The pin code of Dimapur is 797112 and it will always remain ingrained on my soul. Like many of us, I do not remember a lot of things including passwords, telephone numbers of best friends, or for that matter, my phone number. Yet, 797112 was the first fascinating code I wrote down on an envelope as little girl and realised that it situated me to a place I called home. Today, when I say 797112, it is not solely about locating my life’s journey to an address, but it is also more about a connection to a place I continue to call home: my reservoir of memories.
Type the words “The Dimapur lynching” on Google search, and numerous websites ranging from the British Broadcasting Corporation webpage to the prominent national newspapers like the Times of India, The Hindu, and the electronic media headlines would appear on your screen. On March 5, 2015, when an alleged rapist named Syed Farid Khan from the neighbouring state of Assam was taken out of the city prison Central Jail and lynched on the street of Dimapur, the global community turned its gaze on the city of Dimapur and condemned the killing.
The lynching of Farid Khan unfolded like a horrifying act, as the mob in Dimapur captured the violence on their smart phones and posted it on the Internet. In the aftermath of the violence, editorial pages of newspapers and magazines across India carried several articles of news analyses and opinion on the Dimapur incident. Prominent commentators and scholars condemned the violence, going to the extent of calling the Naga people a xenophobic community. The emphasis on the deteriorating situation of law and order in Nagaland and across Northeast India was highlighted. The culture of violence and xenophobic nature of the mob that emerged during the 2015 Dimapur Lynching was defined as part of Naga culture, thus holding the entire Naga collective responsible for the brutal violence.
Such an understanding of Naga culture is extremely male-centric, patriarchal, and reinforces the reactionary worldview of Naga culture. The commentators failed to see the contentious cultural and political issue of representation in contemporary Naga society. Many of us, who advocate for equal political participation of Naga women in the customary legal institutions and the parliamentary politics in Nagaland, do not make this demand on the basis of proclaiming or asserting an authentic and a pure Naga history.
When I was growing up, I could never imagine that my hometown Dimapur would become a front-page or a national television “breaking news” material, or for that matter, that it would be associated with a lynching incident. Dimapur, I thought, was a dusty commercial hub, which carried the proud title of being the “first” of several things in Nagaland: it had the first and only airport in the state, the sole railway station, and the only city in the state where you can get a rickshaw ride. In other words, the city was the economic centre of the state. Many of the villagers and residents from the 11 districts spread across the hills of Nagaland come to Dimapur to shop, receive medical attention, and scout for educational institutions for their wards.
Unlike the manner in which tribal societies are portrayed – as dancing and singing mascots of diversity in contemporary India – the reality is quite different. The government of Nagaland states that 80% of Nagas living in the state are subsistence farmers and live in rural areas. For most rural Naga families, like others living across North East India, the experiences of poverty, sickness, and indebtedness are harsh everyday realities. They have arrived here after more than five decades of armed conflict and counter-insurgency. Thus, it is important to establish the history of structural violence in the long drawn Indo-Naga armed conflict, with the thriving militarised economy in Dimapur.
Imagine the flow of money and human relations, as goods and services exchange hands. Imagine the power brokers who negotiate for the various contracts and taxes on goods that arrive in Dimapur town. Imagine hundreds and thousands of rupees worth of commodities in the form of cars, grain, hardware, and medicine (to name a few) that are sold and purchased everyday in the city of Dimapur. Imagine the political patronage and the hierarchies of authorities. Who buys these goods and who are the moneyed people in this militarised economy? Where do small traders like Farid Khan, who sold used cars, operate in this hierarchy?
I do not have answers to these questions, but those of us who have experienced life in such militarised economic hubs, will exercise caution before making reckless charges of xenophobia and insularity on those who live in such universes.
After all, as we condemn the lynching of Farid Khan, we have to remember that his life as a resident and a businessman who dealt in used cards, was attached to larger financial structures and networks of this city. As we all know, markets do not exist in a vacuum, so we cannot think about the economy as autonomous or separate from society and the political life. Thus, the relationship between Naga buyers and non-Naga traders settled in Dimapur from the neighboring states of Assam, West Bengal, Bihar and places as far away as Rajasthan, and Gujarat, is not simply about economic transactions. As in other militarised societies, the social and political symbols and assertions of power in Dimapur are with the tribal elite and the trading communities who control the demand and supply chains ranging from salt, rice, life saving drugs, to fuel.
On the night of February 23, 2015, it was a Naga man who invited a college girl – who was allegedly raped by Khan – for a drive and an ice cream treat. It might have been a story about a friend who was simply fixing a date for another friend who had a crush on a girl from the same neighbourhood. The neighbourhood in Dimapur where Farid lived was diverse, with people from different ethnicities and religions living in very close proximity to one another. In this dense, connected world, it is not possible to accept that Farid Khan’s life was detached from the everyday realities and experiences of living in a militarised society.
