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The legacy of Kutur

India's rebellions will never fade as long as collective punishment continues to be accepted doctrine. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Jul 04, 2012 23:48 IST
Samar Halarnkar,Nagaland,Tuensang

In the early 1960s, when Nagaland was emerging from its grim tradition of headhunting - lopping off and preserving the heads of enemies - a man called Hembo was beheaded in the lush, hilly eastern district of Tuensang.

His murder sparked off a series of events that displayed in ample measure an enduring, disturbing and, many would argue, counter-productive Indian attitude to rebellion.

Hembo was apparently killed by men from a neighbouring village called Kutur. Since revenge formed a cornerstone of local culture, Hembo's kinsmen set out for Kutur, where his body lay. Alarmed officials alerted their colleagues, and SC Dev, then assistant commissioner of Tuensang, rushed to protect Kutur with a unit of Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force controlled by the army. While he was inspecting Hembo's blood stains, Dev - later awarded a Padmashri for his efforts in bringing Naga insurgents overground - heard shots and found two troopers dead, killed by passing rebels who apparently thought the deployment was an ambush laid for them.

"A remarkable way indeed to express gratitude; I mumbled in disgust," Dev wrote in his memoir, Nagaland: The untold story. His contention: No rebel could enter the village unnoticed. "Such faithless betrayal deserved exemplary punishment, I concluded, and indignantly I decided to burn the village…a ruthless decision it was, to burn the huts but an administrator has to be ruthless at times. The village was burned."

It was in Nagaland that independent India faced its first major armed insurgency, where the Indian Air Force even bombed its own people.

Nearly 50 years later, collective punishment is accepted, if unwritten, Indian doctrine in combating rebellion. "If we really wanted to, we could have razed the entire village," an unnamed paramilitary trooper told The Hindu earlier this week after it emerged that many of the 20 "Maoists" killed in a Chhattisgarh village were residents - including women and children. Security forces in Chhattisgarh have previously been accused of burning entire villages as a warning to locals sympathetic to the Maoists, who also visit retribution on uncooperative villages.

History is replete with examples of the human proclivity to punish a people for the perceived sins of individuals. Modernity is no hurdle, as Nazi Germany proved with the Jews, and as Israel, ironically, proves with the Palestinians. After collective punishment imposed on Palestinian villagers by the Israel army for land mines planted by insurgents, Israeli general Moshe Dayan wrote in 1955 that it made sense to "harass the nearby village" than search for a particular Arab. Dayan said: "The method of collective punishment has so far proved very effective."

As societies emerge from the dark of backwardness and conflict into the light of civilisation, they cannot condone collective punishment.

There are two reasons. One, no nation that aspires to greatness can endorse something so fundamentally unfair. Two, such punishment rarely brings lasting peace.

In Israel, Palestinian resentment against Israelis is at a peak, 56 years after Dayan propounded the policy of collective punishment against the Palestinians. Collective punishment is strong in the Indian psyche, a hangover of history that will not subside easily, as periodic massacres of minorities prove.

The Geneva Convention, 1949, an agreement between 194 countries, lists collective punishment as a war crime. India signed it in 1960 when Parliament passed the Geneva Conventions Act, which prescribes death or life imprisonment for any Indian citizen involved in "willful killing" of any person protected by the Convention.

It is obvious that the Indian government thinks collective punishment works. Consider the peace in Kashmir and Nagaland, both lands that witnessed more collective punishment by the Indian State than anywhere else. In Kashmir, the theory of collective punishment was also used by militants against Hindus.

As in Israel, the peace in both these lands is tenuous. Collective punishment generates collective resentment, which culture sustains easily over generations, especially in this age of the mass media.

In Kashmir, the cycle of punishment and resentment is reflected best in Why we Rebel, a recent song of Roushan Ilahi, better known as the rapper MC Kash:

They gave us blood and hate, then wondered why we are all rebels

In the land of saints, each man raised is called a rebel.

This is a critical phase for the current Maoist insurgency, which isn't as old as those in Nagaland and Kashmir. The security forces make limited headway, and the rebels struggle to move beyond their areas of influence. As the government tries to break the stalemate, it must ensure no further alienation of India's tribal heartland. It is not in India's interests to create another mental mutiny that ripples through generations, sustained by poem, song and story.

Consider the work of Temsula Ao, a retired English professor, author and poet, whose writing, suffused with metaphors and similes, echoes the continuing angst and resentment of the Nagas, even as the days of collective punishment pass, even as they spread across and join the new India, a phenomenon that sometimes creates singular ironies, as I found with Ao.

When I met Ao last year, I told her how ironical it was that Naga police battalions deployed in Chhattisgarh were accused of some brutalities against tribals there. I also told her that the commander of the Chhattisgarh police in tribal Bastar was also a Naga, Inspector General of Police TJ Longkumer. Ao nodded. "I know him," she said. "He is my son."

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jul 04, 2012 22:54 IST