Nagaland Lynching: More Than a Protest

“For several decades, the indigenous populations of North East India have claimed that their lands were coming under threat from Bangladeshi migrants, though many of them actually had identification papers from the border districts of Assam.”

Mob Lynching in Nagaland: Much More Than a Protest Against an Alleged Rape

by Ramesh Chowdhury for

There is a peculiar jungle leaf found in the Naga forests of the now North East of India. If it brushes against your skin, followed by water touching the same part, the itch leads to an unbearable scratch that could even tear the skin. At the height of the militarisation of Naga areas, the Indian army would pick up suspects, rub these leaves all over the suspect’s body and then pour water over it.

Then there were the other regular torture methods—piercing needles between the nails and skin, sodomy, hanging upside down for hours, being buried alive, being forced to give birth in the open, electrocuting genitalia, rubbing Naga chilli on them, or beating till all internal organs were damaged. All on suspicion, to subvert the right (to self determination) of its neighbours in India.

Despite being intense storytellers, the Naga people will rarely tell you these stories, of what their lives looked like under the gruesome Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). Under the Act, the Indian army could carry out all of these operations in the name of counter insurgency with immunity, reserving even the right to kill on suspicion. The people had nowhere to go for justice because justice givers backed the AFSPA framework.

Today, the AFSPA maybe taking away the right to life quietly, but the culture of impunity it brought along has seeped into the threads of society here. The States that are part of the region have emulated the AFSPA form of justice (which basically means no justice at all), and more disturbingly, communities that have thrived alongside each other for decades have now learnt to use violence against each other—not because AFSPA’s immunity covers them but the blindness of justice, law and order that AFSPA brings along with it does.

North Eastern states emulate AFSPA justice

In December 2013, a Karbi mob numbering few hundreds appeared out of a hill overlooking a Rengma Naga village in Karbi Anglong in Assam. Chanting songs, and led by heavily armed men, they killed six Rengma people, including four women in a most gruesome manner—one had her intestines taken out, another burnt to cinders in her home. They cut down all orange and betel nut trees, the only sources of economic gain available to the Rengma Nagas of Assam. A shelter, protecting children of the village during the attack, was bombed—all households were burnt down.

Till date, the Rengma people who fled their villages find themselves displaced. If they are unable to go back to their land, someone else will lay claim. If they are unable to cultivate, there will be nothing left for them to go back to the land for, their only source of food and security. There could be a slow wipe out of the entire population that lives without roads and electricity till date.

The Government of Assam provided some ex gratia compensation to the families hurt by the incident and washed its hands off the incident. The Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council cared even less. The few mainstream news media that covered the incident lost interest quickly (since, you know, happens all the time). Amnesty International ignored the issue (everybody loves a good lynching alone). No judicial enquiries were set up. Impunity reigned large, and it still does. Keeping it intact, communities are pitted against each other. This is just an example of repeated such instances in the region—the AFSPA notion that makes a whole population/group the ‘other’, always a ‘suspicious’ lot.

AFSPA’s children

No less brutal are the lives of those from the North East who study and work in the metro cities of India. In January 2014, Nido Tania was killed in Delhi. Leaving aside all the other years of piling attacks, in 2014 itself there were several more attacks on people from the region, leading to rapes and deaths. The perceptions may be racist but the attacks continue because at a certain level, these attacks are allowed through impunity. Justice is rarely done.

AFSPA not only puts the whole region in a state of exception in terms of fundamental rights, but also makes the people themselves “exceptional,” exempt from justice, no matter where they are in India.

A new generation of, say, the Naga people have grown up without the horrific tortures of AFSPA (due to a long standing ceasefire) but the impact of its brutality have taken a clear toll on the youth. To such an extent that it may seem now that not just the State but also people may emulate the model of impunity by killing a person on suspicion. A number of Naga youth called this Naga customary law. This, however, is anything but customary laws that are based on cooperation and goodwill among communities, corresponding punishments with established guilt.

This is AFSPA.

In the case of a life under AFSPA, not only is there no need to establish guilt, but the suspicious may be murdered—the right to murder till now belonged to the State, now the people believe that they can take up this right legitimately. Many of those who participated in the public lynching on March 5, as well as those who came to watch with their children, believed this to be the justice as has been meted out to them through the years. This is the legacy of AFSPA, its children being public lynchings.

Naga Identity

In this backdrop while it may be hardly surprising that the people who dragged an alleged rapist out of Dimapur jail last week and beat him to death after parading him through town have been described by the Nagaland police as a “motivated mob”. But underlying the brutal violence is a deep sense of insecurity that the Naga identity is being diluted by steady inward migration. As ethnic identities face a challenge from inter-community marriages and changing demographics, women and the choices they make have become a key focus of this anxiety.

Dimapur Demography

On the face of it, Dimapur is a strangely cosmopolitan city, located in the heart of a hundred ethnicities. This is because the Inner Line Permits that outsiders must possess to enter the rest of Nagaland are not necessary here. The Dimasa-Kachari people claim the town for themselves, as do the Naga. The “motivated mob” in Dimapur that lynched a man on March 5 did so based on suspicion too, most working under the notion that this is the way that justice is departed. That there would be no consequence for torture meted out if the ‘cause’ is justified (in this case an alleged rape by an alleged illegal immigrant). This notion has been created by the ‘culture of impunity’ which the region has internalised through the 57 years of the existence of AFSPA in the North East—the feeling that no matter the abuse, no responsibility for it will be fixed.

Dimapur’s mix of people isn’t surprising. After all, the business hub was established by Marwaris and Muslims in the 1880s. It had its first growth spurt six decades later, as hospitals, schools and railways came up around the time of World War II. The opportunities offered by the new city attracted people from as far away as Bihar. It was only after Nagaland state was carved out of Assam in 1963 that Nagas from Nagaland, Manipur and Myanmar began to move en masse to Dimapur, largely because it offered access to the railways.

