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Book Reviews

Oinam’s silver non jubilee & a book (Book review by Aheli Moitra)

In my numerous exchanges with Aheli, I have mostly only hounded her for more information on the issues and challenges in North East India. On my part, this has been a selfish drive to try rid my own ignorance; limited knowledge; and zero-involvement with the issues at hand. An average Joe in Mumbai (that includes me), may seldom think about or even want to know more about the conflict and insurgencies in North East. The local media on its part, has not been very helpful either. My sharing of this (and hopefully there will be more to come) is an attempt to keep abreast.

Republished from:

Oinam’s silver non jubilee & a book

Review by Aheli Moitra

Nandita Haksar, Sebastian Hongray
The Judgment That Never Came
Army Rule in North East India
New Delhi: Chicken Neck (an imprint of Bibliophile South Asia), 2011
380pp. Rs.495

Come 2010, the world had tweaked for some. Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Tunisia, set himself on fire to protest harassment, corruption and ill treatment of citizens by the police. This tipped off the dominoes of the ‘Arab Spring’ that spread through Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and other ‘undemocratic’ nations that had waited too long.

In this part of the world, however, nothing changed. In 1987, a witness had seen (then Brig.) BN Singh and (then Commanding Officer, Lt. Col.) CP Singh of the (then) 21 Assam Rifles burn to death a Poumai Naga man, hung upside down over fire in Oinam village in the Senapati district of Manipur. This is normal in India—the concerned officers went on with their careers. In 1997, the constitutional bench of the Supreme Court of the “largest democracy in the world” upheld the constitutional validity of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA!); in 2010, State violence went on as it was, oblivious to the Spring.

Nandita Haksar and Sebastian Hongray’s book, “The Judgment That Never Came: Army Rule in North East India”, published by Chicken Neck (which seems to have published books only by Haksar since its inception in 2011) presents a detailed judicial cross section of the Oinam case. Under the command of (then General Officer in Command, Manipur Sector, Maj. Gen.) PL Kukrety, the “friends of the hill people” had torn apart the people of Oinam, and 30 of its surrounding villages, with 1987’s three months long Operation Bluebird, sponsored by the “constitutionally valid” AFSPA. The book is a brave narrative of the lawyers for the Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR)’s petition, filed in Gauhati High Court, to bring justice to the people of Oinam. Making itself out to be an important resource for justice work, it details court and civil proceedings with ample annexures and communication dossiers that implicate the military, polity and judiciary of India in, what could possibly be classified as, crimes against humanity. The authors name required names, and appropriately bell the cat, despite the judiciary’s failure to deliver a judgment on the case that was heard by the High Court till 1992.

That is the book’s success. It tells you how the army does not work “in aid” of civil authority, rather undermining the latter, in addition to superseding them when possible. It tells you how the Indian paramilitary tortures, amounting to burying and roasting alive, people it calls citizens and the degradation of morality to the extent that former Governor of Manipur at the time of Bluebird, Lt. Gen. K V Krishna Rao defends the abusive Operation in a book published in 1991, 3 years after L Khola testified, in court, how she was forced to deliver her baby in an open ground where the whole village was detained during the Operation—one of many foul examples in a well-documented case of human rights abuse. These are the kinds that govern us. It narrates the arrogance of the Assam Rifles officers who laugh and lounge in court, in full uniform, full of impunity provided by the Indian state. It tells you what makes sexual violence and manslaughter in the Security State of India possible and non-punishable.

Oinam is exemplary of the larger policy adopted by the Indian state towards people living in “disturbed areas” of the North East region, over many decades. The attitude flows into Dantewada today. The authors have presented a useful case study showing how the contemporary nation state is inherently unjust, with marginal difference between martial law and democratic rule. Since the core of the book’s focus is on judicial process, Haksar and Hongray walk the reader through the evidence, and manner of collection, at times accidental even. They highlight the genesis of petitions, and their subsequent failure, challenging the constitutional validity of AFSPA, traversing through other instances (like Operation Bajrang) that debase the entire discourse on rights.

They bring out the difficulty of dealing with cases of human rights abuse, especially when reparations (referred to as compensation) are to be “calculated”. Schools, houses, hostels, churches and granaries were dismantled and looted, in and around Oinam, for three months by the Assam Rifles men, including officers. Today they call themselves “friends of the hill people”. 300 people were tortured (severely beaten, chillies and electric shocks applied to sensitive parts of the body, raped) and forced to labour while 27 died. Medical expenses are unknown.

