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Rahul Karmakar, Hindustan Times
Guwahati, December 27, 2010
Rights activists in Nagaland want tribal chieftains to stop throwing criminals into itchy cages. But villagers adhering to customary laws are reluctant to scrap their tradition of scratching out crime. Villages in northern Nagaland's Mokokchung district have for ages prescribed a triangular cage for anti-socials, particularly alcoholics and drug addicts. Made of bamboo or wooden bars, this cage doesn't offer room for a convict to stand or stretch. The cage is smeared with itchy substances —extracts of certain plants — discouraging the inmate from falling asleep or touching the severe irritation-causing sides.

For felons, staying in such a cage for 24 hours is more traumatic than days in police lockups. One reason is the fear of scratching oneself to near-death. Another is the stigma of being caged like an animal in public view.

The degree of the offence determines the sentence, which can vary from a day to more than a month.

"This is inhuman and needs to be done away with," said a rights activist from Nagaland capital Kohima. "In a democratic system, the judiciary, and not kangaroo courts, should try those accused of criminal activities." But traditionalists feel the practice, mostly in Ao villages, helps maintain law and order in rural areas besides reforming criminals. Aos are one of the 16 major tribes in Nagaland.

"The traditional method has often been found to be more effective than the modern jail system. There are reports of people having changed for the better after spending a day or more in a khujli ghar (itchy cage)," said Dimapur-based N Bendang Ao, former director of the North East Zone Cultural Centre.