Rani Gaidinliu and many like her remain absent from our books, our memory, our politics, our public spaces and our discourses

Rani Gaidinliu does not appear in Indian history textbooks. In the pantheon of Indian freedom fighters, revolutionaries and liberators her name remains unfamiliar. She is unknown to most Indians, a fading memory and myth to her own people. Rani Gaidinliu was a spiritual leader, a reformer, a guerrilla warrior and a freedom fighter who served 14 years, making her one of India’s longest incarcerated political prisoner.

Gaidinliu was born on January 26, 1915 at Nungkhao, a Rongmei village in Manipur. She was 16 when she became the leader of the Heraka movement after its charismatic leader Jadonang was executed by the British. While the Heraka movement was long aware of the civil disobedience movement in British India, it was Gaidinliu who first used Gandhiji’s name and identified her peoples’ struggle against oppression and self-determination with the larger national movement gaining ground in India. Through armed resistance, she quickly transformed a religious-indigenous rebellion into a revolutionary movement for independence. In a note recorded in June 1932, C.P. Mills, Deputy Commissioner, Naga Hills, stated that, “The real danger of the movement is the spirit of defiance.”

The Empire fearing the spirt of defiance launched a manhunt for the 16-year-old rebel leader. The Assam Governor-in-Council authorised the overwhelming force of the 3rd and 4th Assam Rifles and the entire Manipur Police force. After a year long search and capture operations, Gaidinliu was arrested on October 17, 1932. She was tried and convicted on a charge of murder, waging war against the British crown and sentenced to life imprisonment. When Nehru met Gaidinliu, she had already been imprisoned for five years. Nehru’s efforts and subsequent failure to secure Gaidinliu’s release from the British is well documented. She would remain a prisoner for another decade, before being released from Tura Jail on October 14, 1947, after India became independent. The newly independent Indian State quickly recognised Gaidinliu’s potential as a symbol of Naga separatism. Upon her release the Indian government imposed severe restrictions on her movement and she was not permitted to return home to her people till 1957. The Naga National Council (NNC) leaders found her ideology, vocal opposition to the insurgency and Christian missionary presence an obstacle to the Naga separatist struggle. With the growing NNC threat against her life she went underground once again in 1960. She was honoured as a freedom fighter and awarded a Padma Bhushan, but toward the end of her life she became a neglected figure. Rani Gaidinliu died alone and disillusioned in 1993.

Insiders and outsiders

Year after year, volumes are written and continue to proliferate the public space about patriarchal figures like Gandhiji and Nehru. Indian history, even when written as a history of struggle, continues to exclude figures like Rani Gaidinliu. The Rani and many like her remain absent from our books, our memory, our politics, our public spaces and our discourses. We have treated their history as someone else’s history — or even, not history at all. Their absence is ubiquitous.

History plays a powerful constitutive in determining an individual’s sense of personal identity. It contributes to citizenship, that implies full membership to democratic exercise and the ability to influence one’s destiny by having a significant voice in decisions. But, historically the Indian rectitude of citizenship has distinguished between insiders and outsiders. In the last 67 years we have celebrated the glorious self-images of the dominant, those who look a certain way, speak a certain language, make a certain claim of belonging and peddle a certain kind of hatred justified in the name of nationalism. If we are to write the history of Indian citizenship from the point of view of the “others” and “the outsiders,” it would be the story of systematic disaggregation of their citizenship, lost not at the point of a gun but rather by legislative action that has institutionalised prejudice.

The most important right we possess is the right that we shall be governed only by laws we have given consent to; and this is the great guarantee of our freedom enshrined in the Constitution. One that India has persistently denied to its citizens of the Northeast. For instance, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) has been in effect in the seven Northeastern States of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya since September 11, 1958. AFSPA empowers the Indian security forces with unilateral power to detain, torture and kill to maintain order, alongside a legal immunity for extra-judicial killing.

Here the law operates in and through its own suspension, and legitimacy always trumps disproportional use of lethal force. The grey areas of State authority grant the licence to kill and legitimises it through a judicial process. Normal laws of the state do not apply here, the state can transcend and transgress the rule of law in the name of larger public welfare. AFSPA violates Articles 21 and 22 of the Constitution that guarantee the protection of life and personal liberty and protection against arbitrary arrest and detention. What exactly does equality before law mean, when individual citizens of the same Republic are subject to different laws and rights?

Rani Gaidinliu’s life is an allegory of the larger problems confounding India’s Northeast. If history is the narrative of our past, of who we are and how we came to be, then the Indian state has successfully excluded 44 million Indians who live in India’s Northeast from the historical, political and cultural memory of what it means to belong. The greatest repression, perhaps, is to deny and deprive people of their history. Today, the Northeast has a new national and local consciousness, along with a new history. Not of its valiant resilience, egalitarian communities, but forever the disturbed region, the country’s buffer, infamously connected to insurgencies, violence, persistent backwardness and a place of exclusion. In it are the terrible predicaments rising out of mainland India’s predilections, and even prejudices. Any rapprochement with the Northeast must begin with India’s recognition that equal citizenship, along with the idea of belonging transforms a state into a Nation. The human need to belong is not simply intangible, it is also an irrevocable condition.

(Suchitra Vijayan, a lawyer and political analyst, previously worked for the U.N. war crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia and Rwanda.)

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