Rewriting records and retelling history

A massive carnival concluded recently at Gujarat, seemingly to celebrate the ‘ancient’ link between mainland India and the country’s mostly-neglected Northeast region (a term that is more reflective of a region rather than a single cultural unit).

On March 25, on Ram Navami, the annual Madhavpur Mela kicked-off at Madhavpur (Ghed) in Gujarat’s Porbandar district and lasted till March 28. What caught most people’s attention, thanks partly due to the unending tweets by Arunachal West Lok Sabha MP and Union minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju, was that this year’s fair would ‘re-enact’ the ‘heroic kidnapping’ of princess Rukmini by Lord Krishna. While plays depicting legends and myths are a regular fare at religious carnivals, what made this year different is the ‘revelation’ that princess Rukmini was a member of the Idu-Mishmi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh!

The ‘legend’ of Rukmini being a member of the said tribe has been propagated since around the 80s, thanks mostly through schools in the state that later even managed to make its way into the official information brochures of the state government’s tourism department.

While most sources state that Rukmini was the daughter of king Bhishmaka of Vidarbha (in present-day Maharashtra), a myth has persisted in Arunachal Pradesh that she was, in fact, an Idu-Mishmi, probably sporting the traditional bowl haircut that was prevalent amongst community members earlier.

Where did this myth originate? No one within the community is quite sure or willing to go on record. The basis of the myth, however, is the ruins of the Bhismaknagar Fort, located near the Arunachal-Assam inter-state boundary around 25 kilometres from the Lower Dibang Valley district headquarter of Roing.

Falling under the jurisdiction of the Guwahati circle of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the fort is believed to have been built by the Bhismaka dynasty of the Chutiya (pronounced Sutia) kingdom that had a stronghold in the Sadiya region of present-day Assam and the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh. The kingdom is said to have existed from around the 12th to the 16thcentury.

bhismaknagar

PC: Guwahati Circle of Archaeological Survey of India website.

D Dutta, deputy director of the state directorate of research (archaeology), said that the remains of the fort have not been carbon-dated and could date back to the 9th century. Archaeological evidence too, he said, suggests that there is no connection between the style of that found in the Arunachal Pradesh site to that of those in Vidarbha.

“Perhaps there was another king by the name of Bhismaka and perhaps his daughter’s name was also Rukmini,” Dutta said.

Ginko Linggi, president of the Idu-Mishmi Cultural and Literary Society, informed that he and his friends began hearing about the myth when they were in school in the eighties.

Linggi said that there are no records or mentions of such a myth as per the traditional oral history of the indigenous tribal community.

Like many others from and outside the community, Linggi said that proper scientific research is required before any conclusion can be made on the veracity of the myth. One of those was Vijay Swami.

Swami has been a long-time resident in Arunachal Pradesh, having previously worked with the Vivekananda Kendra Vidyalaya for 15 years and is now the executive director of the Roing-based Research Institute of World’s Ancient Traditions, Cultures & Heritage. More importantly, Swami acted as a liaison between the state government and organisers of the Madhavpur Mela and was in attendance at the carnival.

Having reached Guwahati from Gujarat, Swami informed that a team of 22 people, including 15 members of the cultural troupe, five tribal shamans called igu, and two community elders, had attended the event.

While admitting that the myth does not match the archaeological evidence (considering that Lord Krishna was supposed to have ‘left’ Earth somewhere around 3100 before current era (BCE) and that the fort ruins are from a much later period), Swami said that stories of the myth are a recent trend.  Detailed studies, he said, are required and that the fair is an attempt at ‘national integration’.

And therein lays the crux of the matter.

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Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu rocking a pagri (turban) at the fair.

Myth or fact, the idea of ‘re-enacting’ the ‘heroic kidnapping was clearly driven with the motive to promote ‘national integration’ which would help cement Northeast’s ‘ancient link’ with the rest of the country and thereby somehow defy China’s constant claims over much Arunachal Pradesh’s territory.

Arunachal Pradesh chief minister, Pema Khandu, is reported to have said that the fair is a way for people “in far-off frontiers will have a sense of belonging and relate to rest of the states”.

