At the height of the anti-foreigner movement in Assam, my father was dragged out of a bus by a mob and brutally beaten in Guwahati in 1980. He was an employee of the Meghalaya government transiting from Shillong to Tura, where he was then posted. His only crime - he was a Bengali-speaking Indian at a time and place when all such people were fair game.
Thursday’s incident in Dimapur immediately brought to mind the assault on my father. It was just that the man involved in Dimapur wasn’t as lucky as my father and the mob was much larger and more blood-thirsty. To this day, my father has never talked about the attack on him. But the time has come to speak up on such issues that have, for far too long, been brushed under the carpet in the Northeast.
The victim in Dimapur – Syed Farid Khan, or Sarifuddin Khan by some accounts – was accused of a very heinous crime but his guilt was yet to be established and the allegation of rape against him by a Naga woman is yet to be substantiated. The waters have been muddied by police officials and even Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi saying that the rape is yet to be confirmed.
In a perfect system, the matter should have been decided by the judiciary after a police investigation. But if the judicial system faces serious challenges in most parts of India, the problems are far worse in the Northeast. Cases drag on for years without any conclusion and this is one reason being given for the anger that drove the mob in Dimapur.
Once the mob decided to be judge, jury and executioner, officials in Nagaland and even sections of the media persisted with the claim that Farid Khan was an “illegal Bangladeshi immigrant”, as if to justify the actions of the thousands who dragged the man for more than seven kilometres while beating him to death.
Of course, it has now been established that Khan was the son of a defence personnel and his two brothers are serving in the Indian Army while another died of injuries sustained while fighting in the Kargil War of 1999.
For far too long, it has been very easy to target any non-local person in the Northeast who has been labeled an “outsider”, “foreigner” or “Bangladeshi” – without any substantiation whatsoever. In Meghalaya in the 1980s, all Bengali-speaking people, irrespective of whether they were Hindus or Muslims, were the target of a drive against so-called “foreigners”. Systematic pogroms (I’m afraid I cannot use any other word) resulted in the exodus of Bengalis from several neighbourhoods in Meghalaya’s capital Shillong where they had lived for generations.
Conflicts between Bengali-speaking Muslims, who moved from Assam to parts of Nagaland to work as farm hands and in construction projects, and local Naga tribes are not new. In the past too, these migrant workers have been targeted as Bangladeshis.
Dimapur, the commercial hub of Nagaland, has for long been a melting pot as it is the only place in the state that a person from any part of India can enter without an Inner Line Permit. The ILP regime applies across Nagaland and some other Northeastern states.
Non-Nagas now make up a substantial part of Dimapur’s population and there has been growing resentment among local residents against non-locals who run several flourishing businesses.
As in many other parts of the Northeast, adding to the problems in Dimapur are several parallel power centres – students unions (which dabble more in politics than academics), groups for protecting indigenous people, and networks run by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah, a militant group that has a formidable presence across Nagaland despite being engaged in peace talks with the Centre since 1997.
When my uncle was posted as a State Bank of India officer in Dimapur in 1993-94, the Regional Manager received a call from the NSCN to pay Rs 1 crore or “face the consequences”. The SBI refused to pay and instead shut its regional office in Dimapur and 35 branches across the state for more than a month.
Given these factors, it is a little surprising that the administration in Dimapur did nothing despite signals about the growing tensions over the rape allegation. It was also surprising that the lynching was followed by attacks on shops and businesses run by non-locals in Dimapur.
The Nagaland government has instituted a judicial inquiry, suspended some officials and made a handful of arrests. These are just short term measures. The lynching in Dimapur has sparked a debate that will hopefully result in more long term measures to address more serious issues like tensions between the indigenous tribes of the Northeast and non-locals.
The indigenous people of the Northeast are vibrant, enterprising go-getters who have proved their worth in numerous fields. They are also the majority in most states (except perhaps Tripura where uncontrolled migration from Bangladesh changed the demography in many areas) and yet, every few years, we hear of upsurges and movements against "outsiders".
And while someone in the metros referring to a person from the Northeast with pejoratives like “chinky” can today be arrested, no legal action can be taken when people who have lived in the Northeast for generations are dismissed as “dkhar” (outsider) or “Bangal”, a catch-all name for any Bengali-speaking person.
Having been born into a family that has lived in Shillong for the past three generations, the Northeast has given me much. But it's events like the lynching in Dimapur that make me feel like a complete stranger in the Northeast.
(Views expressed by the writer in this piece are personal.)