Year of the peoples’ protest

Over the 365 days of 2019, Arunachal Pradesh in North East of India witnessed several key events that had an impact on the collective lives of people, either directly or indirectly. But, if one had to sum up the overwhelming theme of the year gone by, it would be one marked by the power of popular protests.

From the continuing pro-democracy ‘umbrella’ protestors of Hong Kong to worldwide climate change protests led by students, this was the year of protests across the globe; and Arunachal Pradesh was no exception.

After the end of the festive season in January, as the state geared up for continued celebrations for Statehood Day in February, the recommendation of a government-led Joint High Power Committee (JHPC) to grant permanent resident certificates (PRCs), under certain conditions, to six communities not recognised as indigenous tribals led to wide-scale protests concentrated in the capital.

Those protests eventually cost three young lives.

Additionally, damages to property worth crores of rupees were incurred, an entire commercial building (Takar Complex) was damaged which also housed the Centre for Cultural Documentation that had (ironically) archived the state’s rich tribal history and culture, the deputy chief minister’s residence was razed, and eventually, the government said that it will not be raising the issue in future.

One of the several cars that were burnt down in the anti-PRC protests in February.

While the government’s announcement helped diffuse the violence, it does not solve the issue at hand.

Denying PRCs may protect indigenous rights and benefits, but we cannot wish away the communities who have been demanding it for decades. Ultimately, an alternative must be found.

The February protests also led to the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU) drawing widespread criticism across the board for its stance on the issue.

While the state government had not actually given any commitment that the communities in question will be given PRC and that the JHPC’s recommendations will be tabled and discussed in the Legislative Assembly, it did little to douse people’s anger.

The fact that the AAPSU was part of the JHPC did not help the union’s image as people took to Facebook to openly criticise the body. It has not recovered since then as has been evident by protests that took place in the fag-end of the year.

The February protests may have led many outside the state to believe that the BJP government may face problems in the upcoming elections but when the state went to polls and the results were declared, no one in the state was surprised.

In a state where ideologies and affiliations are the last thing in the minds of politicians, it hardly occupies space in the minds of the electorate and thus the BJP was overwhelmingly voted back into power in the state and the Centre.

The protests in the early part of the year showed us the power of people’s protests and it became the norm to sit at the tennis courts in Indira Gandhi Park in the state capital, with some issues bordering on the frivolous, even.

It also led to the state government holding open public consultations on the contentious Citizenship Amendment Bill (later Act).

Such open consultations in the state were almost unheard of earlier but the violence and the anger that was on display in February may have led the government to taking such measures.

Better safe than be sorry.

The passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in both houses of parliament brought to light the distance and lack of understanding of those in the ‘mainland’ and the Northeast. Even the motivating factors in the protests that were held across major cities varied vastly from those held in the region.

As unconstitutional as the new Act is, and goes against the secular fabric of the country, in the Northeast, the protests in the region and in Arunachal Pradesh were characterised by fears and concerns over what impact an influx of foreigners can have on vulnerable indigenous groups that have faced years of marginalisation.

Assamese protestors in Itanagar protesting the Indian government’s decision.

The concern was evident in the over 30-km unprecedented march that students from Rajiv Gandhi University and NERIST undertook.

While the regional protests have been termed ‘xenophobic’ and ‘non-secular’ by some sections, the question to be asked is whether protests in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bangaluru, and other places would have taken place if the Act had included persecuted minority Muslim sects, including the Rohingiya from Myanmar.

In the region, the fight is one for our identity; for a culture that is constantly suffering the onslaught of the 21st century. Assam has already lost five sons in the protests which have since taken a more peaceful turn, with sub-nationalistic patriotic songs becoming a key feature in them.

How long can they continue such?

K4 Kekho: Small man casting a long shadow

Sporting two long fringes that run down to his ears and despite not being the tallest man in most rooms, Kekho Thiamkho casts a large shadow. But then again, it was not his looks that shot him into semi-stardom.

