“Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrant” & India’s Honour

[I]n the Northeast [of India] IBI no longer has a literal meaning nor is it about citizenship, it is a racist shorthand, a template; a discursive formation under consolidation since the late 1970s which represent Bengali Muslims in the Northeast…”

Nation’s Honour, ‘IBIs’ and the Dimapur lynching
by Bonojit Hussain, cross-posted from Kafila

On 5th of March a mob of few thousands stormed the Dimapur central jail [India] and after having dragged jail inmate Syed Sarif Uddin Khan, brutally lynched him while a gleeful lot clicked photographs of the lynching with mobile phone cameras.

Since the night of 5th March photographs of the brutalized dead body and a video of the lynching has gone viral on social media and activists across the country has rightfully condemned this horrific act of mob lynching. But most activists are under the impression that the outrage and subsequent lynching was because a Sumi Naga woman was allegedly raped by Syed Sarif Uddin Khan on the night of 23rdFebruary. But one needs to understand that the outrage and the lynching of Khan wasn’t primarily about rape of a woman, it was more about how an outsider, more so a ‘lowly’ IBI (a very popular acronym for Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrant), has violated  the Naga nation’s honour reposited in the bodies of its women by raping one of its ‘daughters’.

Syed Sarif Uddin Khan was originally from Karimganj district of Assam, and ironically comes from a family of Armymen. It is also true that he had been a long time resident of Dimapur, was married to a Sumi Naga woman and has a three year old daughter. But none of these facts matter because Syed Sarif Uddin Khan will remain an IBI for the lynch mob and scores of other people in Nagaland. This is so because most people in the Northeast believe that all Bengali Muslims are IBIs.

I have written elsewhere that in the Northeast IBI no longer has a literal meaning nor is it about citizenship, it is a racist shorthand, a template; a discursive formation under consolidation since the late 1970s which represent Bengali Muslims in the Northeast as a homogeneous ‘collective’ that is “lesser humans”, “menace” or in its extreme form as “locust”. This discursive formation is constituted through the deployment of series of clichés like sexual virulence, natural (almost genetic) proneness to criminality, uncivilized to the extent of being inhumanly dirty or unhygienic, breeds faster than dogs etc. Deployment of these kinds of clichés has remained the hallmark of regressive process of racializing a targeted group of people throughout the world, much of the anti immigrant racist movements in the first world also deploy similar clichés. The cliché of sexual virulence is made to stand out, so that ever member of the racialized group becomes a potential predator waiting for opportunity to violate the honour of  the host nation that is believed to be embodied in the physical selves of the nation’s women.

This discursive formation draws its historical nutrients from the complex and yet unfolding history of the eastern theatre of partition of the sub-continent. In the ethnically balkanized milieu of the Northeast, Bengali Muslims are easiest target of racialized otherization; and this otherization does not become easy because they are different, but because in terms of certain cultural markers they are similar to the perceived embodiment of Bangladeshiness.

IBI as a discursive formation first got consolidated during the anti-Bangladeshi immigrant Assam Movement (1979-1985) and provided various ethnic/nationality movements in the Northeast with a ready-made template of otherizing Bengali Muslims irrespective of their citizenship status compounded by a tacit impunity regarding killings of Bengali Muslims, which started from the Nellie genocide of 1983 in Assam.

Some analysts in the Northeast have tried to explain the anger and outrage that led to the horrific incident by pointing out the ‘egalitarian’ nature of Naga society. According to National Crime Records Bureau data, in 2013, only 51 cases of crime against women were registered in Nagaland as against the all India figure of 309,546 cases. The argument goes that in a society with such low level of crime against women, a heinous crime like rape is bound to lead to a serious public anger and outrage. What these analysts fail to mention is that scores of crime against women go unreported and many such cases are adjudicated under Naga Customary Law by traditional bodies.