One news report quoted Khandu as such: We watch in news channels today that some other country is claiming some part of Northeast. But nobody can change the history and the ancient history says that Arunachal was not a separate state but entire Northeast was one. For centuries, we have been with India, mainland India. This is our strength.

As the mela concluded, a letter arrived from the ASI stating that the Bhismaknagar Fort is not demarcated and that the ASI does not have a revenue map of the site. The letter, erroneously addressed to the deputy commissioner of Dibang Valley district instead of Lower Dibang Valley which was created in 2001, sought “information regarding the demarcation of boundary, revenue map, and land records”. The letter further noted that it had “on many occasions earlier faced difficulties in taking up developmental works at the monument/sites” and directed the government to schedule a joint-inspection.

As myth and history were being inter-woven in Gujarat, the foundation on which the legend is based on suffers from a lack of attention.

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Women in Nagaland politics: A question of ‘mind-set’

‘Mind-set’, ‘change’, ‘society’, ‘hope’- these or some variation of these words are often repeated in Nagaland when discussions about the role of women in politics (or the lack of it) are held. With the stage set for the state legislative assembly elections scheduled for February 27, those words have begun resurfacing.

Come February 27, a total of 195 candidates will be hoping to secure a place in the 60-seat assembly. Amongst the 195 candidates, there are just five women who will be hoping that this time a woman will be voted into the state legislative assembly.

Home to 16 recognized tribes, the role of women in Nagaland’s political history can be difficult to understand viewing it from an outsider’s perspective. As in several tribal and indigenous communities in the Northeast, women in Naga society have a lot of freedom and are not systematically suppressed by men (or at least it’s not evident at first glance). However, freedom does not necessarily translate into rights, especially property rights where a father cannot pass on his ancestral land to a daughter. That is just how it has been for ages.

Another aspect of life in Nagaland where women seem to have little to say is in politics.

Ever since the first legislative assembly was formed in February 1964, no woman has ever been elected to the House. The only time a woman was elected to office was when Rano M Shaiza became a Lok Sabha MP back in 1977. Since the state’s creation in 1963, just 30 women have contested the state elections and never once managed to win.

This time around though, there is ‘hope’ among some.

Making up just a little over two percent of candidates going to poll, five from a pool of 195 hardly seems like a number to get excited about. And yet, there is an air of excitement, especially among women (unsurprisingly) that this time may be different from earlier years.

Rosemary Dzivuchu, advisor to the Naga Mothers’ Association, said, “we are following the five women candidates with great interest and hope to see women legislators this time”.

Dzivuchu, a vocal women’s rights activist, said that women contesting elections will make a difference, “more so because of being educated and sensitive to issues”.

Tasugntela Longkumer, the assistant manager of the Dimapur-based English language-daily, Nagaland Page, is also optimistic.

“Will Nagaland ever have a woman MLA? Definitely and hopefully by these elections,” she said when asked about the chances of seeing a woman inside the legislative assembly building in Kohima as an elected member.

Hope and optimism aside, why has success in electoral politics remained so elusive for women in Nagaland?

Awan Konyak

Awan Konyak is marking her debut in electoral politics following in the footsteps of her late father Nyiewang Konyak.

Dr Hewasa Lorin, vice-principal of Tetso College in Dimapur, said that people’s ‘mind-set’ needs to change if women are to ever think of being voted into power.

“Ours is a society where elders are always respected and so during village council meetings the voice of the elders overpower those of the younger ones,” she said during a conversation following an academic event at the college recently, adding that such is the norm that men’s voices end up suppressing those of the women’s. Like many others, Lorin also said that times are changing and is hopeful for the future.

Dzivuchu, who is hopeful too, said that women in Nagaland are “not treated at par” with men, clear from the fact that they are “not visible in decision-making bodies or tribe councils or, village councils”.

This, she said, is one of the main reasons no woman has ever won an assembly election and that they are “not given party tickets by political parties or discouraged” from contesting.

