The prison house of identity

The >lynching of Syed Sarifuddin Khan, a 35-year-old Assamese man accused of rape and remanded to police custody, in Dimapur, Nagaland, on March 5, 2015, is one of the most troubling of India’s repeated crises in law and order in recent memory. A 25-year-old Naga woman filed rape charges against him on February 24, and he was arrested the next day. He had been in jail for 10 days, when a mob of several thousand people (figures vary), including large numbers of young women, stormed Dimapur Central Jail.

They hunted the man from cell to cell, found him, dragged him outside, beat him and pelted him with stones, stripped him naked, tied him to a motorcycle with a rope around his waist, and dragged him wounded and bleeding for about 7 km. By the time they arrived at the town’s Clock Tower, he had died from his injuries. They then strung his body up on a fence, and displayed it to thousands of jeering onlookers. Explicit and horrific images of this brutal journey were instantly circulated as photographs and videos, which went viral on the Internet. On March 8, his body was buried by his family at his village, Bosla, in Karimganj district of southern Assam.

The facts regarding the circumstances of the rape are still uncertain. The identity of the man was initially misunderstood and misreported, both by the lynch mob and by the media, as that of a Bangladeshi immigrant, and only later determined to be that of a Bengali-speaking Assamese Indian. Khan had a Naga wife and a young daughter, and lived in Dimapur, where he ran a small used car business. His father and brothers had served in the Indian armed forces, and the woman who accused him of raping her was from his wife’s village, possibly her cousin.

> Read The Hindu editorial: Vigilantism in Dimapur

Unrest in the Northeast

At the time that he was lynched, it was not known with any legal certainty whether he had committed rape, and now it will probably never become clear what transpired. His own statement recorded before he died and the statements of his relatives after his death all deny rape allegations. The police for their part were unable to manage such a large mob, unable to hide Khan inside the jail once they had understood that he was being hunted by the crowd and unable to prevent his capture and release. Despite tear gas, lathi charges and rounds of firing, which left one person dead, over 50 constabulary injured, and 10 police vehicles burnt, a full on counter-attack could not be launched because the mob included such a large number of women and minors, many of whom were leading the violence.

The abduction, rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama, a Manipuri woman, allegedly by Indian paramilitaries, led to a naked protest by about 30 Manipuri mothers in Imphal, outside the Kangla Fort headquarters of the Assam Rifles in July 2004. Both the rape and the form taken by the protest — the older women stripped naked, and stood on the street carrying placards which read “Indian Army Rape Us” “Indian Army take our flesh” — shocked the entire country, leading to a long legal process and several commissions of inquiry. As recently as December 2014, the Supreme Court directed that Rs.10 lakh be awarded as compensation to Manorama’s family. But because the Assam Rifles had been deployed in Manipur under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which grants immunity to military and paramilitary forces, the court could not pronounce any punishment for the accused.

The two incidents, separated by 11 years, in two restive Northeastern States, Manipur and Nagaland, are diametrically opposed: in one case, the person who died was the victim of rape and in the other, the alleged perpetrator. In the one case, the killers were members of the armed forces and in the other, common citizens. Both involved heinous violence against individuals, and both created a storm of anger, grief, protest and intercommunity tension in the region.

Following Manorama’s disappearance and death, public opinion as well as the legal and legislative process quickly transcended the issue of rape and became focussed on the real problem: the existence and persistence for the AFSPA in Manipur and other States of the Northeast. In the Dimapur lynching too, we need to read the writing on the wall. This is not about whether Syed Sarifuddin Khan raped a local woman or not; it is about the relationship between the State of Nagaland and the rest of the Indian union, a problem unresolved since the 1930s.

On the face of it, the mob sought to teach Khan a lesson. It could be argued that the heightened intensity of the discourse about rape and its prevention, prosecution and punishment in India ever since the Delhi gang-rape of December 2012 is bound to produce at least some instances of vigilante action and rough justice. The Dimapur lynching was a particularly violent enactment of the rage and frustration that many, especially women, feel on this charged subject. There may be an element of truth to this analysis.

Rape or identity?

But what’s more telling is the way in which Khan was initially described as a Bangladeshi immigrant, when in fact he had a family in Assam, had lived in Dimapur for long, and had married a Naga woman (whose first name, as per a story in this newspaper on March 11 “Dimapur lynch victim’s family awaits his Naga wife”, appears to be Christian. Nagaland is more than 90 per cent Christian). It must have been clear to those who knew him locally, that he was not Bangladeshi, but Indian.