It is true that in many societies in the Northeast status of women is far better compared to many parts of mainland India, but it doesn’t mean that crimes against women do not occur and it is not uncommon to read in local media reports of molestations, harassments, kidnapping and rape. Just four days after Syed Sarif Uddin Khan allegedly committed the crime, on 27th February a 39 year old Konyak Naga man raped a 6 year old girl in Mon district. It was reported in local media that the incident took place when the accused, father of two, had gone to attend a funeral service Friday, and on his way home, he allegedly lured the victim to buy sweets at a shop and committed the crime at his house. It didn’t lead to any outrage, not even a statement by any civil society organization.

Even in this particular case none of the outrage that led to the lynching has been directed towards the fact the accomplice in the alleged rape is a Naga man. This Naga person was also arrested on 24thFebruary along with Syed Sarif Uddin Khan and is currently lodged under judicial custody in the same Dimapur central jail from where Syed Sarif Uddin Khan was dragged out, paraded in chains before being lynched. In fact local civil society organizations and local media have actively downplayed this fact to the extent that the identity of this Naga person has not been revealed in the public domain till today.

For past few years there has been a growing clamour against IBIs in Nagaland, especially in Dimapur. In fact, coincidently on 24th February, the day Syed Sarif Uddin Khan and his Naga accomplice were arrested, Naga Students’ Federation (NSF) as a part of their then ongoing state-wide campaign tour against IBIs had organized a Consultative Meeting in Dimapur with the Naga Council Dimapur, tribal hohos and Union, Dimapur Naga Mothers’ Association and its constituent units, Dimapur Chamber of Commerce & Industries (DCCI), and Dimapur town ward/colony leaders. A day prior to consultative meeting NSF has issued a strong worded statement signed by NSF president Tongpang Ozukum and finance secretary Shikavi Achumi vowing to “tackle the menace of illegal Bangladesh immigrant”. The statement also strongly condemns National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Isak Muivah [NSCN (I-M)], which runs a parallel Government in Nagaland, over the allegation that NSCN (I-M) had appointed one Nurjahan Hussain as a tax collector, in this regard the statement said: If the claim of Nurjahan Hussian as one of the tax collectors of NSCN (I-M) is true, then it is a disgrace to the entire Naga people … “Naga people will never agree to fight for our inherent rights with the support of nomads and illegal immigrants; rather, Nagas will choose to fight a lone but honourable battle to achieve our goal.”

The alleged rape committed by Syed Sarif Uddin Khan was on 23rd February, the victim filed a police complaint on 24th February and on the same day Khan and his Naga accomplice were arrested. However the news was not reported in the local media until 3rd of March, and that is when civil society organizations swung into action.

In the cacophony of statements that were issued by various civil society organizations in Dimapur, the central issue of the alleged rape and violence against women in general took a back seat as all the statements made it a central issue that an IBI has yet again raped a Naga lady.

The question that should baffle everyone is that how does the society differentiate between rape of women by men of their own community and by men of other community, in this case more ‘detestable’ outsider, the IBI?

To the best of my knowledge, between 3rd and 5th March these Naga and non-Naga civil society organizations in Dimapur issued condemnation statements saying that an IBI has yet again committed asexual crime against a Naga lady, some of whom demanded that the accused be handed over to be tried by Customary law: Naga Council – Dimapur (NCD), Naga Women Hoho – Dimapur (NWHD), NSF, Central Nagaland Tribal Council (CNTC),  Central Nagaland Students’ Association (CNSA), Western Sumi Kukami Hoho (WSKH), Sumi Officers Union of Dimapur (SOUD), Mao Hoho of Dimapur (MHD), Dimasa Public Organization (DPO), Dimasa Women Welfare Society of Nagaland (DWWSN),  Nagaland Bhojpuri Samaj – Dimapur (NBSD) and Manik Bhattacharjee Foundation (MBF). It is worth mentioning here that most of these statements have disappeared from the internet after the 5th March lynching, and what remains are excerpts printed in local newspapers.

