Death of a leader and the future of separatism in India’s Northeast 

The death of rebel Naga leader SS Khaplang earlier this month marked the end of an era and the recent announcement of his new successor could mark the beginning of a new era for not just the Naga separatist movement but also insurgency in the Northeast of the country too.

Shangnyu Shangwang Khaplang, often erroneously written as Shangwang Shangyung Khaplang, was born in Myanmar near the international border and belongs to the Hemi Naga tribe. 

 ‘Baba’ Khaplang (Image Sourced From Internet)

Having broken away from Isak Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, he formed his own faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland in 1989 to continue the fight for Naga sovereignty but was often engaged in territorial battles with his former comrades who continue to exercise much authority in most parts of the state of Nagaland and the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur. The NSCN-K mostly has a grip over Nagaland’s eastern districts of Mon and Tuensang and the three districts of eastern Arunachal Pradesh- Tirap, Changlang and Longding- all of which are close to its base in Myanmar. 

Much has already been written about the man who led the rebel group as its chairman for decades. His funeral aside, memorial marches and services have been held in many places including Shangnyu village in Mon district where his family lineage can reportedly be traced back to the ahng (chief) of Shangnu.

His death on June 9 brought several mixed reactions from people across the board. Many in Nagaland called it an end of an era including the chief minister, Dr Shurhozelie Liezietsu, who said that he was “grieved” to learn about Khaplang’s death and called it “tragic considering the fact that the protracted Naga political problem is on the verge of being resolved, and the need for all different Naga political groups to come together to air our views and aspirations to the Government of India in one voice is absolutely imperative”.

Liezietsu’s condolence however was met with criticism from some sections of Indian media which called his reaction “shocking”, failing to fully comprehend the complexity of the Naga movement and the mixed emotions that it evokes in people. 

Multiple “taxation” by the many rebel groups is a constant point of contention among the people in Nagaland and has led to protests by civil society bodies. 

Regardless of how people feel about the issue, Khaplang did command respect. As one Dimapur-based journalist said, Khaplang was “someone who steadfastly stood for the ‘national’ cause, unlike his counterparts, who are more or less in the system now”. 

A day after his death, Union minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju, said that after Khaplang’s death the “NSCN-K leadership will face a lot of difficulties”. 

Rijiju had also made an appeal to the outfit’s Indian cadre to “return to the mainstream”. 

While not much has been said officially by the Indian government since, the statement has significance considering the fact that Khaplang had pulled his faction out of the ceasefire agreement in March 2015. 

While Khaplang intensified his assault on Indian security forces and formed the United National Liberation Front of West East South Asia (UNLFWESA), a conglomeration of various rebel groups from the region including the Paresh Baruah-led anti-talk faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-I), his former friends were busy engaging with the Indian government. 

The Centre had been in talks with the Isak-Muivah faction (NSCN-IM) to find a solution to the decades-long issue and had signed a “framework agreement” in August 2015. While it was welcomed by many people, the details of the agreement are not yet in the public domain. 

Veteran journalist and author, Rajeev Bhattacharyya, who had interviewed Khaplang at Taga in Myanmar in 2011 and has written extensively on the region’s insurgency, feels that the peace process is unlikely to be impacted by “Baba’s” death. 

Bhattacharyya says that the peace process “has been dragging for a long time for different reasons, mainly the unwillingness of the Centre to resolve these issues soon because it is always focussed on short-term goals”. 

The secrecy surrounding the framework agreement certainly does seem to give credence to such thought but many will be waiting to see what direction the outfit takes since the appointment of its new “chairman”. 

Immediately following Khaplang’s death, two names came up as possible successor. Unconfirmed reports had said that Khumchok Pangmi was appointed caretaker chairman but all speculations were laid to rest yesterday when an official statement from the outfit confirmed that Khango Konyak was to take over the reins of the NSCN-k. 

An official statement from the group said that Konyak, belonging to the eponymous tribe from Nagaland’s Mon district, was born on 17 July 1943 at Yangkhao village and was christened Bechung Khango who “at the age of 20 responded to the call of the nation and joined the Naga national struggle in the year 1963 and after successful completion of basic military training became enrolled in the ‘Naga Army’”. 

Konyak is a hardened man who served as the vice-chairman of the NSCN-K since May 2011. He has been part of the movement for over five decades and was one of the early members who had made the arduous trek to China where the group received arms training during the 70s and 80s. 

After his elevation to the top post, Konyak said that he will work “solely in the interest of the Naga people and to defend and uphold the sovereign rights, identity, dignity and honour of our people”. 

It remains uncertain as to what path the outfit will take or indeed what future awaits the several insurgency movements in the region. 

Bhattacharyya says that the challenges that the new leadership will have to work on are to “keep the flock together and continuing with the judicious balance that Khaplang had managed to carve out after years of bloody conflict”. 

While the NSCN’s own leadership issue has been solved, the UNLFWESA is currently without a head as it was Khaplang who led the conglomerate. 

Ultimately the separatist movements will have to be resolved through dialogue and so far the only outfit making any concrete progress on that front is the Muivah-led NSCN. 

Following Swu’s death in June 2016, Muivah has kept a low profile. There are also no indications that he is looking to extend an olive branch to his former friends in the other NSCN factions. 

The government too should be looking to chalk out a plan that works in the long term for the best interest of the largest number of people.

