A po­lit­i­cal trav­el­ogue anatomises the crim­i­nal­ity of the state in the North- east

India Today - - LEISURE - By Sanjoy Hazarika

Na­tional High­way 39 moves through the As­sam plains, steamy in sum­mer and placid and foggy on win­ter morn­ings, be­fore snaking up the Naga Hills and into the hills and val­leys of Ma­nipur, at times post­card-per­fect with vil­lage ponds, school­child­ren smartly turned out as they trot to class; at other times, sullen, bro­ken, dis­rupted and as blood­ied as the peo­ple who live on ei­ther side of it. It is a road which con­nects In­dia to its east­ern­most pe­riph­ery, right to the bor­der with Myan­mar. Yet, of­ten, quite un­wit­tingly, be­cause of the un­re­solved na­ture of the tur­moil which trou­bles the states and the peo­ple through which it passes, this cru­cial high­way is also a re­flec­tion of the dis­con­nec­tion be­tween the North- east and the rest of In­dia.

For many years, I have jour­neyed through this home­land, of­ten alone, at other times with friends and ac­quain­tances, learn­ing, lis­ten­ing, an­guish­ing, suf­fer­ing; through back pain and day and night jour­neys; through won­der­ful boat jour­neys to un­mapped is­lands and vil­lages, and to places the “main­land” and its peo­ple know lit­tle or noth­ing of, across borders into Myan­mar, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Ti­bet; through bandhs, storms and floods, land­slides and clashes, en­coun­ters with se­cu­rity forces of both the gov­ern­ments of In­dia and the states of the re­gion as well as of the armed groups which op­pose them; been wel­comed in iso­lated vil­lages in the early hours of the morn­ing with a freshly cooked meal and the warmth of a home.

The re­gion’s un­end­ing tragedy and pain is ex­tra­or­di­nary. A few years ago, Sudeep Chakravarti, whose work on the Maoist chal­lenges fac­ing cen­tral In­dia has been well- re­ceived and whom I have known as a jour­nal­ist and writer, be­gan trav­el­ling to un­der­stand this co­nun­drum.

High­way 39 is not a trav­el­ogue, but an un­err­ingly de­tailed nar­ra­tive of the col­lec­tive and in­di­vid­ual crim­i­nal­ity and im­punity at dif­fer­ent lev­els of the State, com­bined with “the fa­mil­iar tones and lan­guage of ‘ Na­tional In­te­gra­tion through Cul­tural In­ter­ac­tion’,” which turn out to be the vilest abuse of North­ern In­dian ori­gin— the ab­so­lute boor­ish­ness of of­fi­cers as well as foot sol­diers.

Dis­crim­i­na­tion and racial pro­fil­ing are new key words in met­ros like Delhi and other cities, where ro­bust re­ac­tions are forc­ing gov­ern­ments to pay heed. But dis­crim­i­na­tion against the peo­ple of the re­gion has been framed in le­gal struc­tures for decades, not just ver­bal and phys­i­cal abuse: They face dis­crim­i­na­tion un­der the Armed Forces Spe­cial Pow­ers Act ( AFSPA) there and so­cial as­saults here. The ex­tremely com­plex sad­nesses that tor­ment fam­i­lies torn apart by rou­tine mad­ness and may­hem as well as by or­gan­ised vi­o­lence and ter­ror are mapped in ex­cru­ci­at­ing de­tail. The book fo­cuses on Ma­nipur and Na­ga­land, on torch- bear­ers of the hu­man rights cam­paigns, on fiery lead­ers such as Th. Muivah of the NSCN, who lit the armed cam­paign against In­dia, and tells why of­fi­cials are dis­mis­sive of them. It tells the story of moth­ers who weep at the loss of sons and daugh­ters, the courage of those who re­mem­ber and yet for­give those who took an in­no­cent’s life, and how fight­ers have turned vi­cious, prey­ing on those they claim to fight for. Many fa­mil­iar fig­ures stride through the book, peo­ple I have in­ter­viewed over the past decades.

He spends time on the Armed Forces Spe­cial Pow­ers Act and Irom Sharmila, the anti- AFSPA

icon and the re­port by the Jus­tice Reddy Com­mit­tee, of which I was a mem­ber, and which hasn’t been made public by the Cen­tre, even though it’s ac­ces­si­ble on the In­ter­net. How­ever, I wish that AFSPA and the dra­co­nian ap­proach, garbed in law, had come in much ear­lier in the book, be­cause these have given the State a fig leaf to mur­der, strafe, rape and make peo­ple dis­ap­pear with­out ac­count­abil­ity.

Although the au­thor says early on why he did not fo­cus on As­sam, the other ma­jor state of High­way 39, this omis­sion is a weak­ness in an oth­er­wise grip­ping read.

The State and its agen­cies get hard­est hit; he un­abashedly takes sides and ex­presses anger at both armed groups and the mil­i­tary as he maps the trauma of a girl who was ar­rested be­cause the po­lice wanted to “get” her par­ents. His sto­ries are laced with large doses of cyn­i­cism, but with un­forced hu­mour. There’s the cat­fish on a bus that nearly got away, the trip across the bor­der to Tamu in Myan­mar that nearly went wrong. There are sto­ries of liquor and mu­sic eas­ing ten­sions but barely keep­ing the peace, of a Repub­lic Day pa­rade in Im­phal, which only re­in­forces the Kafkae­que­ness of the sit­u­a­tion in that un­for­tu­nate state where the lead ve­hi­cle breaks down even as the last arch of the pa­rade pro­claims that “Ma­nipur is the Gate­way to South East Asia” ( alas, many stu­dents who travel to the main­land don’t like to re­turn home for va­ca­tions be­cause of fear of both the se­cu­rity forces and the un­der­ground).

High­way 39 bris­tles with im­pa­tience, in­dig­na­tion and in­sis­tently points out that the frac­tured land is not just the one through which the writer was trav­el­ling, but that to which it’s bound, con­sti­tu­tion­ally if not um­bil­i­cally.




by Sudeep Chakravarti Fourth Es­tate Price: RS 450 Pages: 420



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