LAND WITHOUT JUSTICE
A political travelogue anatomises the criminality of the state in the North- east
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.
MANIPUR POLICE DETAIN AND QUESTION LOCALS
HIGHWAY 39: JOURNEYS THROUGH A FRACTURED LAND
by Sudeep Chakravarti Fourth Estate Price: RS 450 Pages: 420
IROM SHARMILA IN IMPHAL