A version of this article first appeared in The Citizen

Ranganadi: Where the fish don’t swim and a legend sank

“The legend of Rikam Pada and Rinyam Yame has its roots in this place. The tawlin– a chair shaped stone –was where Rinyam Yame sat and weaved her clothes,” says Lishi Baka before adding, “That stone was submerged after the dam was built”.
The NEEPCO’s Ranganadi Hydro Electrical Project (RHEP) on the Ranganadi/Panyor river with an installed capacity of 405 megawatts near Potin in Lower Subansiri district is the only functional mega hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh. Despite plans to build over 160 hydropower projects of different scales, logistical hurdles, delays in procuring clearances and concerns over their environmental impacts from local indigenous populations have meant that most are yet to get off the ground.
However, at least two more projects- 600MW Kameng project and 110MW Pare project- (both built by NEEPCO) will be commissioned by the end of this year. NEEPCO authorities say that the two projects are run-of-the-river dams which have a lesser impact on the environment as opposed to storage dams which require a reservoir.
The Ranganadi dam too is touted to be a run-of-the-river dam. For the layman, however, one look at the dam makes it clear that it is anything but.
Commissioned in the year 2001, the project is supposed to generate 1509 mega units of power annually. The project’s senior manager, S Sharma, informed that the 1509 mega units is the “desired production” and that the actual figure varies from anything between 10 mega units a day to 1 mega unit. He also informed that the desired production unit was met once in 2004. Its impact on the ecology, however, has been more severe.
At the time when the project was signed in the 80s, environmental laws did not address the need for dams to ensure that a minimum amount of water is released regularly to maintain the environmental flow ‘required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems and human livelihoods and well-being that depend on these ecosystems’. This has led to the drying up of the downstream of the river, severely affecting both marine and human lives.

 

Ranganadi 2

Although touted as a run-of-the-river project, the impact of the dam is clearly visible as the downstream side has completely dried up.

 
Villagers from the area say that they have not seen fishes like the noka, tangar, ngurap, and ngoh that were once abundantly found for years now.
“Instead we have to buy them from markets in the plains of Assam,” one local resident said, highlighting the fact that the livelihood of humans is as much dependent on aquatic life as theirs on humans.
Environmental and cultural concerns aside, there is also a sense of betrayal amongst the people of the area.
The project, reportedly, was built without signing a memorandum of understanding and was commissioned on the basis of a meeting held on August 28, 1990, between NEEPCO and the then chief minister, Gegong Apang.
The discovery of this information led residents from affected villages to form the RHEP MoU Demand Committee, demanding, well, a MoU.
The committee’s secretary, Tao Tana, said that the minutes of the meeting held in 1990 had to be taken “forcefully”. He also raised doubts over NEEPCO’s recent claims that 179 local people were recruited for the project.
There are 257 affected families and at least two villages and their paddy fields have been submerged due to the project.
“We were first moved from Popu village to Rub and then to Chun on the downstream side,” says Baka, who is also the anchal samiti member from Potin where 27 families were ultimately relocated. The villagers also claim that there was no rehabilitation by NEEPCO although the public sector unit claims that it “developed Potin”. Villagers scoff at such claims, saying that NEEPCO used substandard material to build the houses for the displaced families.
Villagers also say that the streams on the hilltops of Potin are beginning to dry up. This, most likely, is caused by the seepage due to the 10 km tunnel that runs underneath their village.
Asked if the tunnel has caused any damages to their homes, Tana says, “Since we are poor we have not been able to build big houses, so the damages too have been minimal”.

One year on, closure on Tawang’s tragedy remains 

A year since the death of two men in the police firing in Tawang, a complete disclosure of events remains elusive. 

On May 2, 2016, protestors seeking the release of Lobsang Gyatso, a Buddhist monk and vocal opponent of large dams in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang district, had gathered outside the police station where he was being held on charges of allegedly defaming the abbot of the 336-year old Tawang Monastery. 

A memorial that was built at the gates of the Tawang Monastery to remember the two killed in the police firing.

After learning that Gyatso’s bail appeal was turned down, the crowd got engaged in a scuffle broke with police and security personnel. During the scuffle, security forces fired shots which injured several people and claimed the lives of Nyima Wangdi (a young monk) and Tsering Tempa. 

The events of that day had left everyone shocked. Tawang, after all, is known more as a peaceful town and such a thing was rather unexpected. Following the deaths, the government did its best to pacify the situation by awarding ex-gratia payments to the family of the deceased and giving jobs to next of kin. It also paid for the medical expenses of the injured (although some feel that the amount paid does not cover all costs). One person, Tenzin Wangdi, who miraculously survived after a bullet was lodged in his head is reportedly suffering from trauma and has trouble sleeping. 

Recently, the Supreme Court sought responses from the Centre and the state government on a plea seeking an independent probe. While the state government had set up two inquiries to investigate the matter, only the report by the Jang ADC has been submitted while the state-level report that was to be prepared by current PWD commissioner, Hage Khoda, has not been submitted. 

After the incident, the government suspended Tawang district superintendent of police, Anto Alphonse (who has since been reinstated), and officer-in-charge of the Tawang police station, Lham Dhondup. 

Currently, seven security personnel are serving suspension including three Indian Reserve Battalion men and four from the Arunachal Pradesh Police. Sources also say that the West Kameng deputy superintendent of police is conducting the investigation. 

The ADC’s report has several varying accounts of the day as recorded by eyewitnesses and police. 

The report cites the police report which states that “after proper warnings, use of force was done by restrained firing. The firing was resorted to, as police force was very limited at the police station. Since the police station location is at hilly terrain, the injuries were at different parts of the body of the injured persons”. 

However, eyewitnesses cited in the ADC’s report maintain that it was after the police resorted to lathi-charge and firing that stones were pelted. 

The report also states that “the firing order was given verbally by the magistrate RD Thungon, EAC. It is further stated in the police report that the duty magistrate, RD Thungon, refused to give the firing order in writing after the incident”. 

