A Brave Woman Stands Tall
(August 25) Sarah Lamsi Baite continues to fight for her dignity and for justice for herself and her daughter. This week, summoned to a hearing by the Teising Area Chiefs Union, an association of neighborhood authorities in west Churachandpur where she and many of the city’s B’nei Menashe live, she stood tall and refused to back down.
Baite has been harassed and threatened ever since, in January of this year, she filed a police complaint against Kailam Singson, accused by her of raping her ten-year-old daughter in 2016. Singson is today a resident of Israel, to which he came with a group of B’nei Menashe immigrants, organized by Shavei Israel, in 2018. Before this, shortly after the rape, in June 2016, he admitted his guilt by taking part in an out-of-court settlement arranged according to so-called “Kuki Customary Law” by the Village Authority or VA of the neighborhood of Headquarters, Tuibong in which he and Baite lived. In this settlement, Baite received from Singson a sum of 150,000 rupees (a little over $2,000) in return for a pledge to drop the case. She did so after being warned not to go to the police by the Shavei Israel-controlled Beit Shalom synagogue, to which both she and Singson belonged, and with the
understanding that she and her daughter would then be able to resume a normal life.
This was not, however, what happened. A month after the settlement, in July 2016, the Beit Shalom executive expelled Sarah Baite from its congregation for having shamed it by reporting her daughter’s rape to the Tuibong VA rather than remaining silent. Most of the congregation cut all ties with her, and she and her traumatized daughter were cast into social isolation. A gross violation of the settlement she had agreed to, this was one reason, she stated, why she was acting not only within her legal rights when she finally mustered the resolve to go to the police (“Kuki Customary Law” has no legal standing in Manipur), but with full moral justification.
Yet Shavei thought otherwise. Following Baite’s police complaint, its Manipur operatives launched a concerted campaign of harassment and intimidation, thoroughly documented by our Newsletter, aimed at getting her to retract her complaint. In effect, Shavei played a double game. While its leadership in Israel professed shock at Baite’s story, pretended to have been unaware of it prior to her complaint, and made vague promises of offering her assistance, its Manipur staff went on threatening her and getting others to do so.
The latest chapter in Baite’s long ordeal began last July 22, when she was summoned, at the request of the Churachandpur branch of the Kuki Lawyer’s Association, to appear before the Tuibong VA, which then directed her to refund the settlement money received from Kailam Singson and pay an additional 50,000 rupee fine for breaking her 2016 pledge. Her answer was that – her pledge having indeed been broken, though with ample justification -- she was willing to return the money but only to the person she received it from, namely, Kailam Singson himself. Knowing there was no chance of Kailam’s coming to Manipur, where he was sure to face trial and possibly a stiff jail sentence, the Headquarters, Tuibong VA passed the case on to the Teising Area Chiefs Union or TACU, which asked Baite to appear before it.
This she did on August 19, bringing with her six people for support: a couple of friends, a relative, and B’nei Menashe Council general secretary Ohaliav Haokip along with the two advisors, Nechemiah Lhouvum and Ovadia Touthang. Arraigned against her were the TACU neighborhood authorities and representatives of the Kuki Lawyer’s Association. (Speaking to our Newsletter later, the association’s president Daniel Haokip denied prior knowledge of the incident and declared, “The case of Sarah Lamsi Baite was taken up on a personal basis…The matter does not merit coming under the association’s purview.”) Despite her request to be accompanied by her supporters, Sarah Baite was told that she would have to face her interrogators by herself. In the accompanying box, as told to our Newsletter, is her account of the confrontation.
I was told to present myself before a court of seven or eight men while my companions waited outside. They told me they were there to solve a problem for me, since I had accepted compensation for the rape of my daughter. If I did what they were asking, they said, I wouldn’t have to return the 150,000 rupees I received in 2016 according to Kuki Customary Law, even though I had broken my pledge by filing a police complaint. They said they had spoken to B’nei Menashe religious leaders in [the Churachandpur neighborhood of] Buoljol with the aim of bringing about an amicable solution. All I had to do was withdraw my complaint and sign a statement they had drafted for me. If I did that, they promised I would be put at the top of the list for the next Aliyah group to leave for Israel. I answered that I didn’t know what religious leaders they were talking about. And how could I sign a statement without knowing what was in it or consulting those close to me and those who have stood by me? Besides, I said, I had no intention of withdrawing my complaint, which I had made after years of humiliation heaped on me. My answer was not well-received. I was told that I was a very obstinate and foolish woman, that I was being manipulated by others, and that I was in contempt of Kuki Customary Law. I said: “Which of us is in contempt of it? When I was expelled from my synagogue for agreeing to a settlement according to Customary Law and complained to the Village Authority, I was told it didn’t interfere in internal B’nei Menashe affairs. But those who expelled me were Kukis, too. Why was my daughter’s rape by another Kuki a matter for Kuki Customary Law and not my expulsion from where I prayed by other Kukis?” They simply ignored what I said. They warned me that if I didn’t withdraw my complaint and sign the statement, they would let the whole Kuki people know that I was an evil woman with no respect for Kuki laws and customs. They said I would be marked for life as a social outcast and that no village or neighborhood would ever have me. I said, “You can kill me if you want, but I’m not giving in.” So they said that in that case, they would see to it that no B’nei Menashe, including me, ever got to Israel. They said, “It’s a simple thing for us to write to the Israeli government and have Aliyah shut down forever, and you’ll be blamed for it,” I told them I didn’t believe them and that my answer was still no. When they realized that they were not going to get what they wanted, they told me to come back in two days and let me go.
Sarah Baite’s account.
Sarah Baite behaved courageously, as she has done throughout. Yet it is unlikely that she could withdraw her complaint even if she wanted to, since the case is a criminal one in which the plaintiff in court would be the state, not Baite. And that the state of Manipur takes the case seriously was evidenced this week when Baite received a copy of an order handed down by Lamkhanpau Tonsing, Special Judge for the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses (POCSO), directing the relevant authorities to inquire into her daughter’s status and to submit a report by September 5 on her eligibility for government “victim compensation.”