India’s Northeast: A history of violence
The first chapter of Sanjoy Hazarika’s new book, Strangers No More: New Narratives From India’s Northeast, opens with the dictionary meaning of the word “impunity” and this statement: “As dawn crept slowly across the Manipur night, the armed men took aim at the small figure running away from them. A few short bursts of automatic gunfire, and the lone woman fell with a hopeless cry, crumpling to the cool earth below.”
The images of the naked protests in 2004 by elderly Meitei women, from a group known as the Meira Paibis, against that murder, which had, in all probability, been preceded by rape, are etched in the memory of many people across the region. Like the epic fast by Irom Sharmila, the naked protest was in its way a heroic act. Yet it led to very little.
One of the things it did spark off was the constitution of a committee led by retired Supreme Court Justice Jeevan Reddy to review the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (Afspa), which, in practical terms, empowered soldiers to arrest and kill with relative impunity. In the distant and troubled peripheries where they battled armed insurgent groups, the soldiers were often above whatever semblance of law existed. They were not immune to the corrupting influences of absolute power—but Afspa and the military’s tendency to protect its own, even for crimes such as rape, made them immune to any reckoning for their actions.
Hazarika was a member of the Jeevan Reddy committee. His insider account of the workings of that committee, its recommendations, and the fate that eventually befell those recommendations, make for informative reading on how these processes work in practice. The Justice Reddy committee had proposed the repeal of Afspa. “The committee wanted to resist state power and to enforce greater accountability on the armed forces and the government. The current method of simply extending the Disturbed Areas Act every six months by a decision of the ministry of home affairs should be done away with,” he writes. The Manmohan Singh government sat on the Justice Reddy report for nearly a decade. In 2015, the newly elected Modi government finally gave the inconvenient report a quiet burial.
The culture of impunity that conflict has produced in Manipur extends beyond just the army. It is there in the armed insurgent groups, many of which are now reduced to little more than criminal gangs or guns for hire, and in the state police, whose commandos in particular were a law unto themselves during the tenure of the previous Congress government led by former chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh. The Supreme Court is now examining 1,528 cases of alleged fake encounters in Manipur from 1979-2012. Hazarika writes on one such case, which returned to media attention when a Manipur Police head constable named T. Herojit Singh confessed before the Imphal media in January 2016 that he had shot dead a young man named Chongkham Sanjit Singh in a fake encounter carried out in broad daylight in Imphal’s main market area in 2009.
Murder and mayhem have long been a profitable business in these parts. This is now changing, thanks to a diminishing public appetite for ethnic insurgencies, and an increasing desire for the simple comforts of what is usually called development. This is, in my reading, the central thesis of Hazarika’s book, and suggested by its title. He surveys the states of the North-East one by one and observes the direction of the various insurgencies, all of which have, for various reasons, wound down at least for now. In the case of the oldest and arguably the biggest of those insurgent movements, that of the Nagas, Hazarika himself had a role. His account here is again that of participant, not observer.
It is the account of how the then prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, tasked him with getting in touch with the leaders of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland. Hazarika, working under the direction of Rajesh Pilot, who was Union minister of state for home, established contact with Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chishi Swu, who were then underground, in Bangkok. His story of that first meeting with the stalwarts of the Naga insurgency will be fascinating to anyone interested in the topic.
The untold tales of minority communities in the region also find mention in the book. One of these involves the ethnic Bengali minority which has been part of the complex mosaic of communities in the region since well before the current borders of India were hastily drawn. This entire group came, after the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, to be retrospectively labelled as Bangladeshis. Persecution became the lot of many Bengalis, Hindu as well as Muslim. A part of the story relates to events in Shillong, where I grew up, and which I have written about. Hazarika, who has worn many hats in his life (of journalist, author, film-maker, think-tank chief, director of a prominent human rights organization, administrator of a number of boat clinics on the Brahmaputra), is eclectic in his choice of sources and quotes people from many sides of the bewildering multiplicity of identities scattered through the North-East. It is always a difficult task to write or say anything about the region because there are so many versions to every story. Hazarika has made an attempt to include a wide range of perspectives, including voices from communities within the region, such as the Bengali Muslims and Hindus who are often treated as outsiders. For this, he must be complimented.
There are some quibbles. The book’s wide-ranging character leads, naturally, to a diffusion of focus. This is accentuated by indulgent editing. There are passages that could have been shorter, and the writer often rambles. On the whole, though, this book provides an excellent overview of the potted histories of conflicts in the North-East, and gives a sense of the direction in which they—and the region—are moving: Towards a future where the country and its north-eastern periphery are strangers no more.
Samrat is an author and journalist who has worked with the Hindustan Times, The New Indian Express and The Asian Age in Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai, respectively, among others.