In his home on a high, windy hill above the broken road that passes for a national highway in Nagaland, Niketu Iralu told us of his work and how he and his wife, Christine, have created a welcoming environment that embraces dialogue among differing groups in the North-Eastern region. Listening to their stories, a friend from Delhi said, “I really find it hard to believe that people like you exist in this world.”
The Iralu home in Zupsha, near Kohima, is always filled with music, the cooking of many meals and talk. Friends, associates and well-wishers contribute — villagers come with sacks of grain, others bring meat, some send fresh vegetables.
Young Nagas come to share problems, political leaders drop in as do powerful bureaucrats, grizzled village elders and church figures. Bodo activists from Assam tell of concerns, so do Assamese scholars and writers.
For many years, Niketu and Christine have worked tirelessly to build a fabric of reconciliation among communities, binding the wounds of conflict in a place that is breathing peacefully after half a century of bloodshed.
This is not an isolated trend: Across the North-East the Iralus and others are part of a growing band of quiet foot soldiers who are marching to the tune of a different drummer, working for peace, discussions and the restoration of rights.
A group with which I am closely associated organises boat clinics for the unreached on the islands of the Brahmaputra, partnering the National Rural Health Mission, in an innovative effort that has reached over 1.3 million people with healthcare.
A former army doctor and his wife have set up a network of Bodo women weavers, which spreads the message of productive peace. An inventor wins prizes for new simple creations that peel vegetables and fruits.
These are not noisy activist groups seeking change through confrontation but transformation through dialogue. Of course, there are also outspoken organisations such as the Naga Mothers Association, which battles human rights violations as well as the new enemies of drugs and alcohol, and Manipur’s Irom Sharmila in her unending hunger strike against the AFSPA.
One sturdy group in Nagaland that has refused to bow to the formidable might of militants is the Action Committee Against Unabated Taxation (ACAUT).
Started a few years ago by a team that includes Kekhiye Sema, a former IAS officer, the ACAUT has taken the armed factions head-on, accusing them of extorting the Nagas dry and enabling New Delhi to exploit differences among the major Naga armed factions.
Last November, it organised a public meeting of people fed up with the daily extortion – ranging from tea-shop owners and professionals to government officials and business persons. The most powerful group, the NSCN (I-M), ‘banned’ the meeting but over 25,000 defied the diktat.
The ACAUT’s efforts go beyond criticising the ‘underground’ groups. A majority of the cadre here with ULFA and other factions live in ‘designated camps’ while unending dialogues continue. Smaller breakaway groups buck dialogue by hitting vulnerable groups and officials.
Under its banner of ‘One tax, One government’ (Nagas and most hill tribe groups in the NER are not covered by income tax), the ACAUT wants all the armed and political factions to unite and take the discussions with New Delhi forward.
This represents the missing factor in talks that have eluded settlement and which the Government of India could tap into: Consulting civil society, which has mobilised for a common cause.
(Sanjoy Hazarika is director of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal.)