the male members of her family or relatives. In this common scenario, domestic violence is the result of a relationship between intimate partners in which one individual seeks to assert power and control over the other.

The abuser may use physical, psychological, economic, and sexual abuse to assert this power; as well as attempts to manipulate the victim through the use of their offspring, if any. The most common feature of a relationship with risks of domestic abuse is an imbalance of power and control. Domestic violence or intimate partner violence (IPV) is a worldwide problem that occurs within the private sphere, generally between individuals who are related through intimacy, blood or law.

It has been estimated that one in every four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime; also, an estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year.

The nature of domestic violence or more specifically, the modus operandi of an abuser in a family vary with region, almost culture-specific in a way, for example dowry deaths, which are deaths of married women who are murdered or driven to suicide by continuous harassment and torture by their husbands and in-laws over disputes about their dowry, are extremely low in the Northeastern states except Assam and Tripura, unlike their mainland counterparts.

The figures of this aspect should not, however, influence the false assumption that the women of North East India are comparatively better, as the lack of violence related to dowry and caste is compensated through the prevalence of alcoholism and skewed customary laws. The women of these states still suffer from a myriad of physical and emotional abuse as a result of illegal actions taken within the private home.

Customary Law can be defined as a set of rules that attain the force of law because a society observes them continuously and uniformly for a long time. The prevalence of gender-biased customary laws is a stubborn culprit of domestic violence in the North East. While most tribes of this region consider their customary law intrinsic to their identity, culture and tradition, almost every one of them has "laws" that directly or indirectly demean the very existence of women.

In the social structure of a tribe like the Mizo of Mizoram where women were formerly called "white animals" along with outrageous sayings like "Crab’s meat is not meat, a woman’s word is not a word" or the Ao tribe of Nagaland where a husband can take the wife's ornaments and also claim a penalty at an impending divorce or the Meitei's of Manipur where a submissive woman with restricted access of mobility is considered ideal, it is no wonder when the physical injury inflicted upon these women by abusive men is considered a trifle; or that the bruises and cuts are not casualties but implications that can be covered up by the fabric of their apparels in public.

Even the women of the matrilineal tribes of Meghalaya, in spite of the fact that they enjoy a better status than those in patrilineal societies, are not equal to men. In such tribes, the girl child is associated not with basic education, but with agricultural work and is seen as a helper in the family whereas the boys are deemed to be designated with necessary education.

In Manipur too, discriminatory customary laws are strictly adhered to in many areas. In some communities these laws sanction polygamy by design. In most tribes, including the Kuki’s if a woman does not have a son, inheritance is almost impossible. In such cases, after the death of her husband, custody of the children as well as property rights are with her in-laws by default.

While the fundamental differences of sex is undeniable, it should be the rational duty of an evolving society to negate or if possible, abolish the unfair customary laws that do not observe equity among the sexes. A customary law is the habitual course of conduct of a society and is related to its identity inasmuch it encompasses the norms, practices, taboos, sanctions, social rituals, and ethics.

Nonetheless, for a society to march into development and progress, it should shed away the faulty customary laws like an old skin. As a measure of rational intervention by the respective states, their governments should scrutinize, review, and disapprove accords on recognition of such laws that keep women marginal to societal participation and central to domestic abuse.

In psychoanalytic theory, "displacement" is a psychological defence mechanism in which a person redirects a negative emotion from its original source to a less threatening recipient. A classic example of this defence is "displaced aggression" to a person or thing that poses less of a risk. In fact, nearly all repressed aggression that a man has, can be displaced to his wife and children who are the most eligible subjects because they are the least threatening (or even powerless) to him.

In this regard, domestic violence can be considered a function of displacement. In these unfortunate state of affairs, substance abuse is a destructive catalyst; alcohol, a harmful stimulant. If the abuser is under the influence of alcohol or an intoxicant of equal or worse nature at the time of assault, the victim is likely to suffer from more serious causality and trauma.