Two of the most influential civil society organizations – the Naga Council – Dimapur (NCD) and the Naga Women Hoho – Dimapur (NWHD) – were the first to issue a joint statement in which they proclaimed that the rape “exposes Naga weakness”. The Morung Express published a photograph of the Syed Sarif Uddin Khan on the first page of the 4th March edition of the newspaper with a screaming headline that read “Heinous crime exposes Naga weakness says NCD & NWHD”. The joint statement, signed by NCD treasurer Chiten Konyak and NWHD president Hukheli T. Wotsa, claimed that “unless all Nagas take responsibility to tackle the menace of unabated IBI influx and their stay in the state, crime against our women and daughters by these people will only increase”. It further stated that if “Naga society refuses to wake up such crimes will only keep recurring and Nagas can only watch and condemn meekly”.  The statement ended with a cautionary advice to Naga society “Lastly, Naga families would also do well to learn that marrying off their daughters to IBIs or adopting them does not beget anything good.”

NSF also issued a strong statement signed by the president Tongpang Ozukum on 3th March where it stated that “time and again Naga civil societies have raised concerns about the danger of harboring Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrants (IBIs) in our own home, giving them shelter and security … it is because of our obstinate attitude and relaxed nature, such heinous crime is being committed by the IBIs without any hesitation”. Asserting that the recent incident was not just a heinous crime but a direct challenge to the entire Naga community, the statement further said that “unless we act tough on these people, slowly but surely these people become masters our Nagas in our own land”.

While there is little doubt that the mob lynching would not have been possible without complicity of the police force at various levels, Nagaland Chief Minister TR Zeliang in a kneejerk reaction has blamed social media users for the flare-up and the subsequent lynching. It would do well to both CM TR Zeliang and Naga society at large if he musters the courage to condemn and initiate action against the leaders of those civil society organizations that made libelous and false statements and calling for mob (in) justice.

One can only begin to shiver to imagine if the chauvinistic/dominant sections of the whole of Northeast ‘solidarize’ to tackle IBI issue in such a way…

In lieu of a long conclusion, let me end by recalling a 2004 solidarity meeting with Lieutenant General(Retd) V.S. Atem of Nagalim Army (NSCN I-M faction) in New Delhi. General Atem was then an interlocutor on behalf of the NSCN (I-M) in the peace talks with Government of India. Some of us comrades had asked the good General as to what would happen to all the non-Naga migrant workers and petty traders in the future Christian Socialist Republic of Nagalim, the good General smiled and said “We Nagas are simple folks, we will need the help of all our migrant friends to run the economy. They would be equal citizens”. One only wishes if the good General’s words would come through in spirit and in action.

Bonojit Hussain is an independent researcher and an activist associated with New Socialist Initiative (NSI)

One thought on ““Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrant” & India’s Honour

  1. Published: March 14, 2015 01:36 IST | Updated: March 14, 2015 01:36 IST
    The prison house of identity

    Ananya Vajpeyi
    For Syed Sarifuddin Khan, the suspicion of rape was enough to set alight a tinderbox of regional discontent with the political dispensation, the permanent state of emergency, conflicting identities, thwarted aspirations and vexed histories, into a conflagration that incinerated him

    The lynching of Syed Sarifuddin Khan, a 35-year-old Assamese man accused of rape and remanded to police custody, in Dimapur, Nagaland, on March 5, 2015, is one of the most troubling of India’s repeated crises in law and order in recent memory. A 25-year-old Naga woman filed rape charges against him on February 24, and he was arrested the next day. He had been in jail for 10 days, when a mob of several thousand people (figures vary), including large numbers of young women, stormed Dimapur Central Jail.

    They hunted the man from cell to cell, found him, dragged him outside, beat him and pelted him with stones, stripped him naked, tied him to a motorcycle with a rope around his waist, and dragged him wounded and bleeding for about 7 km. By the time they arrived at the town’s Clock Tower, he had died from his injuries. They then strung his body up on a fence, and displayed it to thousands of jeering onlookers. Explicit and horrific images of this brutal journey were instantly circulated as photographs and videos, which went viral on the Internet. On March 8, his body was buried by his family at his village, Bosla, in Karimganj district of southern Assam.

