Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

Innocent until proven guilty

Is Giving Benefit of the Doubt to a Crime Accused Wrong – Allegation and Response

It is unfortunate that in his zeal to defend Yambem Laba, who was recently in the news for an inappropriate message he sent to a young lady, Pradip Phanjoubam, the editor of Imphal Review of Arts and Politics, has missed the wood for the trees. As Phanjoubam notes in his long and rambling piece, the actions of Laba have been met with a spontaneous response from many women across Manipur, who have taken to social media to express themselves. Phanjoubam goes on to denounce these women as “self-proclaimed feminists” who indulge in “mimicry of Western paradigms”.

The question that Phanjoubam should really ask is this – why are so many ordinary women reacting spontaneously to this incident? The reason, if it is not obvious, is that Laba’s actions are symbolic of the sort of offensive behaviour that women are subjected to day in and day out, and that most Manipuri women were deeply repulsed when they learnt of what had occurred in this case. Yes – Laba’s actions likely did not violate any laws – but they did breach the expectations that the young lady had from someone she regarded as a mentor – and many Manipuri women instinctively understood and identified with that. Maybe this sort of behaviour would not be unusual in some Western societies. But in Manipur, there is a very different perception of norms and it is not acceptable for most Manipuri women that a senior man in a position of power would attempt to use that in a manner that indicates that he regards women junior to him as being available to gratify him. Thus, far from following any Western paradigms as Phanjoubam alleges, the women who protested this very much rooted in a Manipuri cultural context – which Phanjoubam has sadly not understood.

On reading Phanjoubam’s article, one also notices a certain affinity for Laba, whom Phanjoubam is seemingly anxious to extend the benefit of the doubt.  Phanjoubam waxes eloquent about Laba’s alleged lack of familiarity with mobile devices and talks of Laba being afflicted with Parkinson’s and so on. He glosses over the fact that Laba’s first reaction was to claim – without evidence – that his phone had been hacked – a frivolous stance which Laba has even since not entirely backed off from. No questions are asked of this, and only explanations are provided by Phanjoubam to seemingly justify Laba’s actions. There is no empathy for the young lady in question or an attempt to understand why she reacted the way she did. Is this an objective assessment by Phanjoubam or a biased one? If Laba believes he did no wrong, he should say so instead of seeking to half-heartedly apologize.

It also seems to be Phanjoubam’s position that protesting against Laba’s perceived wrongful act is not justified since it may not have violated the letter of the law, and thus those doing so are idiots, “full of sound and fury”, indulging in “high pitched rhetoric”.  Yes – it is true that these and other incidents must lead to meaningful change. But more than laws, what is required is a change in social thinking and attitudes. And protests highlighting the offensiveness of certain behaviours are a valid way of drawing attention to and discouraging the same.

Phanjoubam then indulges in a bit of whataboutery – pointing to the plight of nurses and claiming that feminists do not espouse their cause. Nursing is not an exclusively female profession, but let’s keep that aside. There are many feminist and other activists in Manipur who have long worked towards gender equality and economic empowerment of women from all social classes – even those who are far less educated than nurses. That Phanjoubam is unaware of this is one thing – but to then imply that one should not protest Laba’s behaviour if one has not intervened on other issues is quite illogical and suppressive.

Phanjoubam is entitled to his views and has every right to express them. However, one can disagree without being disagreeable, and it is unfortunate that Phanjoubam uses distasteful terms to describe those who have a contrarian view. As a senior journalist, one would have expected greater sobriety from Phanjoubam in his language. However, his phraseology indicates a vehement dislike for those who do not share his world view and contradicts his own assertion that we must work together as a society to address the issues that the underlying incident has raised.