This election’s tally of five women candidates is an improvement from the last elections when only two women contested. They are: the BJP’s Rakhila; independent candidate, Rekha Rose Dukru; Awan Konyak of the Nationalist Democratic People’s Party and; the National People’s Party candidates Wedie-ü Kronu and Dr K Mangyangpula Chang.

Their candidacy has been widely reported in the state media since the nominations were cleared. But it still begs the question why there has never been a woman in the legislative assembly.

Rita Krocha, a Kohima-based writer, recently wrote that while a woman in Nagaland “may be allowed to pursue education, follow her dreams, to even marry the man of her choice, we all know with absolute certainty that when it comes to politics (or even the apex tribal organisations for that matter), a woman’s place is never, ever given, or considered with seriousness”.

She wrote that patriarchy is “deeply rooted” in Naga society and the low participation of women in politics is a “sheer reflection of this sad reality”.

Krocha’s take on deep-seated patriarchy within Naga society isn’t something a lot of men tend to agree with. The general discourse being that women in Nagaland are much more ‘free’ than their counterparts in ‘mainland’ India.

One incumbent MLA while appreciating the fact there are more women contesting this time around, said what is an oft-repeated line: that women in Nagaland are not suppressed.

“They run the home but the old thinking was that running the village council is a man’s job. Our forefathers did that but we are not following them blindly,” he said at his campaign office run out of his house.

“Our Naga women are very capable. We have deep-rooted customs and we feel for them,” he said, adding that women in Nagaland are “catching up” when it came to electoral politics. But here too, he is quick to add that they are not discriminated against and that men by nature are proud.

“Mind-set,” he said, “takes time to change”.

Wedie-ü Kronu

Wedie-ü Kronu made a name for herself as an activist and wants to see more women in enter politics.

While there are those who say that women are given same standing as men, not everyone agrees.

“The reality is that it’s a strong patriarchy deep inside,” said Dzivuchu, adding that “times and mind-set (there’s that word again) need to change with the rest of the world in terms of gender equity”.

One (male) journalist referenced last year’s violence that was allegedly triggered after the government’s decision to reserve 33 percent of seats for women in urban local bodies as an example of the patriarchal ‘mind-set’.

While activists such as Dzivuchu are blunt and direct in their criticism of patriarchy within society, the women in question take a more measured approach.

Awan Konyak, who is marking her début in electoral politics following in the footsteps of her late father Nyiewang Konyak, said that ‘change’ requires time.

“Nagaland is a state that is deeply defined by its traditional culture and roots and traditionally the role of village leader or elder was mostly held by men because in olden days it meant being responsible for the safety and security of the village and the people,” said the 38-year old.

Now though, she said, security comes “through economic stability, development, and accessibility to services”.

Konyak said that women in Nagaland do not have anything to prove to themselves and that “it’s now for the people to realise this paradigm shift and to embrace gender equality even in politics”.

For a functional democracy she said, women politicians “can and must be a part of the system to ensure that it is a healthy democracy where all sectors and genders of society have a voice”.

Wedie-ü Kronu, an activist associated with the Nagaland Public Rights Awareness and Action Forum contesting the Dimapur-III seat, chooses not want to blame anyone for the low participation of women in politics and is careful with her words.

“Women have been looked as housewives who should take care of the husband and children. Even those ‘lucky ones’ who are in government services are expected to do the same,” she said over the phone while taking out time from hectic campaigning.

Kronu said that not encouraging women to venture outside family matters has become a tradition and a way of life for women who never complained about it.

“These days the mind-set of our women has changed,” she said, using that keyword.

But does she blame men or society at large for the current state of affairs?

“No, no, no. It’s not about blaming society or tradition. Maybe somewhere, somehow we have not encouraged women to come out,” she quickly added.

While she is optimistic about her chances, Kronu said that even if it isn’t her who wins perhaps one of the other four will and that will be a start. She exercised caution here too though, and said that “it’s easier said than done”.

The five women candidates are, in a manner of speaking, creating a new path for themselves and the role of women in politics in Nagaland. However, they aren’t relying on their gender alone to win the elections. The greater common emphasis seems to be, for these women, on bringing change – change in gender equity or otherwise.