However, Thungon said that “he did not know who opened the fire and also did not know who had ordered to open fire”. 

There are also some findings that shed more doubt than light on the events of the day. 

“The SP, Tawang’s report further states that the statement of the Platoon Commander SI Tage Tath of 3rd IRBN was contradictory in many ways as he stated in his statement before the SP, Tawang that as per the instructions of the SP he ordered that all their weapons be kept under lock in the district KOTE itself. This was done to avoid reckless handling of weapons by the IRBN personnel during the law and order problem. After the firing incident, despite of clear order from the SP, Tawang the Platoon Commander, 3rd IRBN failed to furnish individual count of missing or fired ammunitions from each of the police personnel deployed under him on that day,” the report states. 

The report also carries allegations of alarming behaviour by security personnel. 

EAC Lobsang Tsetan states that he had tried to stop one constable from firing at a civilian when “an IRBN sub-inspector, who was the platoon commander, intervened and asked the jawan to shoot at the deponent i.e. the magistrate instead”. 

The ADC’s report in its findings states that “the weapons were collected by 3rd IRBn personnel and civil police personnel in presence of the SP, Tawang”. 

It also states that “police personnel resorted to blank firing in a very reckless manner and without proper supervision and directions from any senior police officials” and that the firing was “completely reckless and indiscriminate”. 

The report also, however, partly holds the protestors responsible as well, stating “if the crowd had respected the rule of law, the unfortunate incident could have been avoided”. 

It also recommended that a thorough investigation should be made into the matter by an independent agency. 

Arunachal: Between the Dragon and the Elephant

Asserting that Arunachal Pradesh is very much a part of India and not China, the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU) on Monday staged rallies in the capital Itanagar and Tawang near the international border to protest against the Chinese government’s ‘renaming’ of six places in the state.

Last week, China’s civil affairs ministry had issued a notification changing the names of six places in the state (giving them a more Sinicized touch), saying it had a “lawful right” to do so since those areas were part of what it calls South Tibet. The move is being seen as retaliation to India ‘allowing’ Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama to visit the state earlier this month.

Since then, the rhetoric from China has grown steadily, even warning that India will ‘pay’ for its actions. The latest move of renaming six places though has angered many in Arunachal Pradesh. None more so than the students’ union, whose members even took to burning an effigy of Chinese Premier Xi Jinping.

Monday’s protests, however, are symbolic of a greater characteristic that is unique in the region where emotions are driven more by ethnic identities rather than the idea of being Indian.

AAPSU members burn Chinese Premier Xi Jinping’s effigy.

Many people in Arunachal Pradesh proudly state that the citizens here are more patriotic than anywhere else in the country. A popular anecdote often repeated here is that people in the state greet each other with a ‘Jai Hind’ which is proof of their patriotism (although it’s unclear how much of its usage actually stems from a sense of patriotism rather than anything else).

Dr Nani Bath of the Rajiv Gandhi University here and a prominent political commentator feels there are several factors that have contributed to this sense of ‘Indianess’ among the people here.

“We are trained by the successive governments,” he said, calling it a deliberate policy.

“First, Nehru tried to win hearts of tribal leaders by taking them to visit places like Delhi and Kolkata, then Assamese was replaced with Hindi as the language of formal education in schools with teachers from UP and Bihar posted here and the creation of SSB for anti-China propaganda,” said Bath.

Journalist Azing Pertin expands on the idea of patriotism stating that “before the concept of nationhood emerged among us, we tribal people found ourselves already in the Indian Union. As such we have accepted and lived with it. The talk of South Tibet and China claiming Arunachal is a bogey and false since the majority of tribals of the state were independent of the Tibetan kingdom and had their own tribal council systems which governed them”.

Others such as former general secretary of North East Students’ Organization, Gumjum Haider, who made the jump to electoral politics in 2014, said that other factors too have influenced people.

“A lack of exposure and a lack of self-retrospection make our people not realise their self-worth. Arunachalis are very naive and they can be manipulated easily,” he said.

However, he is firm that whether it is “India, North Korea, China, America or Cuba, nobody has right to alter our names” and that “that should be very clear to all”.

AAPSU general secretary, Tobom Dai, is more pragmatic in his approach.

“You never know about the Dragon. At least we are enjoying all democratic rights here in this country,” Dai said, adding that “we have never seen China or for that matter experienced its governance. So it will be like trudging into an unknown realm. In this context, for me, patriotism is by choice”.

Dai’s statement is somewhat reflective of the state of affairs here unlike in Manipur, Nagaland, Assam and even Jammu & Kashmir where separatist groups are well and active.

“The history of the Nagas, Meiteis, Kashmiris are different from us.  An Arunachali identity is not possible as we belong to different ethnic communities,” Bath feels. And indeed he is correct.

The state is home to at least over 20 major tribes and an even larger number of sub-tribes. Since the tribes have their own unique customs and languages, the lingua franca here is Hindi (or at least a form of Hindi with influences from Assamese, Nepali, Bhojpuri, and Bengali).

Haider said that “Hindi and Bollywood have penetrated so much in our minds but we are not doing anything to safeguard or to promote local languages”.

Dai also agrees that safeguards need to be placed and that “AAPSU should start a process whereby the defective statehood act can be rectified” in order to give the state and its people complete rights over the land and resources as is the case with Nagaland and Article 371 (A) of the Constitution.

As for Monday’s rallies, there were some mixed feelings.

While Dai understandably called it a success “in spite of heavy rains”, the turnout itself was lower than expected, most likely due to sudden rains and examinations that are on.

