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Justice Arun Mishra Needs a Lesson on Peace and Human Rights in the Northeast

politics
The NHRC chief recently praised the Union home minister for ushering in 'a new age of peace' in the region. Perhaps he knows something people in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura don't.
NHRC chairperson Arun Mishra, with Amit Shah signing the Bodo peace treaty in the background. Illustration: The Wire
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Do you think Dwimalu amai will come back?’

Riswgi sighs. ‘You never know. He may, so many have returned.’

She gets up to rinse the tea cups and cooking pot from last night and begin her day.

On the highway, the military vehicles converge and ring out along the paddy fields surrounding the village. Jonki keeps her vigil by the steps, her eyes on the road and the rice fields that seem to spread as far as the eye can see before the horizon intervenes. Sometimes she thinks she can see someone, but it is only a shadow of a bird.

New Delhi: These are the concluding paragraphs of Assam-based writer and graphic novelist Parismita Singh’s powerful title story from her first anthology of shorts, Peace Has Come. The book, published in 2018, encompasses seven short stories hinged on the strife-torn Bodo areas of Assam contiguous to Bhutan, in addition to a three-part story I have quoted from, from which the anthology also derives its title, Peace Has Come.

When Arun Mishra – the retired Supreme Court judge who now heads the National Human Rights Commission – began his speech to mark the NHRC’s 28th foundation day by eulogising Union home minister Amit Shah and his ‘efforts’ to usher in ‘a new age of peace’ in the Northeast (and Kashmir). Parismita’s book immediately came to my mind.

Her three-part short story ‘Peace Has Come’ explains strikingly how peace has so far been delivered to most parts of the Northeast by successive governments.

The character Riswgi from the first part of the triptych is a rural Bodo woman, wedded to a Nepali man, introduced to us as Bir Bahadur. Jonki, who asks Riswgi about Dwimalu’s return in the opening paragraph of this write-up, is their young daughter.

Dwimalu is Riswgi’s brother, who, like several ‘boys’ from that belt, had joined an underground outfit. No peace deal has been able to guarantee their return home; no price on their head can either.

Riswgi’s family holds on to the hope that Dwimalu will return home, as do other families, after being convinced that ‘peace has come’ thanks to the success of the latest ‘talks’ between some outfit or the other with New Delhi. But their fraught life chugs along unaltered. They are forever fearful of both state and non-state actors violating their human rights (of which Justice Mishra is the official upholder in India) in an area where the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSFA) is in force; always grappling with the possibility of an unforeseen situation dropped on them without notice – several times smeared in blood, violence and panic involving either an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’.

This is what happens to Riswgi and Bahadur one night, when, unable to sleep, they sit under the dark sky, longing to be back in “some forest village, with no schools and roads” only to at least “sleep at peace”. An exhausted man seemingly fleeing from something or somebody darts into their yard. The man appears too scared to speak. What is his name? Is he an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’? Who is he fleeing from?

The stranger turns out to be a Hindi speaking man who had scurried towards the direction of their village from the highway to escape a murderous attack on a public bus by a set of vigilantes baying for the blood of ‘outsiders’. Overnight, the villagers nurse him; somewhat soothe his nerves and then leave him by the highway at daylight – hoping that the military finds him and his life is saved. By doing so, the villagers were also protecting their identity – from both state and non-state actors. They hope the exhausted man would not recognise the village where he found his saviours.

In congratulating the Union home minister for ushering in a ‘new era of peace’ in the Northeast, Justice Mishra was merely repeating a promise that the likes of Riswgi had heard before from New Delhi, that ‘Peace Has Come’ to them.

Mishra was perhaps referencing the peace accord signed by Shah in January 2020 in New Delhi with some new players from the Bodo areas – the Union home ministry’s third such deal since the 1990s. While the two accords signed in the Congress era had failed to usher in permanent peace in that region, Mishra seemed to have placed his faith in the present BJP leadership at the Centre and believes that unlike before, not only that ‘peace has come’ to the people this time but that it is the beginning of ‘a new era of peace’ in the region.

The unending saga of ‘peace’ in Bodoland

It turns out that the NHRC chairperson’s optimistic assessment is merely a reiteration of what Shah already said in a January 2021 speech at Kokrajhar on the occasion of the first anniversary of the latest accord. “Peace has returned to Bodo areas due to the accord. There used to be killings and abductions here, but I can assure that in a few years, this region will become the most developed part of Assam,” the minister  said.