    The facts regarding the circumstances of the rape are still uncertain. The identity of the man was initially misunderstood and misreported, both by the lynch mob and by the media, as that of a Bangladeshi immigrant, and only later determined to be that of a Bengali-speaking Assamese Indian. Khan had a Naga wife and a young daughter, and lived in Dimapur, where he ran a small used car business. His father and brothers had served in the Indian armed forces, and the woman who accused him of raping her was from his wife’s village, possibly her cousin.

    Read The Hindu editorial: Vigilantism in Dimapur

    Unrest in the Northeast

    At the time that he was lynched, it was not known with any legal certainty whether he had committed rape, and now it will probably never become clear what transpired. His own statement recorded before he died and the statements of his relatives after his death all deny rape allegations. The police for their part were unable to manage such a large mob, unable to hide Khan inside the jail once they had understood that he was being hunted by the crowd and unable to prevent his capture and release. Despite tear gas, lathi charges and rounds of firing, which left one person dead, over 50 constabulary injured, and 10 police vehicles burnt, a full on counter-attack could not be launched because the mob included such a large number of women and minors, many of whom were leading the violence.

    The abduction, rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama, a Manipuri woman, allegedly by Indian paramilitaries, led to a naked protest by about 30 Manipuri mothers in Imphal, outside the Kangla Fort headquarters of the Assam Rifles in July 2004. Both the rape and the form taken by the protest — the older women stripped naked, and stood on the street carrying placards which read “Indian Army Rape Us” “Indian Army take our flesh” — shocked the entire country, leading to a long legal process and several commissions of inquiry. As recently as December 2014, the Supreme Court directed that Rs.10 lakh be awarded as compensation to Manorama’s family. But because the Assam Rifles had been deployed in Manipur under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which grants immunity to military and paramilitary forces, the court could not pronounce any punishment for the accused.

    The two incidents, separated by 11 years, in two restive Northeastern States, Manipur and Nagaland, are diametrically opposed: in one case, the person who died was the victim of rape and in the other, the alleged perpetrator. In the one case, the killers were members of the armed forces and in the other, common citizens. Both involved heinous violence against individuals, and both created a storm of anger, grief, protest and intercommunity tension in the region.

    Following Manorama’s disappearance and death, public opinion as well as the legal and legislative process quickly transcended the issue of rape and became focussed on the real problem: the existence and persistence for the AFSPA in Manipur and other States of the Northeast. In the Dimapur lynching too, we need to read the writing on the wall. This is not about whether Syed Sarifuddin Khan raped a local woman or not; it is about the relationship between the State of Nagaland and the rest of the Indian union, a problem unresolved since the 1930s.

    On the face of it, the mob sought to teach Khan a lesson. It could be argued that the heightened intensity of the discourse about rape and its prevention, prosecution and punishment in India ever since the Delhi gang-rape of December 2012 is bound to produce at least some instances of vigilante action and rough justice. The Dimapur lynching was a particularly violent enactment of the rage and frustration that many, especially women, feel on this charged subject. There may be an element of truth to this analysis.

    Rape or identity?

    But what’s more telling is the way in which Khan was initially described as a Bangladeshi immigrant, when in fact he had a family in Assam, had lived in Dimapur for long, and had married a Naga woman (whose first name, as per a story in this newspaper on March 11 “Dimapur lynch victim’s family awaits his Naga wife”, appears to be Christian. Nagaland is more than 90 per cent Christian). It must have been clear to those who knew him locally, that he was not Bangladeshi, but Indian.

    Read: Anarchy without a mask

    So why call him “Bangladeshi?” The moniker in this context serves as shorthand to indicate that he was an outsider, not a native; in other words, a foreigner or an “alien”, someone who was not Naga. The xenophobia contained in this false identification of Khan extends not just to immigrants from Bangladesh, but also to those people living in Nagaland who might be Assamese or Bengali, i.e., from nearby States within India.