Pertin said that “youths and students voicing their angst against the non-stop Chinese interference is an issue which needs to be dealt with seriously. Students taking out the rallies reflect the common and popular opinion against Chinese disturbances”.

Although he could not be part of the rally at Itanagar, Haider said that “we should not aim (our stance) at China alone” and that the people of the state must “assert our indigenous rights to both countries”. A sound statement considering the fact that while the Chinese may have given their own names to places in the state, the name ‘Arunachal Pradesh’ itself has no resonance with any of the indigenous tribes here.

Another view was offered by current NESO co-ordinator, Pritam Sonam, who said that “it’s not necessary that time and again we should show our patriotism and tell the world that we are Indian”.

Taking to social media, Sonam said that “we are Indian by origins and by birth but let’s ask the fellow mainland Indians if they know about Arunachal or even they consider us as fellow Indians”.

All photos by Damien Lepcha.

Lax policies cause of concern for conservation

For over a decade, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been working with communities in West Kameng and Tawang districts of Arunachal Pradesh to preserve forest resources and make them self-reliant. While considerable amount of success has been achieved, without proper policies in place, successes will mean little in the long-run. 

WWF-India began its work in Thembang in West Kameng in 2004 with the introduction of Community Conserved Areas (CCA) which comprises of a village-level management committee that is given the responsibility to conserve natural resources and address local livelihood means. 

Among its goals is to engage villagers in collective dialogue and decision-making relating to conserving natural resources found in the forests of the area including wildlife. After their initial success, the WWF replicated its model in Zemithang in neighbouring Tawang district in 2007. 

Zemithang has an important role to play in conservation as it is one of the two remaining wintering sites of the black-necked crane in the state- the other being Sangti Valley. Earlier, the birds were reported to have been sighted at Ziro Valley in Lower Subansiri district too but have since stopped coming after a few of them died when they got entangled in electrical wires. 

The riverbed of Nyamjang Chhu that is the wintering site of the black-necked crane.

Kamal Medhi, the Western Arunachal Landscape co-ordinator for the WWF who has been working in the region for years, informed that there were 21 sightings of the birds from last November to March this year- a significant improvement from the past. 

The WWF’s work has also led to increased awareness amongst the people, Medhi said, and that people these days inform the WWF officials whenever they see the birds which come to the dry riverbed of the Nyamjang Chhu. The birds are of special importance to the Buddhist Monpa tribe who consider the black-necked crane sacred. 

And while game hunting in the area has never been a major issue, Medhi informed that the musk deer, called laa-va locally, is hunted for its bile which is used extensively in Chinese traditional medicine. Reportedly, the animal is hunted and its bile extracted before making its way to China through Nepal. 

Medhi said that the hunting of the deer is not an issue amongst the seven villages in the Zemithang area that are part of the WWF’s CCA but that there is a threat from villages outside of the area. 

“Villages in Zemithang have served notices to the other offending villages to curb the problem,” he said. 

There are also economic benefits that villagers are slowly beginning to witness from conserving forest resources. 

Recently, the Pangchen CCA Management Committee (comprising of Lakhar, Lumpo and Muchat villages) began manufacturing incense sticks that are used extensively by most Buddhist tribes of the state. It’s an initiative that could become an alternative to a widely used product that is currently brought in from the North Bengal area. 

Other challenges however, remain. 

The WWF currently has 1,200 square km of land under the CCA model including villages in Thembang, Zemithang and Manlaphu (which was inducted last year). But that figure is relatively small compared to the work that needs to be done. 

“We are saving a small portion of forests through the CCA model,” Medhi informed and that around 30,000 square km of land is still officially designated as Unclassed State Forests. 

“The government should come up with policies to give the management of forests to the local communities, whether in the form of CCAs or any other model,” he said. 

Aside from the lack of a clear policy on the tribal people’s rights and use of forest resources, at the policy level the issue gets more complicated due to the region’s proximity to the sensitive international border it shares with China. 

Foreigners are not permitted to enter Zemithang, even with special permits, which can affect the tourism of the area. 

Although homestays have sprung up, the place has been unable to attract foreign tourists due to travel restrictions. Recently, a group of environment enthusiasts from Bhutan who had wanted to visit the area for the black-necked crane were given a hard time due to the existing laws. 

Ironic, considering that traders and pilgrims who belong to the same Monpa community but live across the border in Bhutan regularly venture into the region with ease, as theIndian armed forces personnel are not aware of the subtle differences in the traditional attires of the cousin communities. 

12 years a wait

A colourfully dressed man wearing an intricate mask is brought near a large flaming altar. Two men guide him with a tightly-wound cloth around his neck. He kicks his legs up in the air, jumps about and quickly collapses to the ground before the cloth around his neck is loosened and he is quickly rushed inside the monastery.

At around a height of 100 feet, the Chorten is an intimidating structure to say the least.

Every twelve years, the gates of the Gorsem Chorten, a large stupa in Gorsem village near Zemithang, around 90 km from Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, are opened to the public who can pay their respects to the scriptures and statues kept inside the centuries-old structure. While pilgrims and followers make rounds (kora) of the stupa on a regular basis, it is only every twelve years that the people are actually allowed inside it. This year a special four-day mela was held from March 25 to 28 to mark the event.

Considered a major religious site, no written records about its origins exist now. Legend has it that the stupa or chorten was built at around the 12th century by a monk from the area called Lama Pradhar. Monks and locals said that the stupa was built after Lama Pradhar visited Nepal and saw the Swayambhu stupa. Realising that for most people from the Mon region of the state it would be an immensely difficult task to walk across to Kathmandu Valley to make the pilgrimage, Lama Pradhar decided that a replica should be built at its present site. Here is where the story becomes somewhat apocryphal.

According to monks and people from Tawang to Zemithang, and indeed the popular version of how things unfolded, is that the monk made a scaled model of the stupa in Nepal by carving out a radish. Unfortunately, that radish became somewhat shrivelled on its journey and hence the slight variations in the size of the replica from that of the original!

The stupa in Gorsem also makes up the trinity of similar stupas in Nepal and Bhutan.

The oracle draws the excitement of the people as much as he draws their curiosity.

Legends and stories aside, the stupa is definitely an impressive and imposing structure. With a large white base, topped off with a golden top, the chorten stands around 100 feet tall.

An important event, made evident by the sea of believers that had gathered to gain a glimpse of the inside of the structure, the reason why it opens only once every twelve years depends on who you ask.

While some said that it was in the Year of the Rooster as per the Tibetan calendar (which has twelve cycles) that the chorten was completed and hence it’s opened on the same astrological year (such as 2017), there was another reason that was offered.

Apparently, the chorten gates (at the top of the structure) were earlier opened regularly. However, frequent thefts of the relics and valuable statues led to their closure and formulation of the twelve-year rule. For the faithful though, the reasons matter little. Thousands upon thousands converged in the small village just kilometres from the Chinese border to climb the top of the chorten to get a 20-second glimpse of the statues and scriptures.

The event also presents a business opportunity.

Reportedly, Monpa pilgrims belonging to the same tribe as their Indian cousins turned up from neighbouring Bhutan too, although technically the area is off-limits to foreigners.

While pilgrims come to conduct the kora (circling of the structure) and see the inside of the chorten, an important part of the last day is the forecast ceremony that is held towards the end and before the sermon and blessings given by Thegtse Rinpoche of the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism.

A young monk explained to us that the colourfully-dressed masked man happens to be a government official from Bomdila in West Kameng district who acts as an oracle and is able to see the future. People believe that once the oracle is possessed by the spirit of Nyari Gachen (sic), he is able to speak and write in the Tibetan language, thereby able to make predictions about the area and/or reveal important information for the prosperity of the people. The prediction however, is revealed only to the Rinpoche.

Zemithang is a small administrative circle at an elevation of over 7,000 feet. Much like throughout Tawang district, it is home to the Buddhist Monpa people. Its religious importance aside, Zemithang is also one of the only two remaining wintering sites of the vulnerable black-necked crane in the state. The birds are safe for now after the National Green Tribunal last year suspended the Union environment ministry’s clearance granted to the 780 Nyamjang Chhu project in 2012.   

During such present times when much of the region is trying to balance the demand for modern development with that of the need to preserve the environment, one can only hope that the oracle had good news to share.

Dissecting the Dalai’s visit

On April 5, the fourteenth Dalai Lama will address a large crowd of Buddhists at the Yidiga Choedzin in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang town. While thousands of Buddhist Monpas are eagerly waiting to see their spiritual leader speak, a man considered a living god, not everyone in Arunachal Pradesh is enthusiastic about his visit.

The Dalai Lama first came to the state in 1959 when he escaped from the Potala Palace in Tibet’s capital Lhasa, entering Tawang and passing through several places before eventually setting up camp in Dharmsala where the Tibetan government in-exile operates out of. Since then, he has visited the state seven times. Given the People’s Republic of China’s position on Arunachal Pradesh and it’s equation with the Dalai Lama, it’s hardly surprising that the Chinese government does not take too kindly to his visits to the state.

Ever since his visit was announced, Chinese officials have repeatedly raised objections stating that the state is disputed territory and that the Dalai Lama’s repeated visits further complicate matters. The Chinese officials seem to have found support to their argument from the unlikeliest of sources- a section of people from Arunachal Pradesh.

Since the turn of the last century, the Chinese have maintained that Tibet is part of China and that a large part of present-day Arunachal Pradesh (which it calls South Tibet) was under Lhasa’s control, ergo making over 80,000 square kilometres of the state a part of China. In 1962, border disputes escalated to such heights that the People’s Liberation Army forces marched deep inside Arunachal Pradesh before unilaterally retreating. Since then, border skirmishes and encroachments have been frequently reported and the Chinese continue to maintain that the region is disputed. Although India has also asserted its stand and found support from the people of the state, who happen to be zealously patriotic, some here agree with the Chinese that the Dalai Lama’s visits rough up an already rocky relationship between the two countries.

Dr Nani Bath, a professor at the Rajiv Gandhi University and a prominent political commentator feels that the Dalai Lama’s visits to the state are counter-productive to relations between the two countries and as such his visits should be halted.

“We must be aware of collateral damages arising out of his visits,” he says.

Former secretary of the North East Students Organization, Gumjum Haider, also says that the Dalai Lama is “a reason of irritation between the two nations” and that if “his visit does not yield any development, any benefit to the people” then it should be stopped.

Another voice of opposition to his visits is Arunachal Civil Society chairman Patey Tayum who is even planning to hold an event reasoning why the Dalai Lama should not come here.

Vocal apprehensions to the Dalai Lama’s visits however, have come from non-Buddhists only so far.

Lama Yeshi, a stocky monk at the GRL Monastery in Bomdila (where the Dalai Lama will speak) nonchalantly reacts to questions of such views by saying that “bolne wala bolte rahega (those who have to say will say anything)”. His statement is in line with what one young entrepreneur from Bomdila says is characteristic of Monpas and Buddhists.

“Our people don’t really like making political statements,” he says.

However, there is one Buddhist who breaks the mould.

