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The Nort-east: Post-Colonial Trauma?

With the liberal application of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 in the north-east wherever insurgency has raised its head, over time the army is getting brutalised. The state cannot remain far behind.


Post-Colonial Trauma?

With the liberal application of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 in the north-east wherever insurgency has raised its head, over time the army is getting brutalised. The state

cannot remain far behind.


ord Butler, chancellor of the exchequer in a conservative government in the 1960s in Britain, flabbergasted his colleagues by blandly declaring, “We are all socialists now”. Similarly, post-colonial gurus have recently confused less learned folks by announcing that post-colonialism is the condition all over the world, including America and perhaps Britain. And why not? The periphery is supposed to strike back at the centre, levelling all to a pitiable plight and consoling all with the comfort of rebellion. But, in the real as apart from the discursive world, things do not level, tables are not easily turned. Rather in the typical manner of the master-servant dialectic, while the periphery is turned into bloody and grimy indignity, the centre declines unawares through lofty rhetorical fog into a frightening brutality.

The north-east in the metropolitan press is a strange region full of tantalising opportunities and ghastly risks. It is packed with natural resources, hydel potential, oil, and timber, even uranium, to the delight of the captains of business, industry and smuggling. But the denizens, for obscure reasons, can never be happy. They protest against all such development while accusing the centre of neglect. Peace is the scarcest commodity here, even ahead of potato and onion, which soar ecstatically at times to four or five times their usual price, especially before elections. It is not even available in the vast black market, duly protected by local satraps, backed by the armed might of the centre, where everything from women to arms, government jobs and lucrative contracts are available at a price. So the army and paramilitary forces have to be sent in with the mission to establish Pax Indica. Mysteriously all missions turn into their opposite in the looking-glass land of the periphery. For instance, recently in an eye-operation camp sponsored by the state government, the national blindness(!) mission has succeeded in blinding, partially or totally, 19 patients.

Brutalisation of Army

The army has been given sweeping powers over the life and limb of the restless autochthons under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958. Originally calculated to suppress the Naga rebellion, it is now being applied liberally wherever in this region insurgency raises its head. The sad story of Manipur has at last found a place in the corners of the metropolitan dailies, especially after the Manorama rape and murder case. The centre’s efforts to pacify the people have failed through halfmeasures, and the president’s recent visit met with a complete hartal. The army is virtually imposing a martial law regime on areas regarded as infested with insurgents. The innocent common people suffer, ground between the wheels of desperate insurgents and a panicky army. The author of this note, no friend of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), had visited an area near one of its bastions, blasted by the army shortly after the aggressively named Operation Bajrang, and he was shaken to discover a poor grieving widow of a tea-garden labourer shot dead by the army as a terrorist. The labourer had gone to a forest to collect firewood and had been shot dead when in fright he tried to run away from troops that had suddenly materialised in front of him. He had not heard of Operation Bajrang, which was launched in 1990. Then, in 1993 a wedding party was mistaken as an advance guard of the ULFA and was wiped out, including some classmates of the groom from Sikkim. In the Kakopathar area of the Tinisukia district, Ajit Mahanta, a day labourer was dragged out of his home; the very next day his dead body was left in a police station after “routine interrogation”. There was such a public outrage that the army general in charge of operations in Assam was forced to visit the bereaved family and apologise. He offered compensation and promised condign punishment on the guilty. The military tribunal met and delivered its considered verdict, delayed promotion, stoppage of increment, and so on. Little wonder that the public was hardly satisfied. And, during the current month another poor villager named Nipul Saikia had been left crippled for life by “routine interrogation”. If such things become routine the army cannot remain unaffected.

It is a pity that instead of developing into a responsible democratic army committed to the safety of their countrymen, the soldiers on such assignments become demoralised and disoriented by having to execute such orders. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act give any officer above the rank of an havildar the powers to shoot to kill anyone suspected of being or helping terrorists, especially if he or she is seen as evading arrest. Many unfortunate gory incidents have taken place, and they horrify even people opposed to the ULFA. Some soldiers commit suicide and some others go berserk and kill their own compatriots. Succeeding army generals in charge of such operations have repeatedly urged a political solution, though whether out of a sense of duty or lack of nerves they have not resigned. Then again, corruption and a temptation to plunder the natural resources of the region, like timber, and the pitiful savings of the poor, including family jewellery, have infected a section of jawans and officers. There are whispers that out of the lakhs of rupees recovered from ULFA hideouts only a few thousands are officially shown.

For want of political sensitivity and sagacity at the centre, which is removed by distance and social gulf from the so-called periphery, the army has been brought in to bludgeon everybody into peace in the northeast. Over time it is getting brutalised, taking the practices cited above for granted, and the state cannot remain far behind.



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Economic and Political Weekly November 4, 2006

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