> Read: Anarchy without a mask

So why call him “Bangladeshi?” The moniker in this context serves as shorthand to indicate that he was an outsider, not a native; in other words, a foreigner or an “alien”, someone who was not Naga. The xenophobia contained in this false identification of Khan extends not just to immigrants from Bangladesh, but also to those people living in Nagaland who might be Assamese or Bengali, i.e., from nearby States within India.

Dimapur is a major commercial hub in the Northeast, on the border between Assam and Nagaland. Unlike other parts of Nagaland, it does not fall within the “Inner Line”, which means Indians other than Nagas do not require a special permit to travel, work or live there. On the ground, there are thousands of other non-Nagas like Khan, many of them Assamese, settled in Dimapur or passing through it regularly.

The fact that Khan was a Muslim probably made the slide from “Indian” to “Bangladeshi” somewhat easier. The mirror image of this xenophobia is the way in which people from Northeastern States are all lumped together and referred to as “Chinki” throughout India — again, a derogatory moniker suggesting not that these are literally people from China, but that their ethnic, racial and cultural identity is distinct from, other to and as good as foreign for those in the “heartland” or “mainstream” of India.

Note that the term under erasure in this awful lynching of a so-called “Bangladeshi” by so-called “Chinkis” — who otherwise are treated as aliens and routinely victimised all over the country outside the Northeast — is “Indian”. And this is precisely the point: “Indian” is an identity that the Muslims of East Bengal — who first became Pakistanis and then became Bangladeshis — iteratively seceded from in 1947 and 1971, and that the Nagas never quite accepted, despite Nagaland becoming a state of the Indian Union in 1963.

The limits of the nation

This story of forcible, partial and unwilling accession to India; the still-incomplete and problematic integration into the Union of India; continuous low-intensity warfare between various tribes and factions; the long-term, indeed indefinite deployment of emergency laws and martial rule via the AFSPA, and of the dreaded instrument of counter-terrorism, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), by the Indian state — these realities are writ large across the Northeast, including Nagaland and Manipur.

In postcolonial India, Assam itself has seen ceaseless conflict between Assamese-speaking Muslims, Bengali-speaking Muslims — many of whom are indeed immigrants and refugees from East Pakistan and Bangladesh, settled in Assam for varying lengths of time — and tribal Bodos, who have been agitating that a separate “Bodoland” be carved out of Assam and granted full statehood. These conflicts could be about territory and resources, about ethnic, tribal and religious identities, or about capturing the inadequate economic opportunities available in the region. Cross-border movement and resettlement of people between India and Bangladesh, and the resulting demographic flux, are also constant factors. A fracture between Assam and Nagaland is only one way to understand the political landscape — there are numerous smaller fractures within each of these so-called “units” like Assam and Nagaland. Violence in the entire regional neighbourhood has been more or less continuous for decades.

What was at issue in Dimapur then was not Khan’s true nationality as a Bangladeshi or an Indian, but the underlying fact that in Nagaland it is possible to see both those identities as being equally foreign, and equally likely to be placed at the receiving end of xenophobic violence. For the unfortunate Syed Sarifuddin Khan, the suspicion of a rape that he may or may not have committed was enough to set alight a tinderbox of regional discontent with the political dispensation, the permanent state of emergency, conflicting identities, thwarted aspirations and vexed histories, into a conflagration that incinerated him. His bewildered relatives were left saying — “But he was Indian”, “But we are a fauji family” — because in their view these qualifications ought to have protected him from the extraordinary and ultimately deadly ferocity with which he was wrenched out of the legal process and simply torn to pieces in the town square.

The same identity that is the basis of solidarity in one setting can become one’s greatest vulnerability elsewhere. The discontinuity between Assam and Nagaland, the chasm that separated Khan from his attackers, runs like a fissure in the bedrock of a painfully, precariously, and always contingently constructed “national” identity. The implications of Khan’s lynching are truly frightening for what they reveal, not just about where we have arrived in the debate on rape, but also, and more crucially, the deteriorating state of affairs in India’s Northeast.

(Ananya Vajpeyi is an intellectual historian at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.)

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 6:58:16 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/dimapur-lynching-the-prison-house-of-identity/article6991176.ece

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