This article first appeared in The Citizen.

A day of Dickensian proportions

Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, juxtaposed the contradictory political ambience that engulfed 18th century Europe and opens with the famous lines, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and far removed from a divided Europe, no other lines could have better encapsulated the mood on Monday at the Arunachal Pradesh capital, Itanagar. And no two acts performed on the same day to mark the same event could have been more contradictory to each other as they were on Monday.

Monday marked a year since Pema Khandu officially took charge of the chief minister’s role. To celebrate his first 365 days in office, an official event was held at the State Banquet Hall at the Niti Vihar area, home to Arunachal Pradesh’s political elite, where a number of welfare schemes were launched for the benefit of citizens in the presence of sharply dressed ministers and bureaucrats.

A few kilometres downhill at the tennis courts premises of the Indira Gandhi Park, where no one seems to have played tennis for the past two decades and is the state’s designated protest site ala Jantar Mantar, another set of people were gathered to mark the same 365 days; albeit with a vastly different agenda.

Last year on August 9 when Kalikho Pul’s body was found hanging from the ceiling fan in one of the rooms of the chief minister’s bungalow-turned-guest house, people were outraged.

After a year of power-struggle and internal bickering, many felt that Pul was dropped like a hot potato by MLAs who had supported him earlier. That anger translated in a violent outburst as some people blamed a section of the MLAs for Pul’s suicide, claiming that they lifted him on a pedestal and pulled the rug from under his feet. The notes that Pul allegedly wrote and left behind- ‘Mere Vichaar’- certainly seem to suggest that he too felt the same way.

After the notes were made public, his family demanded a thorough investigation into the allegations that were levelled against top politicians and judges. A group of citizens even formed the eponymously-inspired ‘Mere Vichaar Andolan Committee’ (MVAC), to seemingly seek justice for Pul and his family. It was members from the MVAC who marked Monday as a ‘Black Day’.

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Dressed less formally than those in the Banquet Hall in blue denims, seated on bright green carpets laid on the floor of the tennis courts under the sweltering sun, the men and women gathered cried foul, condemned the day and sought Khandu’s resignation.

Large banners with letters in white font on black background read: Shame on the name who ruined states fame (sic). There were no portraits save for those of late Pul flanked by the MVAC’s logo on the top left and right corners of the banners, to remind people of the day the country’s youngest chief minister took his oath of office.

On the other hand, at the Banquet Hall, Khandu’s gleaming portraits were plastered all over. From promotional banners to standees to visual slides, this too was an event to remind people of the day the country’s youngest chief minister took his oath of office.

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Pema and Pema. (Courtesy: Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister’s Office)

While bulbs were lit to mark the launch of the UJALA scheme at the air-conditioned Banquet Hall, effigies of Khandu and other senior politicians were set fire to by the motley crew that made up the MVAC.

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Effigies of Khandu and other senior politicians were set fire during the ‘Black Day’ protests. (Courtesy: Damien Lepcha)

Whether these are mere coincidences or part of brilliant mind games is up for debate. The battle though began early Monday as was evident in some of the newspapers of the state. While the state government issued front half-page advertisements announcing the schemes that were launched, the MVAC issued full-page advertisements that carried Pul’s portrait merged against a black background calling 17 July 2016 a ‘Black Day’.

To paraphrase Dickens, for some 17 July 2016 is the spring of hope, for some it is the winter of despair.

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

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.

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.

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.

Buddha’s warriors: Monks take on the powerful

Standing at the entrance of the watch tower on the southern gate of the Tawang Monastery, Tashi Norbu, dressed in the traditional maroon-hued robe, explains how in the past one monk would stand guard and be on the lookout for Bhutanese or Mongolian forces while another would rest the barrel of the gun through a small opening on the wall, ready to fire at a moment’s notice. While the enemy is no longer foreign forces, the monks of the 336-year old monastery now face adversities of a different kind.
Ever since the events of May 2, the usually peaceful town of Tawang has been gripped by news of violence. Several monks from the historic Tibetan Buddhist monastery, second in size only to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, located in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang town in India’s Northeast have been actively involved in their opposition to plans of building 11 dams in the district (two have been dropped recently). Leading the protest in Tawang have been Buddhist monks who are known more for their peaceful chants than loud protests. Their concerns and opposition to the dams however, have been met with mixed reactions.