There is no doubt that after a long era of the Bodo People’s Front (BPF) rule, one that was mired in corruption charges and allegations of nepotism, the signatories of the new accord – led by former All Assam Bodo Students Union president Pramod Boro – are beginning their innings with good intentions in the disturbed area and hope to make life better for the likes of Riswgi. But unlike Mishra and his certitude, Boro – a man rooted in reality – must only be hoping at this point that the new dispensation succeeds in ensuring peace to the people once and for all.

This is also an opportunity to remind Justice Mishra that the BPF founder, Hagrama Mohiliary, was a signatory of the second accord with the Congress-led Union government in 2003. With Shah as the BJP national president, the BPF allied with the saffron party and fought the 2016 assembly polls in Assam, later becoming part of the state government. In other words, did the BJP under Shah not indicate earlier that peace had come to the region under the BPF? Indeed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first election rally in Assam prior to the 2016 assembly polls was in Kokrajhar, alongside Mohiliary.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is welcomed by Bodoland Peoples’ Front (BPF) chief Hagrama Mohilary to a public meeting ahead of Assam’s 2016 assembly elections in Kokrajhar. Photo: PTI

This relationship of convenience, based on electoral gains, was broken by the BJP prior to the 2021 polls, only because it no longer served any electoral purpose.

The NHRC chairperson may be gung-ho about the dawning of acche din in the Northeast under Shah. However, even a year after peace officially came to that belt, local news carries reports of either the ‘surrender’ of some motley group to the Assam government (in tandem with the decades-old Congress-era practice of sending a message to the public that peace has come); or about the formation of a new underground group in that strip of the state even after peace officially came.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Assam…

It is also worthwhile to remind the NHRC chief that elsewhere in Assam, peace has yet to come. Even in purely formal terms.

While the MHA’s parleys with the pro-talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) have been continuing since 2009 without an accord and multiple changes of interlocutors, the cadres have been housed since 2008 onwards in several safe houses in upper Assam on the claim that peace will eventually come and they will suitably be rehabilitated.

Meanwhile, they are on a monthly stipend from Shah’s ministry, a policy that applies to all Northeast underground groups under suspension of operations (SOO) since the Congress era. During Modi’s first term, when this correspondent sought data from the MHA on how much money the Union government has spent on these stipends for peace to finally come to the region, the information was denied citing ‘security reasons’.

Meanwhile, as per news reports, peace has now officially come to Assam’s Karbi Anglong region after Shah signed an agreement in September with six little known armed groups. “The accord will bring lasting peace and all round development in Karbi Anglong,” he said.

Even if nothing changes on the ground, the optics of such agreements, even with small groups, certainly work in favour of the Union government, conveying the message to the larger public (and to Justice Mishra) that peace has come to the Northeast.

Peace or no peace, AFSPA is there to stay

Meanwhile, the fate of peace talks with the Kuki outfits of Manipur, which too have been on since June 2016 with multiple changes of interlocutors by the MHA, is the same as those with the ULFA. In limbo.

Hoping for peace to come, voters in the Churachandpur belt of Manipur, along the Myanmar border, had pressed the lotus symbol in the 2017 assembly polls. Needless to say, the absence of a peace accord means the extension of AFSPA in these states; and the extension of the government’s ceasefire agreement with these SOO groups too. Even after the last peace accord was signed under Shah’s leadership, the Bodo areas remain under the ambit of the draconian Act.

Here is a quick reminder to readers that during the 15-year term of the Congress’s Tarun Gogoi in Assam, common citizens, particularly in the urban pockets, indeed felt that peace had come finally after the dark days of the Prafulla Mahanta government. An acknowledgement of this feeling was seen when thousands of people, from across political lines, came to pay their last respects to Gogoi when he died in November 2020. Still, while the Gogoi era saw the Guwahati skyline incorporate five-star hotels, AFSPA continued to be clamped on the city that is considered the gateway to the Northeast – to help maintain the delicate peace. Thus, Guwahati became a unique example of an emerging Indian city that had high rises, malls, and AFSPA. The saga continues.

Given that the NHRC chairperson’s mandate is to ensure that citizens’ human rights are protected – and not to always agree with the government of the day – Justice Mishra might also like to take note of the fact that in the Kangpokpi area of Manipur, villagers this August sat on dharna for many days, demanding justice for a young villager who they said had died from the bullets of an army major after he was picked up from his home. The major is protected by AFSPA. As are the killers of Manorama, the young woman whose 2004 killing rocked the state for years.

Elusive ‘peace’ in Nagaland

Perhaps Mishra could have at least waited for the Naga peace talks to culminate in an accord before complimenting Shah for ushering in a ‘new era of peace’ in the Northeast. This would mean Shah – unlike his predecessors – successfully convincing the NSCN (Isak-Muivah) to bring the curtains down on the oldest insurgency in the Northeast. Ironically, Mishra’s premature praise comes weeks after the Modi government removed Naga talks interlocutor R.N. Ravi most likely because peace had not come to that state yet as envisaged. Remember that Ravi had been appointed Nagaland’s governor to push peace.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi witnessing the exchange of the peace accord text by interlocutor R.N. Ravi and NSCN(I-M) leader Th. Muivah in New Delhi on August 3, 2015. Photo: PTI

Mishra’s praise also comes at a time when the people of Assam and Mizoram have yet to overcome something they had not witnessed in recent history – their longstanding boundary conflict catapulting into such an ugly crisis that the police of the respective states fired at each other, resulting in an FIR against a state chief minister. Mishra must be reminded that the fiasco occurred just days after Shah, in a meeting of Northeastern chief ministers in Shillong, had directed them to sort out their border disputes with Assam and usher in ‘a new era of peace’.

The NHRC chief should also be reminded about the three unarmed youngsters who were gunned down on their way home from an anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protest in Guwahati in December 2019, apparently hours after a senior police officer was sent to the state by Shah’s ministry to ‘maintain law and order’. That incident was a rude reminder to the Assamese public about the dark days of insurgency in the 1990s, when no one was safe on the streets.

Maybe Mishra needs to be reminded that the present BJP government in Assam has instructed the state police force to shoot at any person fleeing from them. If only Justice Mishra could tell us which section of the Indian Penal Code grants the police such powers; or what he, as the NHRC chairperson, intends to do to end this impunity.

Waiting for the fruits of ‘peace’, the Bru and Meghalaya too

Let’s also remind Justice Mishra that in neighbouring Meghalaya, this past August, a former militant leader, apparently aiding the government in bringing an outlawed group (HNLC) to the table for a peace talk, was gunned down at his residence in a Shillong neighbourhood while he was sleeping. The people had not seen such a killing in the heart of the capital in recent history and took out huge protests. The BJP is part of the government in that state too.

In January 2020, New Delhi reached a second agreement with representatives of the Bru refugees of Tripura, as per which they would now be settled in that state itself, instead of Mizoram from where they had fled in the 1990s. In 2019, the first agreement signed by the Modi government proposed to resettle the refugees in Mizoram. But they refused to be shifted out, as they were not being resettled in their original areas. The MHA even shut the supply of ration to the camps in Tripura several times as a pressure tactic, forcing some refugees to agree to resettlement in the new areas in Mizoram. In April this year, the process of settling them permanently in Tripura has begun, even as the real challenge to reintegrate those who have gone back to Mizoram with the majority Mizo community looms over Shah’s ministry and the state government.

Bru refugees cast their vote during an election (File Photo | Credits: PTI)

File photo of Bru refugees lining up to cast their vote during an election. Photo: PTI

§

In the last segment of her ‘Peace Has Come’ triptych, Parismita introduces readers to two non-Bodo men – teachers Pradip and Dwipen – passing by an army checkpoint on a bike. One of them is caught by an army officer and taken to an adjacent room. Panic struck, he is asked to read a letter in the Bodo language written in the Devanagiri script (the Bodo language is written in the Devanagiri and Roman scripts).

Pradip, a teacher, is considered safe because he was not a ‘local’, and was thus somebody the army officer could trust. Trying to save his life, Pradip reads and re-reads the letter, nearly memorising the words. He realises it is a confidential letter written in formal Bodo language, not the kind he knows.

Unwilling to admit his lack of knowledge of the language, he tells the army man, “Sir, but I don’t know any Hindi, sir. You will be able to read it.”

The officer, disgusted at wasting his time on a ‘non-local’ who didn’t even know the formal Bodo language, eventually allows him to leave. Both Pradip and Dwipen quickly depart.

At a safe distance, Pradip tells Dwipen that the letter seemed confidential and though he couldn’t understand it, he remembers the words written in the Hindi script. Since Dwipen is better at Bodo, Pradip has the urge to write the words on paper. They stop by the road.

After reading out the string of words, Dwipen slaps Pradip on the back and bursts out laughing. He said, “Peace has come and those guys, they don’t know it because they can’t read the language!”

“Pradip stared at him for a moment, and joined in his laughter. They were both laughing so hard, they had to hold each other and the bike for support, snot flowing from their noses, tears flowing from their eyes.”

Parismita’s story – and book – end with these lines: “Peace had come to this land, and they were the only ones to know.”

May be like Pradip and Dwipen, the NHRC chief, sitting in faraway Delhi, in the company of Modi and Shah, knows something most of us don’t.

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