Lama Lobsang Gyatso, a monk from the area who shot to limelight for his stance against large hydropower projects in the region thinks there are two reasons for inviting the Dalai Lama.

“One, inviting him gives India an opportunity to show its supremacy. Second, to bring peace and tranquillity after last year’s incident,” he says.

On April 28, Gyatso was arrested on charges of allegedly defaming the abbot of the 336-year old Tawang Monastery, also known as the Galden Namgey Lhatse- celestial paradise in a clear night. A few days later on May 2, Gyatso was to attend court for a bail hearing. His supporters, mostly fellow monks and nuns, had begun gathering outside the police station where he was held. When his bail plea was turned down, the police took him inside the station again, this time from a different entrance. This agitated the protestors, and as per some claims, began pelting stones at the police station. In reaction, the police and men of the Indian Reserve Battalion began firing their guns in an attempt to disperse the crowd which resulted in the death of two young men.

Gyatso says that the Dalai Lama is revered by the people in Tawang and if he appeals for peace, people will listen. As for whether the Dalai Lama should visit or not, he is clear that there is no reason he shouldn’t.

“Our poor and the elderly cannot go out to see him. He should come,” he says.

Religious considerations aside, the Dalai Lama’s visits are more about international diplomacy.

“His visits actually stake claim metaphorically to the land as ours. It’s a refined way of asserting rather than hold placards and shout ourselves hoarse. It’s like saying this is our land, we will do what we want and call who we call,” is one view.

One observer says that “the thing with disputed issues/land/claims/property/ideas is that if one doesn’t reiterate them once in a while, people take that as a sign of the other giving up”.

Even Bath notes that the Dalai Lama “is being used by the government of India against China. As such, its motive is not to let the people see him but to counter dragon’s moves”.

Recently, the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union has said that the Chinese have no right in interfering in this matter.

It said that China’s comments on the Dalai Lama’s visit are “nonsensical” and that it should refrain from India’s internal matters. Incidentally, it also said that the stapled visas that are issued to citizens from the state by the Chinese government should be accepted as valid, thereby allowing people to travel to China.

In the past, many sportspersons and bureaucrats were either not given visas by Chinese embassies or issued stapled visas which Indian authorities do not accept.

—   

The weight of expectations and how Irom Sharmila lost the election 

This past Saturday when news began pouring in that anti-AFSPA activist Irom Sharmila Chanu was staring down a massive defeat in her debut election, shocked reactions from across the country began pouring in. By the time the votes had been counted, the fact that she managed to secure only 90 votes elicited the kind of social media response typical of those unaware of the political scenario of the Northeast. However, hardly anyone in her home state of Manipur was surprised by the outcome.

Last year in August, Sharmila, who had been demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), broke her nearly 16-year long fast to contest the legislative assembly polls after forming the Peoples Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA). While her decision to quit her fast and enter electoral politics was met with criticism from many quarters, she and her party believed that they could make a mark on the state’s political landscape. Unfortunately, not many voters felt the same way.

While the PRJA had fielded only three candidates, including Sharmila, it did it best to fend off predictions of a massive loss. Its co-convenor, Erendro Leichombam, who contested from the Thangmeiband constituency and managed to secure only 573 votes, had earlier said he was confident that all three of its candidates would “win by a huge margin”. 

While the PRJA and Sharmila’s first tryst with politics was admired by some, most people in Manipur knew that the outcome of the election would play out unfavourably for them.

“That (election result) was not at all shocking for us,” says one rights activist from the capital Imphal, and resonates what many feel led to the debacle of the party that hoped to buck the trend and make AFSPA an election issue when adding that “PRJA is unfortunately very disconnected with the reality of electoral politics”.

The common narrative attempting to explain the massive defeat of the party’s star candidate and a global icon is that elections in Manipur are not fought on the plank of repealing AFSPA or conflict or militarisation. Most people care about employment and “which candidate can help them get jobs and facilities”. 

In a state where the unemployment rate is higher than the national average, this is an important issue in the minds of voters. Nowhere was this more evident than in Thoubal constituency where Sharmila took on the incumbent chief minister, Okram Ibobi Singh.

Ibobi Singh is a veteran who had successfully fought from the constituency thrice in the past and ruled the state for 15 years. So sure was he of his victory that never once did he publicly scoff Sharmila’s foray into politics and welcomed her move. His confidence perhaps stemmed from the fact that he has “provided jobs” to almost every family in the constituency during his tenure. 

Some also feel that Singh had successfully managed to steer the conversation towards Manipur’s “territorial integrity” amongst the dominant Meitei population living primarily in the Imphal Valley which frequently faces paralyzing economic blockades whenever there is a show of anger against the government in the surrounding hill districts.   

Perhaps one of the biggest blows that Sharmila was hit with was the anger and disappointment from other anti-AFSPA activists including the mothers who had staged a naked protest in 2004 against the alleged rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama by Assam Rifles personnel. Many of her long-time supporters felt and advised her against entering politics. Her decision to take a new route caused her to lose the support of an important and influential demographic group. 

Apart from her decision to enter politics, her relationship with Desmond Coutinho has been a bone of contention amongst some of her supporters and other activists. Coutinho’s had an uneasy relationship with Sharmila’s supporters and others in Manipur, to put it lightly.

Reportedly, in 2011 when Coutinho first visited Manipur after staying in touch with Sharmila through letters, he was initially not allowed visit by other activists. And after two days when he was finally allowed to meet her, his reported insistence on sitting with Sharmila at the meira shang (women’s shelter) where the influential Meira Paibis (Women Torchbearers) had gathered, caused much anger. What didn’t help further is that he has been critical of many of those in Manipur who have supported Sharmila’s fight including activists and local journalists. Recently, Sharmila issued a statement apologizing for Coutinho’s use of foul language against some of those who had stood with her during her fast and continue to do so. 