Employment opportunities

The development of infrastructure required labour. But the Nagas, who were familiar with a specific tradition of shifting agriculture and production sharing, did not tap these employment opportunities. Instead, the jobs were sought by those who had come from Bihar and Assam, struck by poverty and conflict.

Assam shares a highly porous border with Bangladesh. Some sections of the populations of both territories are culturally similar, speaking the same languages. For several decades, the indigenous populations of North East India have claimed that their lands were coming under threat from Bangladeshi migrants, though many of them actually had identification papers from the border districts of Assam. Since the Nagaland administration does not keep a record of how many inner line permits are issued per year, there is no way to establish the scale of migration to the state.

In 2011, the Naga Council Dimapur, the apex body of the Naga people in Dimapur, set up a Public Action Committee in association with some other Naga groups to identify “illegal immigrants” and issue identity cards to those found legitimate. All Muslim residents of Dimapur were to be identified so that “genuine Indian citizens were not victimised” and labelled as illegal Bangladeshi migrants.

But the Nagaland government put an immediate stop to this exercise, fearing a backlash against Nagas in other parts of India. The chief secretary proposed a solution: “The landholding system among the Nagas is very strong so migrants cannot own an inch of land here. Instead of holding campaigns, people here should be trained to do manual labour. Immigration will automatically stop.”

The preferred solution

This suggestion has been repeated ever since by politicians and bureaucrats alike, even though the issue of how many legal migrants live in the state has never been taken up by the Nagaland government. As a result, right-wing-organisations have been mounting their own exercises to identify illegal immigrants. Their chest beating around the issue played no small role in inflaming Dimapur’s residents on March 4 and 5. Their suspicion of so-called outsiders was combined with a lack of reliable information about the specific circumstances leading to a man being accused of rape last week. The mob repeated, without producing any evidence, that the target of their anger was an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant.

At the rally on March 5, members of some of these organisations repeated that “this would be the last rape an ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrant’ commits on a Naga woman.” As it turned out, Syed Farid Khan, a businessman living in Dimapur, from Assam, was married to a Naga woman and they had a three-year-old child.

The case seems to be a good illustration of the growing sense of insecurity among some Naga men that people from outside the state are tapping into economic opportunities more effectively than they do. There is vast unemployment in this group. The transition to a monetised economy has encouraged many Nagas to move away from the strenuous job of jhum cultivation towards easier work, or tasks with greater pay from rural employment guarantee schemes. It’s a commonplace notion that Naga people will only engage in businesses that reap big returns. As a result, street-side businesses, retail, wholesale and poultry in the region are owned mostly by non-Nagas. All this has led to anxiety about Naga identity, and its survival in the new world of enmeshed economics and politics.

Many inter-marriages

Parallel to this, relationships between Nagas and outsiders are growing more frequent. Many Naga villages are known to accommodate non-Naga male populations in their villages if they take up the culture of the village and live as one of them. In the plain areas of Nagaland, such as Dimapur, more non-locals, many of them Muslims whom locals claim are from Bangladesh, are working on farms owned by Nagas. It is obvious that men and women in these situations will mingle, marry and have children.

In the urban context, a lot of ire has been directed towards Naga women who go out with non-Naga men. The opposite, that is, Naga men choosing non-Naga women as partners are exempt. Muslim males, especially from the Barak Valley region, are looked down upon as being of lower class and social status than the Nagas. Yet they are sometimes able to make a better living than Naga people in Dimapur and other places. Young Naga men spew rage at women through social media, at a loss to understand why Naga men are “not enough” for them. Growing prostitution has not helped the situation, with non-locals (as well as wealthy Nagas) availing of the services of Naga women for cash. The blame for the growing economic insecurity is often heaped on Naga women.

Naga society clings to a myth: that non locals have brought rape and other so-called foreign taints to Nagaland. The easy target is the illegal Bangladesh immigrant (or IBI), who can disappear easily because he is believed to have no proper identity nor responsibility to the place he inhabits. This theory was solidified when a Naga woman was raped in February 2011 by four migrant workers who had no papers to prove their Indian citizenship. However, in a very rare rape indictment in Nagaland, these four were found guilty by the Dimapur District & Sessions Court.

But in Dimapur last week, this rare instance of quick justice was quickly forgotten as some civil society organisations raged on that “IBIs are raping our women!” Young people at the rallies on both days blamed traditional civil society organisations for compromising on rape cases and failing to secure justice for victims. Ironically, the anti-rape rhetoric has been accompanied by a diminishing of freedom for women: women’s organisations recently denounced short skirts, for instance. There is also an alarming lack of leadership to guide locals in a reasonable direction. The most distressing and long-term consequence of these forces has been the fact that violence has become routine in Naga society.

Life after the cease-fire

The call for self-determination in the 1960s had resulted in an organised battle for rights in the Naga lands. For decades, the state responded to these demands through the extreme militarisation of these areas. But after a ceasefire was declared 17 years ago, Naga society has attempted to project a semblance of normalcy under army rule.

The church, in this predominantly Christian state, the civil society organisations and the mass media suggest that demands for self-determination must be expressed within the framework of the state of Nagaland. As a result, young people have no real space to assert their Naga identity beyond song, dance and festivals. State leaders merely vie for political power and central money, lacking any ability to show the way to deal with insecurities about the loss of identity and land.

Small arms have proliferated, so has discontent. Nationalist groups are either disoriented or have become embedded in narrow political aims. There is constant pressure to recognise this situation – living without actual political autonomy – as a state of peace. Scratch the surface and the violence comes pouring out.

Also see related post: “Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrant” & India’s Honour

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