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Mainstream, VOL L, No 35, August 18, 2012

Battered Humanity in Troubled North-East

Monday 20 August 2012, by Barun Das Gupta

BOOK REVIEW

The Judgement that Never Came by Nandita Haksar and Sebastian M. Hongray; Chicken Neck Publishers, New Delhi; Price: Rs 495.

This book is an intensely human story of a group of innocent villagers in Oinam, an obscure Naga village in the Senapati district of Manipur, who suffered terribly in the hands of our security forces who are supposed to protect members of the civil society from those called terrorists. Way back in 1987, the even tenor of life in that quiet village was disturbed suddenly. A group of insurgents belonging to the National Socialist Council of Nagaland without any warning swooped on the village, attacked the Assam Rifles camp there. Before anyone could realise what was happening, eight soldiers and a JCO lay dead. The insurgents forced the people to carry the arms they had looted from the camp and take those into the thick forests. The booty: 150 pieces of arms and 125 thousand rounds of ammunition.
The authority of the Indian State had been challenged. Something had to be done to avenge the deaths of the men and the officer. The insur-gents must not be allowed to go unpunished. But the insurgents had already fled into deep jungles. Therefore the might of the State turned to the villagers. A counter-insurgency operation code-named ‘Operation Blue-Bird’ was mounted —not against the insurgents but against the innocent who had to bear the full brunt of the fury of the State.

The book depicts what followed then in a remote corner of the country. What happened? Oinam and surrounding villages were encircled. Even civil police and district authorities were not allowed to enter the area. The Press was, of course, kept away. An idea of what was let loose in the name of ‘counter-insurgency’ can be imagined from what the Chief Minister of the State, Rishang Keishing, wrote in a letter to the Union Home Minister in Delhi:

“The Assam Rifles are running [a] parallel administration in the area. The Deputy Commis-sioner and Superintendent of Police were wrongfully confined, humiliated and prevented from discharging their official duties by the security forces....... We can hardly afford to term the entire population as anti-national as is being projected by the Assam Rifles. This is an extremely dangerous trend...“
To get a better understanding of what happened at Oinam, we have to read the wireless message that the SP of Senapati district sent to the local Sub-Divisional Police Officer (SDPO): That message said:

“Following atrocities have been reportedly committed by the AR [Assam Rifles] in the wake of the Oinam incident. Fifty villagers arrested and beaten almost to death without any investigation. Besides, 63 houses completely destroyed. Oinam Govt. High School and staff quarters completely destroyed.... Three villagers forcefully taken away and their whereabouts are not known. School teacher beaten and his arm severely fractured. Seven houses burnt into ashes. Two girls... arrested and beaten black and blue...” The narrative goes on, adding one gruesome detail after another.

It seemed the men in battle-green had suddenly gone mad and were wreaking their vengeance on surrogate victims who had nothing to do with the NSCN attack. Indeed, they had had gone mad. They knew that for all that they had done, they would go unpunished: the State would protect them from prosecution and punishment. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act gave them complete immunity. Section 4(a) of the Act says that in an area declared ‘disturbed’ an officer of the armed forces may “fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law or order” in force in the disturbed area.

Section 6 gives immunity to the guilty: “Protection to persons acting under this Act. No prosecution, suit or other legal proceeding shall be instituted except with the previous sanction of the Central Government, against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers conferred by this Act.”

Then began the heroic struggle of the people to get justice from the judiciary of the land. But the myrmidons of the law were out to prevent any attempt at getting justice. A group of Naga students on way to Oinam were arrested and found to have an incriminating document in their possession—a memorandum that they had sent to the Chief Secretary of Manipur protesting against the detention of minor boys by the Assam Rifles. They (the students) were arrested and forced to write a statement on the official letterhead of the Naga Students Federation that the student leaders had not been arrested, tortured or harassed by the Assam Rifles.
Eventually, the battle for justice reached the Supreme Court where the constitutional validity of the AFSPA was challenged. The history of the legal battle that began then is the subject of the book which has been aptly named The Judgement that Never Came.

As one who has known Naga society at first hand, who has lived with them as a school teacher at Pfutsero some four-and-a-half decades ago, this reviewer knows it well that Oinam was not an exception rather than the rule. And not Nagaland alone. Few know that in the wake of the Mizo uprising in 1966 when the entire Aizawl town (except an isolated Assam Rifles camp at one corner) was overrun by the Mizo National Front (MNF) led by Laldenga, the Indian Air Force was used for strafing Aizawl to recapture the town. This reviewer was shown some photographs. Mizo villagers suspected of sympathy for the MNF were arrested, their forearms were wrapped with dry banana leaves, kerosene poured over them and then a burning matchstick touched. The photographs showed badly burnt loose flesh coming off. This was part of an attempt at extracting confession.

The Naga society was a ‘classless’ society in the true sense. On the first day of his arrival at Pfutsero, this reviewer was surprised to see the illiterate Naga chowkidar of the school was sitting by the fireside next to the headmaster and smoking his hand-rolled cigarette. The honesty of the people had to be seen to be believed. One morning, a student brought a few hundred-rupee notes to this reviewer and wanted to know if he had by mistake left them near the small waterfall where everybody went for the morning wash. Eventually, the owner was found and the money returned. One could, on arriving at Kohima by bus, leave one’s luggage on the road, come back after an hour or so to find that they luggaged was lying exactly as he had left it. No one had even touched it.

To understand the origin of Naga insurgency, one has to go back into history. Before the advent of the British in Assam in 1826, after signing the Yandabo Treaty with the Burmese ruler, much of the present north-east India was not under the rule of Delhi. It took the British another five-and-a-half decades to conquer the tribal groups known as Nagas. Expeditions to the Naga areas started in 1832 and the Naga territories were annexed bit by bit. The Nagas thought that when the British left they would become ‘independent’ again.

When the Simon Commission visited Kohima in 1929, the Naga Club of Kohima submitted a memorandum to it. It said: “Our hills were included within the Reformed Scheme of India without our knowledge” and went on to add: “If the British Government, however, wants to throw us away, we pray that we should not be thrust to the mercy of the people who could never subjugate us, but to leave us alone to determine for ourselves as in ancient times.”

History, however, can never go back to ‘ancient times’. It has to move ahead. It is a pity that independent India could neither understand the urges and aspirations of the tribal peoples living in the north-eastern fringes of the country nor think of how best to reconcile their urge for autonomy in the federal polity of India, how to assimilate them in the larger entity called India while retaining their distinct cultural and ethnic identity. Essentially the attitude of the rulers of independent India to these people was no different from the British—the attitude of domination.
A little sympathy, a little willingness to know the history of the Nagas and other tribals and to identify with them would have saved the country much bloodshed, mistrust and tragedies like Oinam. A quarter-century later, has the attitude of domination changed?

The reviewer was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Dasgupta.

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