Wrong arm of the law!

The photograph is a close-up shot of Oinam Hemabati, also known as Yambung, the author of this article. He is speaking at a community event in Manipur. He is speaking into a stationary microphone. Behind him is a colourful curtain forming a back screen. The curtain has a pattern of illustrations of flowers and comic characters. To the left, the curtain is drawn apart a bit and an old wall clock and a wooden shelf can be seen behind it. The author’s photograph is accompanied by a quote from the article: “This was a clear case of misuse of the law – Dona and Tang were both adults, and how could Section 377 be applicable just because they were a lesbian-trans man couple? And this was happening in spite of the Honourable Supreme Court’s NALSA verdict on transgender rights! The question that keeps bothering me is when will the rights of queer people be truly respected in our society?” Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

Manipur Diary, Happenings, May '18
Oinam Hemabati reports on a recent ordeal with the police in Manipur when he was falsely accused of helping a trans man abduct his lesbian partner from her home. And yes, Section 377, Indian Penal Code was part of the story again

Imphal, May 11, 2018: On the morning of January 18 this year, around 8.30 am, I got an unexpected call from Tang (Rojita Laishram), a trans man who lived in the Canchipur area of Imphal West district. He informed me that he had been arrested by the police along with his partner Dona (Udiyarani Thingujam), a resident of Singjamei in Imphal East district.

Tang and Dona were in a relationship since nearly two and a half years and living together at Tang’s place since June 2016.

The reason for arresting Tang was that Dona’s parents had filed a report with the police that their daughter was missing and had been abducted by Tang. I immediately contacted Meihoubam Rakesh and Thokchom Premlata Devi, Director and Assistant Director, respectively, with Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) Manipur and informed them about Dona and Tang. They told me not to worry as they had already helped the couple make an affidavit in court declaring that they were adults and staying together with mutual consent (Dona was 22 and Tang 28 years old).

On the same day, along with my partner Nanao, I went to the police station in Imphal West to talk to the Officer-in-Charge to release Tang and Dona. After a discussion involving the couple, Dona’s mother and the police, all the parties agreed to settle the matter for the time being. Dona agreed to return to her parents’ house. But the very next day, she again ran away from home. I again informed lawyer Premlata at HRLN about the development.

Inset: About the ‘Manipur Diary’ column: 'Manipur Diary' brings you news and analysis on issues concerning queer and other marginalized communities in Manipur. Content published under this new monthly column is contributed by participants in the Varta Community Reporters (VCR) Training and Citizen Journalism Programme. The VCR programme aims to build communication, documentation and journalistic skills among youth and other groups marginalized around gender, sexuality or other parameters. In the process, the idea is also to enhance the employability of the participants. Training workshops, mentoring, and writers workshops on issues around gender, sexuality, human rights, communication, documentation and story writing are part of the programme. A six-month pilot of this programme started in March 2018 in Manipur. There are five VCRs, all queer individuals, engaged in the programme. The VCR pilot programme in Manipur aims to provide continuity to outreach and advocacy started under a 20-month training, research and advocacy project to support economic inclusion of queer people in Manipur. The economic inclusion advocacy project was called Sexual and Gender Diversity, Welfare and Precarity in India: Impact, Advocacy and Process. The project ran from August 2016 to March 2018, and was led by AMaNA, a collective of transgender women’s community groups in Manipur, and ETA, a support forum for transgender men, lesbians and bisexual women in Manipur. Implementation was supported by ally NGOs SAATHII, Imphal; CORE Manipur, Imphal; and Varta Trust, Kolkata. The project was supported financially and technically by the Sussex Social Science Impact Fund, University of Sussex, UK. Future editions of the VCR programme will be organized in other parts of India as well – Editor.

Around 10 days later, on January 28, the police arrested me at 8.00 am from my home – they said they had a warrant under Section 377, IPC. My partner Nanao followed me to the police station. At the police station I had to endure hours of interrogation in the investigation room.

The police asked me “Are you Eche Yambung?” ‘Eche’ means ‘sister’ and ‘Yambung’ means ‘brother’. I told them to call me either Yambung or Eche but not Eche Yambung. Then they asked me about my profession. I informed them that I was part of the trans men’s community, consultant with an NGO SAATHII and President of Empowering Trans Ability, an organization that focussed on community mobilization and advocacy on inclusion of queer people in the family sphere, education, livelihood, the government sector, laws and policies.

Next I was asked if it was possible for love or marriage between two women. I said, “Why not? It depends on individual preferences and mutual understanding between two people.” Then they wanted to know where Tang and Dona were. I said that I had last met them on January 19 but after that I didn’t know where they had gone. The police then warned me that if I didn’t disclose their location, they would punish me!
 
I felt very angry at this and repeated my earlier answer. I told the police to go ahead and punish me and keep me in prison, but I didn’t know where the couple was.
   
The same afternoon, at around 1.45 pm, Premlata reached the police station. She asked why I had been arrested. The police informed her that I had been arrested under Section 377, and so I wouldn’t be released. According to the warrant, Tang was accused No. 1 and I was accused No. 2. This was a clear case of misuse of the law – Dona and Tang were both adults, and how could Section 377 be applicable just because they were a lesbian-trans man couple? And this was happening in spite of the Honourable Supreme Court’s NALSA verdict on transgender rights!

After nearly 11 hours at the police station, Premlata finally managed to have me released. I was dizzy and weak with hunger. I was told that I would be called again if necessary.

On February 3, 2018, Dona and Tang were to appear before Ningthoujam Lanleima, Chief Judicial Magistrate at Manipur High Court. They planned to surrender before the court and seek bail. Along with Randhoni Lairikyengbam, Senior Program Manager at SAATHII, Imphal, I too went to the court. Both HRLN lawyers Rakesh and Premlata were also present.

After clarifying with Dona that she had left with Tang without any force and hearing the entire matter, the court ruled that both Dona and Tang were adults and if they wanted to stay together with mutual consent, their wishes had to be respected. I too vouched for the fact that both Dona and Tang were majors.

The court also noted that the Honourable Supreme Court had issued a verdict that transgender people were a vulnerable section of society, whose rights had to be protected. The court did not mention anything in relation to Section 377.

As a matter of legal formality, Dona and Tang appeared once before the police and the case against Tang was winded up. The couple is now living together and running their grocery shop as before to earn a livelihood.

The question that keeps bothering me is when will the rights of queer people be truly respected in our society?

Read the Manipur High Court order in the matter of Dona and Tang’s personal rights here – Editor.

About the main photo: Author of this article Oinam Hemabati, also known as Yambung, speaking at a community event in Manipur. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

Author Photo

Oinam Hemabati

Oinam Hemabati is a trans man activist and leads Empowering Trans Ability, a support forum for lesbians, bisexual women and trans men in Manipur. He is passionate about karate, and lives with Sonia, his partner of 15 years, in Imphal.

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