(Sophia Rajkumari is a Family Lawyer and Founder of Eta: North-East Women’s Network)


IRAP Editor’s Response

This article makes a series of false allegations and even misrepresents some universally accepted legal principles. The article also put words that I have never said in my mouth, such as “…spontaneous response from many women across Manipur, who have taken to social media to express themselves…”

The most blatant of these misrepresentations however is the allegation that I am wrong in giving the benefit of the doubt to the accused. For naive and lay observers to think this is so is understandable but it is surprising that a practitioner of law should also endorse this view, for in the tradition of liberal jurisprudence, the accused is the one given this benefit of the doubt and not the accuser. This is because it is the accused who faces the noose not the accuser. Please refer back to what is generally known as the “Blackstone Ratio” in legal studies to confirm this.

Coincidentally, we are witnessing this principle being applied in a high-profile case in the US right now. Police officer Derek Chauvin who murdered George Floyd in broad daylight in the city of Minneapolis is still allowed to present his point of view of the crime in the court and defend himself, though probably and hopefully none of his defence arguments will hold water before the judge and the jury. All would have noticed the case is still to conclude, and even superstars like George Clooney are known to have come forward to give their opinions on how to nail the police officer. In other words, guilt is not automatically presumed even when guilt is most obvious, that is until the court pronounces this to be so. The idea is to eliminate to the extent possible, even the remotest possibility of an innocent ending up punished or punished disproportionately. In my article, my plea was also not at all about absolving the accused, but of having his action probed, to question him and witnesses and other evidences which can be treated as conclusive, so as to establish the exact nature of the offence, in the tradition of liberal jurisprudence which presumes innocence of any accused till proven guilty by a relevant court of law.

I had also stressed that this adjudication process should not be left in the hands of social media kangaroo courts but handled by a court of law or other institutions of the state authorized to try such cases, such as the Manipur State Women’s Commission, which was instituted precisely to handle this kind of cases, and headed by a learned woman too. It is again surprising that a practicing lawyer who counsels clients on the ways of the law as well as makes a living out of the interpretation of the spirit and practice of the law, should express such a lack of faith in the law itself.

Yambem is certainly known to me, but this had no relevance to my article as presumed in this article. My article merely asked for establishment of guilt first in a court of law and then think of penalty. I had also said that if the harassed girl feels vulnerable or lacks the resources, those baying for the man’s blood on the virtual spaces of social media – in particular the screaming “feminists” (the quotes are with a purpose) as well as their cheerleaders in the shadow – should climb down from rhetoric and get into action by first bringing the debate to an actionable plane – and this plane is in domain of rule of law. Indeed, I had also indicated, that if this transfer to the actionable plane does not materialise, nothing of consequence other than social media “sound and fury” may likely be the result, and the issue in time would likely simply fizzle out in a whimper. Let me also clarify here that I did not voluntarily walk into this debate, but was directly provoked into joining it by some who chose to place their rude allegations on my Facebook wall or tagged me to their snide remarks so I would see them.

If the rule of established law is not what these “feminists” want, they should spell out clearly what path to justice they prefer so sane people will know how to respond other than comply to the call to join the social media lynch mob. Is the preference for a takeover of the case by one or the other of the many alternate courts run by students, civil society groups and underground organisations that Manipur is so familiar with? If so, they should appeal to them for justice instead.

I had also presented the reaction of other women that the message sounded like the middle of a story in an argument between spouses, in the belief that all other plausible explanations of a particular action is eliminated logically before grading the criminality or otherwise of that particular action. All stories, even the crudest, would have to have a beginning, middle and end for them to make sense. The beginning, middle and end of a single story would also probably not be months apart. This one seemed like starting abruptly from the middle. It is again surprising that a practicing lawyer should see this as a defence of an accused rather than an assessment of how a particular action pans out against the canvas of the law in practice.

Let me reiterate my stand again. I still hold the view that no cognizable offence should be allowed to go unpunished, but equally, all accused, even if it were the devil, has to be given the right to be heard. I had said this before, as in the case of the agitation to oust the then Vice Chancellor of the Manipur University, AB Panday, that the man even if guilt has to be first heard by an authorised enquiry before being penalised, for which another section went into a vilification frenzy. As in my article, I recommend this writer to also consider giving more attention to reading what are in print and not be too obsessed about discovering absent meanings between the lines.

Pradip Phanjoubam

Editor IRAP

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