Nation's honour: the Dimapur lynching and 'illegal Bangladeshi immigrants'

The brutal public killing was not just about an alleged rape, it was also about racism.

Much has been said on the Dimapur lynching since the night of March 5, when a mob stormed the Dimapur Central Jail, dragged out inmate Syed Sarif Uddin Khan, stripped him, paraded him to the city’s main junction, and lynched him as a gleeful lot clicked photographs on their mobile phones.

While the photographs and a video of the horrific lynching, that went viral on social media, attracted widespread condemnation, most people still remain under the impression that the killing happened because Khan allegedly raped a Sumi Naga woman on the night of February 23.

What needs to be pointed out, however, is that the outrage and the lynching of Khan were not primarily about the rape of a woman. They were more about how an outsider, more so a “lowly” Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrant (or IBI), violated the Naga nation’s honour reposited in the bodies of its women by raping one of its “daughters”.

Syed Sarif Uddin Khan was originally from the Karimganj district of Assam, and ironically came from a family of army men. It is also true that he had been a long-time resident of Dimapur, was married to a Sumi Naga woman, and has a three-year-old daughter. But none of these facts matter because Khan will remain an IBI for the lynch mob and scores of other people in Nagaland. This is so because most people in the North East believe that all Bengali Muslims are IBIs.

I have written elsewhere that, in the North East, IBI no longer has a literal meaning nor is it about citizenship – it is a racist shorthand, a template: a discursive formation under consolidation since the late 1970s. It represents Bengali Muslims in the North East as a homogeneous collective that is “lesser human”, “a menace” or, in its extreme form, a “locust”.

Racist shorthands

This ambiguous category is accorded a series of stereotypes about sexual virulence, natural (almost genetic) proneness to criminality, being uncivilised to the extent of being inhumanly dirty or unhygienic, breeding faster than dogs, etc.

The deployment of these kinds of stereotypes has remained the hallmark of a regressive process worldwide of viewing a targeted group of people in a racial context. Many of the anti-immigrant racist movements in the first world also use similar terms.

The stereotype of sexual virulence is particularly made to stand out so that every member of the racialised group becomes a potential predator, waiting for an opportunity to violate the honour of the host nation “embodied in the nation’s women”.

This uncertain category of IBI draws its historical nutrients from the complex history of the eastern theatre of the Partition. In the ethnically Balkanized milieu of the North East, Bengali Muslims are the easiest target of “racialised otherisation”.

Marking Bengali Muslims out as the outsider does not become easy because they are 'different', but because in terms of certain cultural markers they are similar to the perceived embodiment of Bangladeshiness.

IBI as an ambiguous category first got consolidated during the anti-Bangladeshi immigrant Assam Movement (1979-1985), which provided various ethnic/nationality movements in the North East with a template to view Bengali Muslims as the outsider irrespective of their citizenship status. It was compounded by the killings of Bengali Muslims, like in the 1983 Nellie massacres in Assam.

Simplistic analysis

Some analysts in the North East have tried to explain the outrage that led to the lynching by pointing out the “egalitarian” nature of the Naga society. According to the National Crime Records Bureau data, in 2013, only 51 cases of crime against women were registered in Nagaland as against the all India figure of 309,546 cases. The argument goes that in a society with such low level of crime against women, a heinous crime like rape is bound to lead to serious public outrage. What these analysts fail to mention is that scores of crime against women go unreported and many such cases are adjudicated under the Naga Customary Law by traditional bodies.

It is true that in many societies in the North East, the status of women is far better compared to many parts of mainland India, but it does not mean that crimes against women do not occur and it is not uncommon to read in local media reports of molestations, harassments, kidnapping s and rapes.

Just four days after Khan allegedly committed the crime, on February 27, a 39-year-old Konyak Naga man reportedly raped a 6-year-old girl in Mon district. As per reports in local media, the incident took place when the accused, a father of two, had gone to attend a funeral service. On his way home, he allegedly lured the victim on the pretext of buying sweets at a shop and committed the crime in his house. It did not lead to outrage. There was not even a statement by any civil society organisation.

The Naga accomplice

Even in Khan’s case none of the outrage that led to the lynching has been directed towards the fact that the accomplice in the alleged rape happens to be a Naga man. This Naga person was also arrested on February 24 along with Khan and is currently lodged under judicial custody in the same Dimapur Central Jail from where Khan was dragged out and paraded naked in chains before being lynched.

In fact local civil society organisations and local media have actively downplayed this fact to the extent that the identity of this Naga person has not been revealed in the public domain till today.

