Extra-judicial killings by security forces during the separatist insurgency continue to be a traumatic chapter for the people of the State
Several people have asked me why I chose to write a novel set against the backdrop of the Assamese insurgency. The truth is that I had to deal with the subject because my generation has grown up under the shadow of this violent conflict. It is impossible not to tell stories set amid the conflict because almost all my memories of childhood and adolescence have been shaped by it. In fact, when I was in my teens one of the most shameful episodes of human rights violation under Indian democracy was unfolding.
Throughout high school, I read reports in Assamese papers about the discovery of mutilated bodies or the massacre of entire families (such as poet and former insurgent Megan Kachari’s family) and heard stories from people in our ancestral village. My generation grew up amid this normalised sense of fear. Since it seemed so regular, and hence “normal”, a lot of us didn’t pay much attention to it until it touched us in some way. That happened to me in 2001, when a person called Jyotish Sarma was killed not very far from my house. The next morning, I was waiting for my school bus on Zoo Road Tiniali, Guwahati, when a few young men riding a Bajaj scooter stopped to tell me that I should return home, “because soon there will be trouble”.
I had a test in school that day. I couldn’t have skipped it. That afternoon, when I walked down from the bus stop to my house about an hour later than usual, my mother hugged me and cried because she was so worried. I told her about the demonstrations that had blocked the streets of Guwahati, delaying my school bus. Later, I learnt, the people had taken to the streets to protest against the government, tired of the mysterious murders.
From that day onwards, I started asking my parents questions and reading the local papers keenly. All the stories I read were stained with blood. I understood that our government was systematically and extra-judicially killing innocent civilians, people who were considered sympathisers of the separatist movement led by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) who wanted a sovereign and free country of Assam. People say many who were killed and disappeared had nothing to do with the insurgency. They were either close friends or relatives of the rebels.
By then, a large number of rebels had surrendered. But a lot of them hadn’t. The government couldn’t lure them with its lucrative surrender schemes. Frustrated, it wanted to poke on raw wounds; touch where it hurt the most. ‘If you don’t surrender, we will kill your dearest sister, mother, father, brother, best friend, brother-in-law and we don’t care if they support the separatist movement or not’ — that was the message behind the killings. Masked gunmen visited the homes of these people at night to pick them up. Their bullet-ridden bodies were found in random places. Sometimes, they were never found. In the small rivers of Assam, in streams, in forests, mutilated body parts were discovered that were probably those of the victims.
The Secret Killings of Assam remain one of the most shameful, under-reported chapters of Indian democracy. Despite such widespread human rights violations, very little of it was covered by the Indian media and almost none by the international press. It is reminiscent of the Dirty War in Argentina: a period of state terrorism during the 1970s when approximately 22,000 people who opposed the military dictatorship were killed or disappeared.
Even now, the Secret Killings of Assam resurface only during the elections when contesting parties sling mud at each other. The media tell us that the K.N. Saikia Enquiry Commission’s report clearly indicates the complicity of the Indian government and the army in orchestrating these killings.
We still don’t know what the exact truth is. We would probably never have a clear picture and perpetrators would be never brought to book. All that remain are relatives of those victims. For the people who found bullet-ridden bodies, or heads or legs or fingers, of their family members, at least there is closure. But for the ones whose sons and sisters never returned home, it is a flame thriving on their blood, tears and sweat. In 2012, a family conducted the last rites of their son seeking such a closure — they constructed an effigy, dressed and cremated “him”. A local TV channel covered the news. I saw the mother howling and wailing over the effigy, hugging it, refusing to let it be cremated as if it was her son’s real body. Has closure really come for that mother?
Writing on fear
My generation grew up surrounded by this violence, just like the protagonist of my novel, Pablo, an adolescent boy growing up in this period — I heard his voice clearly in my mind. I also wrote this book because I was interested in the different ways in which fear percolates into the minds of people living under terror and what kind of choices they make due to this fear; because I wanted to celebrate the lives of people in rural Assam who have borne the brunt of Assam’s insurgency; because I wanted to suggest that life goes on despite everything; because I wanted to think deeply about the generation in Assam born around and after 1979 — a crucial year for Assam because it was the year ULFA was formed, the year the Assam Movement started; events that changed things forever for the worse.
Anger and the book
Anger was an almost insurmountable obstacle while writing the book. Anger at how human rights are recklessly violated in my home State by the security forces and the insurgents. Often, while writing, I would end up crying without being aware of it. But the novels I have loved and admired are about gross social injustice and at the same time, deeply political, subversive, tender and hopeful; the conflicts of the human heart are their central preoccupation. I was very worried that I would end up writing a book that I wouldn’t like reading and that is why I had to tone down the bitterness and anger while rewriting it. I wanted it to be an optimistic book that would look beyond the ugliness of violence. I didn’t want to write a bitter, angry story that would thrive on embracing victimhood because I do not believe that the perennially resilient people of Assam are victims; we are, rather winners, survivors.
Also, too much anger directed at the government would have placed Delhi (the seat of Indian government) centrally in my novel. I wanted to avoid that — because Assamese life has more meaning than the violence, than its relationship with Delhi. Assam may not be sovereign politically, or economically, but the Assamese imagination has to remain sovereign.
(Aruni Kashyap’s novel The House With a Thousand Stories is published by Viking/Penguin.)