    Dimapur is a major commercial hub in the Northeast, on the border between Assam and Nagaland. Unlike other parts of Nagaland, it does not fall within the “Inner Line”, which means Indians other than Nagas do not require a special permit to travel, work or live there. On the ground, there are thousands of other non-Nagas like Khan, many of them Assamese, settled in Dimapur or passing through it regularly.

    The fact that Khan was a Muslim probably made the slide from “Indian” to “Bangladeshi” somewhat easier. The mirror image of this xenophobia is the way in which people from Northeastern States are all lumped together and referred to as “Chinki” throughout India — again, a derogatory moniker suggesting not that these are literally people from China, but that their ethnic, racial and cultural identity is distinct from, other to and as good as foreign for those in the “heartland” or “mainstream” of India.

    Note that the term under erasure in this awful lynching of a so-called “Bangladeshi” by so-called “Chinkis” — who otherwise are treated as aliens and routinely victimised all over the country outside the Northeast — is “Indian”. And this is precisely the point: “Indian” is an identity that the Muslims of East Bengal — who first became Pakistanis and then became Bangladeshis — iteratively seceded from in 1947 and 1971, and that the Nagas never quite accepted, despite Nagaland becoming a state of the Indian Union in 1963.

    The limits of the nation

    This story of forcible, partial and unwilling accession to India; the still-incomplete and problematic integration into the Union of India; continuous low-intensity warfare between various tribes and factions; the long-term, indeed indefinite deployment of emergency laws and martial rule via the AFSPA, and of the dreaded instrument of counter-terrorism, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), by the Indian state — these realities are writ large across the Northeast, including Nagaland and Manipur.

    In postcolonial India, Assam itself has seen ceaseless conflict between Assamese-speaking Muslims, Bengali-speaking Muslims — many of whom are indeed immigrants and refugees from East Pakistan and Bangladesh, settled in Assam for varying lengths of time — and tribal Bodos, who have been agitating that a separate “Bodoland” be carved out of Assam and granted full statehood. These conflicts could be about territory and resources, about ethnic, tribal and religious identities, or about capturing the inadequate economic opportunities available in the region. Cross-border movement and resettlement of people between India and Bangladesh, and the resulting demographic flux, are also constant factors. A fracture between Assam and Nagaland is only one way to understand the political landscape — there are numerous smaller fractures within each of these so-called “units” like Assam and Nagaland. Violence in the entire regional neighbourhood has been more or less continuous for decades.

    What was at issue in Dimapur then was not Khan’s true nationality as a Bangladeshi or an Indian, but the underlying fact that in Nagaland it is possible to see both those identities as being equally foreign, and equally likely to be placed at the receiving end of xenophobic violence. For the unfortunate Syed Sarifuddin Khan, the suspicion of a rape that he may or may not have committed was enough to set alight a tinderbox of regional discontent with the political dispensation, the permanent state of emergency, conflicting identities, thwarted aspirations and vexed histories, into a conflagration that incinerated him. His bewildered relatives were left saying — “But he was Indian”, “But we are a fauji family” — because in their view these qualifications ought to have protected him from the extraordinary and ultimately deadly ferocity with which he was wrenched out of the legal process and simply torn to pieces in the town square.

    The same identity that is the basis of solidarity in one setting can become one’s greatest vulnerability elsewhere. The discontinuity between Assam and Nagaland, the chasm that separated Khan from his attackers, runs like a fissure in the bedrock of a painfully, precariously, and always contingently constructed “national” identity. The implications of Khan’s lynching are truly frightening for what they reveal, not just about where we have arrived in the debate on rape, but also, and more crucially, the deteriorating state of affairs in India’s Northeast.

    (Ananya Vajpeyi is an intellectual historian at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.)

    Keywords: Nagaland lynching, Dimapur lynching, Dimapur mob violence, rape accused murder


    © The Hindu

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