For the past few years there has been a growing clamour against IBIs in Nagaland, especially in Dimapur. In fact, coincidently on February 24, the day Khan and his Naga accomplice were arrested, the Naga Students’ Federation, as a part of its state-wide campaign tour against IBIs, had organised a consultative meeting in Dimapur with the Naga Council Dimapur, tribal hohos and union, Dimapur Naga Mothers’ Association and its constituent units, Dimapur Chamber of Commerce & Industries, and Dimapur town ward/colony leaders.

A day prior to the consultative meeting, the Naga Students’ Federation had issued a strongly worded statement, signed by its president Tongpang Ozukum and finance secretary Shikavi Achumi, vowing to “tackle the menace of illegal Bangladesh immigrant”.

The statement strongly condemned the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Isak Muivah, which runs a parallel government in Nagaland, over the allegation that NSCN (I-M) had appointed one Nurjahan Hussain as a tax collector. In this regard the statement said:

“If the claim of Nurjahan Hussian as one of the tax collectors of NSCN (I-M) is true, then it is a disgrace to the entire Naga people… Naga people will never agree to fight for our inherent rights with the support of nomads and illegal immigrants; rather, Nagas will choose to fight alone but honourable battle to achieve our goal.”

The rape is alleged to have been committed by Khan on February 23, the victim filed a police complaint on February 24 and, on the same day, Khan and his Naga accomplice were arrested. However, the news was not reported in the local media until March 3, and that is when civil society organisations swung into action.

In the cacophony of statements that were issued by various civil society organisations in Dimapur between March 3 and March 5, the central issue of the alleged rape and violence against women in general took a back seat. In all the statements, the central issue became: an IBI has yet again raped a Naga woman. The question that should baffle everyone is: How does the society differentiate between rape of women by men of their own community and by men of another community?

It is worth mentioning here that most of these statements have disappeared from the internet after the March 5 lynching, and what remains are excerpts printed in local newspapers.

Demands for handover

Two of the most influential civil society organizations – the Naga Council-Dimapur and the Naga Women Hoho-Dimapur – were the first to issue a joint statement in which they proclaimed that the rape “exposes Naga weakness”.

The Morung Express published a photograph of Khan on the first page of its March 4 edition, with a screaming headline that read “Heinous crime exposes Naga weakness says NCD & NWHD”.

The joint statement, signed by NCD treasurer Chiten Konyak and NWHD president Hukheli T Wotsa, claimed that “unless all Nagas take responsibility to tackle the menace of unabated IBI influx and their stay in the state, crime against our women and daughters by these people will only increase”. It further stated that if “Naga society refuses to wake up such crimes will only keep recurring and Nagas can only watch and condemn meekly”. The statement ended with a cautionary advice to Naga society. “Lastly, Naga families would also do well to learn that marrying off their daughters to IBIs or adopting them does not beget anything good.”

The Naga Students’ Federation also issued a strong statement, signed by its president Tongpang Ozukum on March 3, where it stated that “time and again Naga civil societies have raised concerns about the danger of harbouring Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrants (IBIs) in our own home, giving them shelter and security… it is because of our obstinate attitude and relaxed nature, such heinous crime is being committed by the IBIs without any hesitation”.

Asserting that the recent incident was not just a heinous crime but a direct challenge to the entire Naga community, the statement further said that “unless we act tough on these people, slowly but surely these people become masters our [sic] Nagas in our own land”.

Blaming social media

While questions should have been raised about the police’s inefficiency and perhaps complicity in the lynching, Nagaland Chief Minister TR Zeliang, in a kneejerk reaction, has blamed social media users for the flare-up and the subsequent lynching.

It would do well to both TR Zeliang and Naga society at large if he musters the courage to condemn and initiate action against the leaders of those civil society organisations that made libellous and false statements, calling for mob (in)justice.

One can only begin to shiver at the very idea if chauvinistic and dominant sections of the whole of North East decide to ‘solidarise’ to tackle the IBI issue in such a way.

In lieu of a long conclusion, let me end by recalling a 2004 solidarity meeting with Lieutenant General (Retd) VS Atem of Nagalim Army (NSCN I-M faction) in Delhi. General Atem was then an interlocutor on behalf of the NSCN (I-M) in the peace talks with the government of India. Some of us asked him what would happen to all the non-Naga migrant workers and petty traders in the future Christian Socialist Republic of Nagalim. The General smiled and said, “We Nagas are simple folks, we will need the help of all our migrant friends to run the economy. They would be equal citizens.”

One only wishes that the good General’s words would come true.

Bonojit Hussain is an independent researcher and an activist associated with the New Socialist Initiative.

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