Her private matters aside, Sharmila has since said she will quit politics for good but will continue to fight AFSPA and extend her support to PRJA. She has also said that she looks forward to get married to Coutinho and has plans to go to an ashram for some time before taking the next step. 

Just a day after the results were declared, and as people outside of Manipur continued to express their shock over Sharmila’s defeat, Manipur itself was more preoccupied with talks of government formation. 

By Monday evening, the Congress’ Ibobi Singh had resigned as chief minister to pave way for the BJP’s Nongthombam Biren Singh. Although the Congress emerged as the single largest party with 28 MLAs in the 60-member house, the BJP with its 21 MLAs managed to reach the majority with the support of the National People’s Party and the Naga People’s Front which has four MLAs each, Congress MLA T Shyamkumar, Trinamool Congress’ T Robindro and independent MLA Ashad Uddin.  

Meanwhile, Irom Chanu Sharmila, called by many names including the Iron Lady of Manipur and Mengoubi (the fair one), may ride off into the sunset as a forgotten figure like she did on her cycle during her campaign days.

The price of idealism

Over the last few days, our social media feed and news outlets have been preoccupied with the controversy arising out of 20-year old Gurmehar Kaur’s picture where she is seen holding up a placard that reads, “I am a student from Delhi University. I am not afraid of ABVP. I am not alone. Every student of India is with me. #StudentsAgainstABVP”.

the-beginnings

The beginnings.

This was in reaction to the recent clashes between members of the RSS affiliated, ABVP, and another set of students in Delhi University’s Ramjas College in North Campus last week. While this post attracted attention towards her, what really shone the spotlight on her was a video that was made last year where she is seen holding placards endorsing peace between India and Pakistan. What drew the ire of many was one particular placard which read: Pakistan did not kill my dad, war killed him.

the-placard-that-brought-a-storm

The placard that brought a storm.

This placard is one among the many she holds up during the 4.23-minute video where we learn about her own prejudices and how her mother helped her overcome them.

Due to the uneasy relations between India and Pakistan, many people took to social media to blast her, accusing her of disrespecting her father, Captain Mandeep Singh, who died in the Kargil War. Some even went on to mock/imitate the video including former Indian cricketing great Virender Sehwag who posted a picture with a placard saying: I didn’t score two triple centuries, my bat did.

Others such as Arunachal West MP and Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju weighed in on the matter asking: Who’s polluting this young girl’s mind?

In all of this there have been many opinions that have been voiced by people across various spectra. Predictably, those in the right have slammed her while some have even said that Rijiju’s statement is sexist; that he made the statement because Kaur is a woman and such questions arise out of ingrained misogyny that propagates the idea that a woman is incapable of independent thought. I would like to address this quickly before moving on to a larger issue.

I personally disagree that the minister made that remark because Kaur is a woman. Considering his recent form over the past year from saying that people in the country have developed a habit of questioning everything (as if that’s somehow wrong) to his recent conversion comments, it was only expected that he would say what he did. In fact, I would have been surprised if he hadn’t made such a statement. I personally believe that he would have made a sweeping statement like that even if it was a man who had said it.

Now, moving on to the subject of how people have reacted to that placard. The entire issue exists because people are shaped by their experiences, what they consume from the media and often by jumping into conclusions without seeing the bigger picture.

Amongst the many who have slammed her, there may be some who are themselves relatives of war veterans and martyrs and therefore feel a sense of betrayal when they see someone, who in any other circumstance would have been considered one of their own, disregarding the memory of the slain.

To those people, I respect and empathise with your loss but must admit that I will never truly understand the loss you have suffered. It is in the same manner that I will not understand how Kaur can take the stand she has. I suppose different people react differently to the same situation. But it isn’t as if she did not harbour hate too.

If one watches the video in its entirety, you will see that she admits that as a child she hated Muslims because she thought all Muslims were Pakistanis- the subject of her hate- and who she blamed for her father’s death. She also once tried to stab a burkha-clad woman when she was six years old “because for some strange reason” she thought the woman was responsible for her growing up without a father. It was at that moment when her mother explained to her that Pakistan did not kill her father, war did.

Any sensible person with an iota of common sense who can think logically should be able to deduce that her message here is to tell people to resist war instead of going to war. For millions of Indians,  Pakistan may be the enemy but why is that? Is it not because we see them as such and they see us as enemies too? Will the world be a worse or a better place if relations between the two countries improved?

I ask these questions not disregarding the realpolitik of our current world but from Kaur’s perspective as someone who has suffered the loss of a parent and realises that soldiers across the globe follow orders given by people living miles away from the real danger of bullets and those who are more concerned with ballots.

Unfortunately, so many of us are unable to see beyond the immediate and the now. We see one image, fixate upon it and form our opinions from it. Voicing a world-view is not wrong; threatening rape is.

To all those criticising her and questioning her patriotism, I ask, what is so wrong with wanting peace? Is it so wrong to want better relations with our neighbours and expect the same from everyone? Wouldn’t the world actually be a better place if we lived in a world without wars? Is it a fallacy to believe in such an ideal world? Perhaps, so. But just because we do not live in an ideal world does not mean we should not strive towards one.

Then again, my idea of an ideal world will differ from yours. At least let’s talk about it.

PS: As for Virender Sehwag and actor Randeep Hooda’s comments- their juvenile behaviour is not even worth talking about.

Tradition, gender equality, politics: A cacophony of voices from Nagaland

Two deaths, arson, bandhs and disruption of communication lines: these are some of the impacts of the current chaos that has gripped Nagaland for over a week now.

Protests in Nagaland were triggered after the state government announced polls for Urban Local Bodies (ULB) in December last year with a provision to reserve 33 percent of seats for women.

Various Nagaland-based groups, including ‘apex’ bodies of the tribes called the Hohos, have opposed the government’s move to reserve seats for women, calling it an infringement upon Naga traditions and customs as protected under Article 371A of the Constitution.

On the other side are the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA) and Joint Action Committee for Women’s Reservation (JACWR) which have pursued the need for laws to establish greater women’s participation in electoral politics in the state. For the record, Nagaland has never had a women MLA since it became a full-fledged state in December 1963 and has had one woman Lok Sabha MP, Rano Shaiza, back in the seventies.

The situation took a turn for the worst when on February 1 two men died in police firing in Nagaland’s commercial capital Dimapur following protests over the state government’s decision to go ahead with the polls in 12 of the 32 ULBs despite assurance given to the protesting groups, that had come under the banner of the Joint Coordination Committee, earlier on January 30 that polls would be postponed. The two men later had died after allegedly being shot at a protest the night before when people marched towards Chief Minister TR Zeliang’s private residence in Dimapur.

It should be noted that on the day of the agreement being signed, a PIL was filed in the Gauhati High Court against “extra-constitutional bodies opposed to the election”. The court had ordered the state government to go ahead with the polls.

Matters did not stop there, however, as groups of people set fire to the Kohima Municipal Council building on February 2. For the past week, life has been going at a slow pace following bandhs in large parts of the state demanding the resignation of Zeliang and his cabinet. Government vehicles are not allowed to ply and government offices have remained shut but businesses are slowly beginning to open up as people try to get on with their normal routines. The latest update following a meeting on Tuesday is that Zeliang alone should resign within 72 hours starting February 8. Within this pool of protests and debates, several narratives have been thrown up.

Protesting groups claim that they are not against the participation of women in electoral politics and that they are free to do so. In fact, even though no woman has ever been elected to the sixty-member Legislative Assembly, they have unsuccessfully contested in the past. Even in the now cancelled ULB polls, there were women candidates in the fray.

Those for the reservation have continually argued that in Naga tribal societies where men make all the decisions, it is necessary that women should be provided an equitable footing to take part in the electoral process and not merely be reduced to voters but representatives as well.

Newspapers in Nagaland these days are filled with opinions and editorial pieces that seek to address the issue. While there are the opposing groups who say that the reservation is ultra-constitutional and infringes upon the rights of Naga tribes, on the other hand are those who argue that such opposition is driven by male insecurity and chauvinism.

The fact that people have not once elected a woman to the Assembly, some feel, speaks volumes about Nagaland’s covert gender biases.

While it is often argued that it is to protect the “religious or social practices of the Nagas” and “Naga customary law and procedure” as enshrined in Article 371(A) that are the primary motives for leading the opposition to women’s reservation, an unspoken motive is also the fear that it would lead to opening of floodgates to bring more changes to the Article that ‘protects’ Nagaland.

The fourth provision in Article 371A(1)(a) in the Constitution states that “no Act of Parliament in respect of ownership and transfer of land and its resources, shall apply to the State of Nagaland unless the Legislative Assembly of Nagaland by a resolution so decides”. It is this provision that those seeking reservation for women feel that has most men in Nagaland afraid.

Since women in Nagaland cannot inherit ancestral property- abiding by tribal customs- the argument is that men are afraid that any law that is a contradiction to the Article can also trigger calls for further changes in the provision, including inheritance laws. On the other side, some fear that even larger changes could be brought to the part that gives Nagas complete ownership of their land

On the other side, some fear that even larger changes could be brought to the part that gives Nagas complete ownership of their land and resources. This argument must be seen in the backdrop of the fact that parts of Nagaland have large reserves of untapped crude oil which are being currently explored. The provision in the Article ensures that how resources in the state are used lies in the hands of the state and not the Centre. 

A similar provision also exists in Article 371G which states that Mizoram’s laws relating to ownership and transfer of land will be in accordance with tribal customary laws but does not speak of the state’s resources. 

In fact, in Arunachal Pradesh too a similar provision also exists in Article 371G which states that Mizoram’s laws relating to ownership and transfer of land will be in accordance with tribal customary laws but does not speak of the state’s resources.

In fact, in Arunachal Pradesh too, there have been calls of late to bring in a similar provision such as that in Nagaland which ‘protect’ the state’s resources for its tribal population.

On top of these narratives is also one that explores the political angle behind the controversy.

On Tuesday, the chief minister is said to have told reporters that the fact that protests have continued despite the government having declared elections held in some towns as null and void mean that some organisations are being misused for political purposes. He continues to refuse to step down.

In 2014, former chief minister Neiphiu Rio won the lone Lok Sabha seat on the Naga People’s Party ticket. However, after being denied a cabinet berth in the Centre, it was reported that he wanted to return as chief minister that led to fissures in the party that he previously presided over. Then, last year he was suspended from his own party.

The NPF’s youth wing earlier also accused Rio of masterminding the current chaos which he claimed as “totally false” allegations.

Rio openly came out in criticism against the government’s handling of the issue, stating that Naga society is not against reservations for women but that people are unhappy over the manner in which the move seeks to override Article 371A by invoking Article 243T that provides for women’s reservations.

This is of course, not the first time that the there have been oppositions to reservations for women in polls.  Protests against reservation have been in place since 2006 when the Nagaland Municipal (First Amendment) Act was enacted. A decade later, differing views continue to divide a state.

A version of this article first appeared in The Citizen.