The Assam Rifles forced many of them to refute these allegations through affidavits, and filed criminal cases against Naga leaders and activists who intervened. Surely under pressure from the centre, both the state government, privy to the entire incident through their civil administration, and the Gauhati High Court pretended to remain confused on which version denoted the truth.

Further, the authors make an important contribution by establishing a link between the Assam Rifles and the People’s Militia of Nagaland, an illegal private militia of “surrendered militants”. Was the Assam Rifles storing an excess of arms for the Militia at their post in Oinam, which the NSCN raided on July 9, 1987, to which the Assam Rifles responded with Operation Bluebird? Such militia have been set up by the Indian army in Kashmir, Assam and Chhattisgarh too. Being outside law and any mechanism of accountability, they are known to (be made to) gather intelligence more by crook than hook, and to pit the people against their movement. Many work for such militia under the threat of sure death through fake encounters, engineered by the troopers that hire them, if they don’t join. But, as Haksar and Hongray make you wonder, what is the point of accountability mechanisms when an illegal and legal militia work much the same way? The book grapples with this and finds answers in such instances as the Government of Manipur’s admission in court that “not to be raped” and “not to be killed by torture” are not available fundamental rights!

The book is not just about legal procedures though. It is a tale of the bravery of those men and women (NPMHR enlisted 435 witnesses in all but could produce 22) who showed up to get their testimonies recorded at the Sessions Court in Imphal from August 1988 to February 1989 in the face of intimidation by the Assam Rifles. These narratives are the most disturbing part of the book and raise genuine concerns about the judiciary’s vision. The book is also about the activists, journalists, politicians and bureaucrats who wanted to tell, or investigate, but were barred by the Assam Rifles or worse, detained and tortured. It brings into question the national media’s ethics in the face of such crimes, when patriotism is a Kalashnikov, the de-politicisation of AFSPA, the Mizo experience of counter-insurgency, rise of the INGO monster, empty celebration of non-violence to delegitimize armed resistance and the State’s irresponsible political reasoning allowing the abuse of rights. Insights into the working of the Human Rights Committee, and how issues are raised and responded to at the international forum, are valuable.

The writing style and numerous edit mistakes, however, leave a dent. Haksar and Hongray neither specialize at humour nor story telling. They are in control of writing about court proceedings but the text retains a nagging feel throughout. It is clear that Haksar and Hongray worked hard on the case but not without the hands and minds of many more, whose efforts will never appear on paperback. The tone of the language used reads autobiographical even though intent does not suggest so.

The latter half of the book contains categorical allegations, which do not stand substantiated, against NPMHR, and those within it severely affected by State persecution. Albeit slightly distracted, the book finally pulls itself back to the pertinent question of the future of the Oinam case, and justice. If the judges who heard it, transferred before delivering a judgment, have retired and the lawyers have either moved on or up in their careers, what happens to the more than 10,000 pages of legal papers that exist of the Oinam hearings?

Since the Indian state will not answer, perhaps an account from the league of former JusticesW. Shishak and Phukan, Hrishikesh Roy, Songboi Serto, Samuel Risom, N. Koteshwar, C. Upendra Singh and NPMHR will produce stardust justice 25 years after Oinam.


About Sarita

My 10,000th day on Planet Earth was June 28, 2010


One thought on “Oinam’s silver non jubilee & a book (Book review by Aheli Moitra)

  1. …the book might as well be called ‘Adventures of Nandita Haksar’…
    The latter half of the book reads a bit like an acrid account of a lawyer scorned. Categorical allegations against NPMHR, and those within it severely affected by State persecution, stand on uneasy stilts without further evidence (NPMHR activists shopping for laptops and gizmos at duty free shops in the 80s and 90s— seriously?). It is slightly difficult to imagine a vocal lawyer like Haksar being mute spectator to the distribution of large sums of money among undeserved activists. The book never suggests this to have been brought to attention at the time. Were Haksar and Hongray waiting for the publication of this book to bring it up? Objection to the method of functioning of other organisations and individuals, who helped the Nagas, read petty and out of place.

    It is one thing to state that Amnesty International runs its office like an advertising agency and another to index a starving movement (NPMHR in this case). Moralizing and self-righteousness can be unbearable, yes, especially when a movement and its associates are allowed no space for funds and international outreach; as though a movement does not need to feed its labour. As though, every form of labour is bound only to its source of funds. Clubbing NPMHR’s lack of initiative, probably the result of a wide range of factors, with globalisation and corruption (within the NGO world) hampers the book’s credibility on insight.

    Posted by a-will get killed-m | April 25, 2012, 17:50

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