The deteriorating case of North East India’s substance abuse problem is frightening. Study shows that the prevalence of any type of substance abuse— smoking, smokeless tobacco products, alcohol— in men of the Northeastern states is much higher i.e. 20% more than the rest of India. This is evident in states like Manipur where the selling and consumption of alcohol in unchecked households is prevalent.

We should critique the effectiveness of law in practice in the face of the ironic fact that Manipur as a dry state, has uncontrolled cases of alcoholism, ultimately leading to domestic abuse. Alcoholism is the inability to control drinking due to both a physical and emotional dependence on alcohol. When a man's capacity of rational thought is eclipsed by his alcoholism, the displacement of frustration and physical retaliation on his wife when his needs are obstructed, is quite certain.

History should serve as the proof that the banning of alcohol and narcotics does not work in retrospect. For instance, the classification of Manipur as a "dry state" is comic (almost meaningless) when distillation and blending of alcohol is an important socio-economic aspect of the Lois of Manipur, classified as Scheduled Castes inhabitants of villages like Andro, Khurkhul, Phayeng, and Sekmai. Instead of lending the hollow designation of a "dry state", the government should adopt careful regulations in the buying and selling of alcohol.

Prevention of alcoholism may be attempted by regulating and limiting the sales of alcohol and taxing the products to increase their costs. There should be effective and influential bodies to monitor the import and export of alcohol and narcotics. In the particular case of Manipur, the entrance of a non-Loi inhabitants to the aforementioned villages with the purpose of getting alcohol for recreational purposes should be checked.

Even if there are no local bodies to directly intervene an impending domestic violence, the ones that check on the regulation of alcohol, to restrict excess and maintain optimum, are indirectly preventing a domestic abuse or reducing the severity of one.

Other forms of substance abuse include the chronic and uncontrolled preoccupation with psychoactive or illegal drugs that lead to criminal or anti-social behaviour by bringing long-term personality changes in the individual. The loving and caring man that a woman once agreed to marry might turn into an unsympathetic stranger when his faculty of reasoning is hijacked by the mind-altering drugs.

The act of domestic violence towards women is a human rights violation as well as an illegal act under Indian law. It is therefore widely considered a threat to women's agency through any lens. The patriarchal nature of a society supported by its customary laws, is the index of a household for being potentially abusive to a woman.

There are three main aspects of the patriarchal household structure in North East India that affect women's agency: marriage, active discrimination by means of abuse (marital or extramarital), and diminished women's agency through limited economic opportunities. Also, it is unfortunate that most cases of domestic violence are not reported owing to various reasons.

There is a widespread hesitancy amongst the women who have experience domestic violence to report or act against such crimes. Women or children who are financially dependent on others or (in worst cases) to their abuser, do not have the access to the legal enforcement or education and often face trouble getting help from law.

The effects of domestic abuse on women and children is harrowing; those who have experienced some form of domestic violence tend to have greater long-term mental disorders and dependencies than those who do not. Serious health problems, and at times life-threatening ones, often result from physical, emotional, and sexual forms of domestic violence.

Reducing domestic violence is imperative not only from an ethical and human rights perspective but also because of obvious instrumental and immediate health benefits that would be gained from such reduction. In a world where there are no threats of customary laws, alcoholism, and substance abuse, domestic violence will still occur.

When the abuser is not under the influence of alcohol or drugs, his capacity to reason is unquestionable. In this inhumane case, the individual's choice is the pathology of the violence. While the domestic violence resulting from individual choices, free will and "unstimulated" mind-set are hard to intervene, substance-related ones can be checked with an effort.

With reference to the opening pedagogical scenario of the family man: had he not abused on the recreational drug in his youth, had the wine shop refused to sell the excess bottle of alcohol, had the customary law of weighing male offspring to female ones been changed, the night of terror and trauma would have been an intimate family dinner filled with joy and familial harmony than housing a crime scene filled with physical, mental, and spiritual casualties.

* Ningombam Captain wrote this article for
The writer is a freelance writer, music reviewer, and he occasionally writes fiction.
He is an English Literature graduate from MS University of Baroda.
The writer can be contacted at ningombamcaptain(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on October 17 2020.

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