Kekho Thiamkho, better known by his stage name K4 Kekho, hails from the small hamlet of Chinghan in Tirap district along India’s international border with Myanmar in Arunachal Pradesh. A relative unknown in a state with a population of around 15 lakh until two years ago, K4 Kekho became a viral sensation when his song, ‘I am an Indian’, began circulating on WhatsApp.

Sung partly in English and a dialect of Hindi unique to Arunachal Pradesh, the song deals with issues of racism and ignorance about the state and the Northeast that people from the region often face in ‘mainland’ India.

Although the song deals with serious issues, it is the satirical tone of the lyrics and the catchy tune that leave a lasting impact on listeners.
The song opens with K4 Kekho’s signature ‘ollo’ (more on that later) and introducing himself before he goes on to the first lines of the song: Arunachal Pradesh ka mein. Kya yeh jegah China mein (I’m from Arunachal Pradesh. Is this place in China)?

K4 Kekho during a performance. (PC: 4K Studio and CCRD)

The ‘China’ reference acts as a double innuendo on China’s territorial claims over the state and sets the tone for the rest of the song.

Midway through the song, Kekho sings: Institutions lok hum logo ko yaha mein padhne ao boltai. Phir roadside mein koi-koi lok jegah se jao boltai (Educational institutes induce us to join their academies. But people on the street tell us to go back).

Those lines are an expression of what many from Northeast, especially those who venture out to pursue higher education, continue to experience in places like New Delhi and Bengaluru. Incidentally, Kekho never spent any significant amount of time outside the state for his education, having completed his graduation from Don Bosco College near Itanagar. However, he had heard enough from his friends to feel confident to write and rap about the issue.

“I used to listen to my friends who were studying outside talk about their experiences. They were so angry and frustrated with what they had to undergo at times,” he said.
On January 27, K4 Kekho was at the lawns of the Hotel Donyi Polo Ashok in Itanagar for the launch of a six-part poetry-themed web series called The Vivid Project where he is one of the six featured poets.

Post a brief appearance on stage, K4 Kekho took time out to wander around when I introduced myself as a fan and told him that he was the reason I came for the launch.
During the conversation, he talked about how he was introduced to music through his father’s collection of old Hindi film songs on cassettes. He even sang one of those songs on stage one year in school.

“The teachers and the older people in the audience liked it but the young students were bored,” he said. The next year he switched to rap music as a more immersive art form to connect with the younger crowd. That decision appears to have paid off.

He is now somewhat of a minor sensation in his home state (‘minor’ meaning that he isn’t exactly getting swamped by fans on the streets looking for selfies or autographs). While he does seem to be living the good life now with him becoming a regular at local gigs, life wasn’t always easy.

Kekho said that as a child he had to walk for two hours from the administrative circle of Lazu to reach his home. Not much has changed as motor-able roads still haven’t been made that find their path to Chinghan.

Kekho doesn’t rap much about subjects that do not have social relevance in his eyes and cares for issues that are close to his community and his home.

He comes from the small Ollo tribe of Tirap district in the eastern part of the state that has been inflicted with insurgency and opium addiction among young men for years. Kekho said that he is currently working on songs that address these issues.

That evening, he gave us a sneak peek to a new song he is working on.
It begins: Ollo. I was born in a village called Lower Chinghan, located in the border of Indo-Myanmar, where one cannot speak for the rights he deserves, afraid of AK-47 loaded real guns. Ollo!

The ‘Ollo’, he said, is a tribute to his tribe and can mean anything from ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘brother’, ‘sister’, and ‘friend’.

By this time, a few of his ‘fans’ had become part of our conversation and listening intently to what Kekho had to say.

Continuing the conversation, he maintains a humble demeanour while his hands constantly wave about front and back, left and right, as if he’s engaged in rap-battle and says that his limited English-language vocabulary makes it difficult for him to freestyle. He also informed that a video for ‘I’m an Indian’, the song that birthed the K4 Kekho sensation, is in the works.

By the end of the evening, our conversation steers towards his height.

“I’m not quite five feet tall. Around 4.8 or 4.9,” he tells us.

One of the people listening in on the conversation quickly adds, “You may be small but your words are big.

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