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A young monk peers out the watchtower.

At the inter-state check gate in Bhalukpong in West Kameng district, a young tax and excise security personnel from Tawang says that monks should stick to monastic activities. A similar view is stated by a prominent businessman in Tawang town as well. Such views are an echo of what many politicians from the region and across the state have said in the past too. Norbu and other monks though, disagree with such a point of view.
“This is not the first time monks have defended the region,” he says, visibly worked up. He says that monks from the monastery were fending off Mongol and Bhutanese forces ever since it was established more than 300 years ago with their guns called menda from their watchtowers called kochung.

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Norbu, the passionate one.

Norbu, who is also the president of the Save Mon Region Federation that has been leading protests against dams in the district says hectares of land has already been taken away from villagers for highway construction but people have not been compensated and neither have the roads been built.
“We are not asking for ‘azadi(freedom)’,” he says in reference to calls for independence from India made in some other states before adding that they just want justice.
Recently, accusations were made against the SMRF general secretary, Lobsang Gyatso, that he was being funded by the Chinese. It’s an accusation that has him upset.
“How can I be working for the Chinese when the Chinese have wronged our spiritual leader (Dalai Lama) so much,” he asks.
Lobsang has been in the forefront of the protests since late 2011 and it was his arrest on April 28 on charges of allegedly defaming the abbot of the monastery that led to protests outside the police station by his supporters who were seeking his release on May 2. On that day, two people were shot dead and several others, including some security personnel were injured. While two inquires are currently underway, the monks are calling for a CBI inquiry instead of state government constituted inquires.

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Lobsang Gyatso.

Pema Gyatso, a 35-year old monk, says “we haven’t had proper roads since 1962. We need development and schools not hydropower”.
Lobsang is clear in his stance that the SMRF is not against smaller projects but is opposed to larger dams that will lead to loss of large areas of farming land.
Reportedly, there are over 20 mini and micro dams in the district, most of which are either not functioning or breakdown often. 
The monks appear to be fighting not just power developers or their alleged nexus with politicians but stand against corruption.
Pema says that prime land has been given away to the army and worries about what people will grow if the remaining cultivable land is given away to power developers. In fact, in Tawang town and its peripheral areas large swathes of land are used by the army and SSB. All along the way to Tawang too, various Army battalions have garrisons and camps in plush land. 200km below at Tenga Valley in West Kameng district is almost entirely a military town with few civilian residences.
In Tawang, the monks complain of politicians from every level being hand-in-gloves with power companies for their personal benefit.
Norbu says that politicians are building hotels and homes for themselves while doing little for the people.
Speaking of their decision to openly fight powerful politicians, Lobsang says that as monks they are viewed as messengers of gods and that “if we compromise on the hydropower issue, how can people have faith in the religion we preach”.
But it is Norbu who puts it in the most eloquent manner defending their actions.
Explaining how villagers routinely donate food and other amenities to the monks, Norbu says “humlog basti wala se tax khake tatti karke bethega kya? (Should we just accept food from villagers and shit it out?)”.

Got God?

God for sale

At a time when Arunachal Pradesh finds itself the primary subject of debates and discussions on prime time television, for many people, life goes on. Here, at a busy market in the state capital, Itanagar, Papon from Silchar from the neighbouring state of Assam sells his wares- portraits of gods of different religions- as people await the fate of the state’s political future which will be decided by the Supreme Court in New Delhi. Seeing Papon sitting quietly, surrounded by pictures of Jesus and Shiva seemed both natural and strange because, well, this is India. A narrative of India that is frequently lost in the politics of hate and bigotry. On the reflection of the mirrors can be seen the sculpture of a head of a mithun, the bovine animal that finds itself the subject of an unnecessary controversy.  (Taken on January 31, 2016 at Ganga Market, Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh)