PSPD in English Archive 2008-11-04   3241

[Colum on Asia]Forgotten 9/11’s and one untold from the “land of Hobgoblins and Demons”

Forgotten 9/11’s and
one untold from the “land of Hobgoblins and Demons”

Today is 11th of September or to put it in American way it is 9/11. Mentioning of 9/11 to most people would conjure up an image of “Islamic demon” hijacked planes hitting the WTC tower; an appalling crime against humanity killing close to 3000 people. It was indeed a crime against humanity; but here I remember what the Pakistani statesman and roving revolutionary Eqbal ahmad had to say way back in 1998, he was appealing, almost pleading with the American state, to take stock, look inwards and stop committing atrocities against people in large parts of the world, especially in West Asia. It was almost as if he could see 9/11 coming and the world being driven to the brink of a disaster from which there might be no return. But indeed the 9/11 of 2001 gave us a glimpse of apocalypse with undifferentiated masses of the so-called “barbaric Muslim” world being almost bombed out of existence in the name of exporting democracy and fighting ‘terrorism’. However, today I don’t intend to re-render the American neo-imperial design nor I wish to talk about the “sexed up” clashes of civilization.

Without trivializing the human expense of 9/11 of 2001, let’s remember the forgotten and tell untold 9/11’s of our modern history. It was a morning of 9/11 in Chile when General Augusto Pinochet led his tanks up to the La Moneda ousting the immensely popular democratic regime of Salvador Allende in the bloodiest coup in the history of Latin America, butchering 3000 people not to mention thousands killed and made to disappear during the subsequent dictatorship of Pinochet. Chile’s national stadium was turned into a concentration camp and thousands were slaughtered there, one among them was one of my personal icons – the legendary folk singer Victor Hara. Hara’s fingers were first chopped off and then he was order to play his guitar with his bleeding palm before being shot. Today, one doesn’t have to be a student of history to know who the authors of this 9/11 were. It were the same ‘authors’ who today ‘write’ about democratizing the  “barbaric”; today the U.S secretary of state, Condi Rice, trots the third world parroting about  advantage of ‘democracy’ (read ‘US tutelage’); three decade ago another Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, frustrated with Allende’s pro-people and anti-US corporation policies shouted, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

 There is another 9/11 which we have forgotten about. It was the 9/11 of 1906 in South Africa where the first WMD of modern history was launched by Gandhi, not weapon of mass destruction but weapon of mass disobedience, in a clearly non-violent war against racism and colonialism; something which we today know as satyagraha. As Gandhi latter reflected, it was that day of 9/11 in 1906 that the strategy of satyagraha or seeking the truth through non-violence started which was to not only dock the South African government but latter also rattle British rule in Indian sub-continent, a chapter of history too well known. It definitely started a procedure of anti-colonial struggle which caught up in many parts of the British Empire. It was also to be adopted latter in the land of Kissingers and Rices and Bushes by none other than Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement in the 1960’s.

But there is yet another 9/11, untold and unknown to large part of the world, the legacy of which I would like to talk about in some length. It was the 9/11 of 1958 in the largest democracy in the world called India – ironically the land of the same Gandhi. On this day, exactly 50 years ago, the President of India gave his assent to a legislation enacted by Parliament to make it into a law뾲he Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFPSA 1958). This act which is still in place itself is a re-invention of colonial “Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance” promulgated by the British to suppress the Indian freedom struggle. Large parts of, what is called the North-East India today, is governed by this Act; superimposing a proxy military rule over a titular civil governmental camouflage. Today, the highly militarized North-east witnesses a death toll of approximately 1000 civilian every year.

But before going into the absurd details of AFPSA let me revert back to another September legacy in the North-east. The princely State of Manipur to the North east of newly independent India, constituted a democratic legislative assembly through universal adult franchise in 1948, probably one of the first amongst most part of Asia. This was even before India had an elected or otherwise constituent assembly. But following the decision to ‘take over’ Manipur, the newly independent Dominion India effected a Merger Agreement with the Maharajah (king who was subservient to the elected assembly) on 21st September 1949 through a militaristic maneuver without the sanction of the democratically constituted Manipur Legislative Assembly. Subsequently, an Indian army battalion arrived on 12th October 1949 in the capital of Manipur, and the first Legislative Assembly in entire South Asia or probably whole of Asia constituted through an election based on universal adult franchise was unceremoniously dissolved on 15th October 1949 when the Merger Agreement came into force. From a state with its own constitution and a democratically constituted Legislative Assembly, Manipur lapsed into rule by New Delhi through Chief Commissioners and Lt. Governors with no direct democratic accountability to the people.   

Anyway, coming back to the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFPSA). What exactly is it? It is probably the shortest Act in the world governing life of around 20 million people, it runs only into 6 pages. It governs military action in the Northeast which confers special powers upon members of the Indian army and para-military troops in the ‘disturbed areas’ of the region. However the act doesn’t define the term “disturb areas.” Under the Section 4 (a) of the Act, any Armed Forces officer, warrant officer, non-commission officer may “if he is of the opinion that it is necessary to do so for maintenance of public order, after giving such due warning as he may consider necessary, fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death? .

Similarly, section 4(b) of the Act allows such military personnel to destroy any shelter (houses, building etc) from which, in his opinion, armed attacks “are likely to be made” or which has been used as a hideout by absconders “wanted for any offence.” Section 4(c) of this Act permits arrest without warrant, with whatever “force as may be necessary” of any person against whom a “reasonable suspicion exists that he is about to commit a cognizable offence.” This has provided the basis of indiscriminate arrests, and gross misuse of force including innumerable incidences of firing upon civilian. Moreover, for Indian military personnel operating in culturally alien place like Northeast, reasonable suspicions are most of the time wholly unfounded. Furthermore, under section 6 (the last section) “no prosecution, suit or legal proceeding shall be instituted꿢gainst any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of powers conferred by this act.” This literally means complete legal impunity to military personnel.

Because of the legal cover for militarization provided by this Act, the patterns and intensity of human rights violation by Indian armed forces have been fairly consistent which includes extra-judicial deprivation of liberty of people, rape and molestation of local women, firing upon unarmed civilians, extreme forms of torture like anal penetration with stick smeared with petrol and chilly powder etc etc.

But one pertinent question remains as to how could such a blatantly militaristic and (actually operating) draconian law exist in a supposedly well functioning democracy of the magnitude of India. Reasons must be abound but looking into history unlocks some answer.
The Northeast was the last area to be taken over by the British in the “Indian Sub-continent.” With the colonial occupation, the region was transformed into am imperial frontier. The hills beyond the fertile plains of Assam were administered in a limited way, largely left at the hands of tradition chiefs once they accepted British suzerainty. The princely kingdoms of Tripura and Manipur were treated ad dependencies, remote controlled by political agents. The so-called “freebooting and plundering” hill tribes were made to act as a buffer to the aggressive Burmese Kingdom. Early colonial administrators agreed that the region is “more a land of demons, hobgoblins and various terrors”.

As a close reading of Col. S.G. Burrard’s account in his “Records of the Survey of India: Exploration on the North-East Frontier, vol. IV” confirms, to the British eyes the denseness of its jungles, the steep precipices, the torrential streams created a sharp geographical line separating the known from the unknown, civilization from savagery. The colonial representation of the geography matched its representation of the people. ‘The Assamese,’ Colonel Butler writes, ‘have ferocious manners, and brutal tempers. They are fond of war, vindictive, treacherous and deceitful?the seeds of humanity and tenderness have not been sowed in their frames’. Moreover, the colonial administrators found that people and culture of the region were not similar to, by then much celebrated (in Europe), greater Indic civilization; hence the region and its people were reduced in the colonial official discourse into a wild frontier society without history. This unthinkability of history survived and in fact has been reinforced in post colonial India. Even today, intellectuals, scholars and the Indian State by and large view the region as a “militant” frontier peopled by insurgent groups who have no respect for the sacred national history.

This has persisted not because of some kind of ignorance on part of the national elites who inherited power from the British, but because there is a crucial “absence” in the imagination of Indian nation itself. This “absence” makes its presence felt in the absent history of the region in the school history textbooks where Northeast gets marked as a blank space, in a manner similar to how Europeans used to mark the world beyond Europe as “blank spaces”, as lands inhabited by history-less barbaric people who needs to be civilized. A process similar to which created the myth of social Darwinism and racialized half of the world was also in operation in the imagination of Indian nation. It was an imagination solely based on the mythical and glorific ‘superiority of the Indo-Aryan civilization of today’s North India. Thus in popular Indian imagination the North-East gets transformed into an alien and hostile space within the domestic sphere of Indian Nation-State facilitating special policy and warranting survival of Acts like the AFSPA.

The “absence” in national imagination and perceived racial difference gets connected with Indian state’s fear of “disintegration” and it’s expansionist dream since its inception (here I would not be able to elaborate how even during anti-colonial struggle itself Indian nationalist dream went far beyond South Asia). Long before insurgency and guns became a characteristic of Northeast and secessionist voices were heard in the Hills and valleys of Northeast, fears of perceived ‘disunity’ and racism got echoed in the statements made by the First Home Minister of independent India, when he wrote to Prime Minister Nehru on 7th November, 1950:

“The undefined state of the frontier [in the northeast] and the existence on our side of a population with its affinities to Tibetans or Chinese have all the elements of potential trouble between China and ourselves. Our northern or north-eastern approaches consist of Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, the Darjeeling and tribal areas in Assam…. The people inhabiting these portions have no established loyalty or devotion to India…The political and administrative steps which we should take to strengthen our northern and north-eastern frontiers” were to

“include the whole of the border, i.e., Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling and the tribal territory in Assam.”
No wonder Charles Bowles, the then US ambassador to India, commenting on the peace and friendship treaty which India signed with the king of Nepal in 1950, said “So India has done on a small scale in Nepal what we have done on a far broader scale on two continents.”

The fact that Democratic polity of India have been unable to come up with policy for Northeast which is not based on military and security agencies is indicative of subservience of democracy to militaristic authoritative ideals. Without a strong foundation in equality and appreciation of difference among population, democracy doesn’t attain any meaning. In this respect, Northeast provides a huge challenge to all progressive and democratic forces in “mainland” India, a task it as utterly failed to live up to in the past.

BONO ( ARENA, NGOl activist)


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