Voices from Dimapur
In the aftermath of the Dimapur Lynching, a curfew was imposed on the entire city for approximately a week. Markets, schools, offices and educational institutions remained closed. An Indian Army truck patrolling the streets of Dimapur carried a banner declaring in Nagamese Morom pera shanti rakhibi (Please observe peace). That the banner was written in Nagamese, the lingua franca of the border towns between Assam and Nagaland, and not in English, captures the spirit of Dimapur and the people who live in this city.
As BBC reporters in London, television anchors in New Delhi and India’s intellectuals spoke to condemn the violence, they drowned the voices of the citizens of Dimapur, who were the first to condemn the gruesome action of the mob. On March 5, 2015, mothers wept and fell on their knees to pray, shopkeepers pulled down their shutters in protest against the violence, young men and women rushed home from work, wiping their tears after they heard about the murder. Naga organisations, ranging from cultural associations to tribal forums, condemned the lynching.
The Dimapur Lynching will remain on the minds of those of us who condemn violence and believe that mobs can never deliver justice, for time to come. Among all the questions the lynching tragedy brought up, was the issue of rape – an allegation for which the deceased had to pay for with his life. Ironically, it was the issue of rape and Khan’s larger social identity as a citizen of a violent city like Dimapur that were politicised and eliminated from the debate.
Fetishisation of justice
Many articles, that were written after the Dimapur lynching, refused to read sexual violence and the culture of impunity against the backdrop of the history of militarisation, but referred to the failure of the law enforcing agencies to do their duty. There is little doubt that the law enforcing machinery failed at their job, but judging Naga society as a xenophobic collective that reacted on the mere suspicion of sexual violence, falls short of addressing a core issue at hand.
It fails to see how violent households and rapists do not belong to a single ethnic community, class, caste, or race. Defining the characteristics and traits of the larger Naga society on the basis of the actions of a frantic mob in Dimapur was striking. It exposed how the many well-intentioned political commentators and intellectuals were trapped by a parochial definition of culture as though it is a framework that is solely applicable to tribal people. Thus, many who followed the Dimapur Lynching story were fascinated and fetishised justice as the gory violence unfolded on the streets of Dimapur. Was that the Naga savages' way of delivering justice? Did the bloodthirsty head hunting traits come alive on the streets of Dimapur? Was this a regular pronouncement of justice in Naga society? Was this customary law at work?
Let me elaborate the point about the fetishisation of justice I note in the paragraph above. Both the mob that lynched Farid Khan and the political commentators who spoke about the breakdown of law and order, were speaking from the same moral ground.
The mob reasoned that they were taking the law into their own hands because there was no order on the streets of Dimapur to handle cases of crimes against women. While they touched upon the issue of sexual violence, the Dimapur mob seemed to frame only a Naga woman’s body as the site of rape, thereby justifying their masculinist patriarchal beliefs that they were out to protect the pride, glory, and prestige of Naga society. This seemed to imply a preposterous logic that those who are protectors could not be perpetrators of the same crime.
The commentators who condemned the Dimapur Lynching seemed to frame their position on this reactionary logic, thereby holding the entire Naga society accountable for the violence. It will be a tragedy if the task of locating the dignity and purity of any society is unquestionably placed at the hands of leaders and collectives who consider women and the marginalised and poor as non-speaking subjects without any agency.
As we agree that the Dimapur lynching was violent, so also we ought to agree that the malicious campaigns against the girl who filed the police report for the sexual assault was unjustified. A sex worker, a liar, a college girl looking for some fun, a consensual sexual rendezvous gone bad, a blackmail on an innocent man – these were some of the allegations. What is important to note is that the victim went to a police station in Dimapur to file her complaint and did not at any point approach the mob to take up her case. She sought the assistance of the law and order agency in Dimapur, the same agency that had failed to protect Farid Khan, and the same agency that had failed to control the Dimapur mob on March 5, 2015.
Situating Farid Khan in Dimapur
Perhaps what we need to critique, is the normalisation of violence and the culture of impunity that reigns large in such militarised societies where the guilty – be it Indian security forces or the mob that lynched Farid Khan – reiterate the necessity to establish a form of justice based on race, caste, or religion. If the nationwide condemnation of the Dimapur Lynching and the initial media reports suggested that Farid Khan was killed because he was a Muslim or an Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrant, we have to expose the culture of exclusion that predominates when such accounts are written.
First, majority of the commentators and the media reports distanced themselves from the social world that Farid Khan lived in in Dimapur. With the exception of few reporters like Dola Mitra, a journalist from the national new magazine the Outlook, who gave a voice to Farid Khan’s Naga wife, his neighbors, friends and associates, many articulate opinion makers and commentators treated the people closest to Farid Khan as non-speaking subjects and assumed that they were unfit to bear testimony of his life.
By denying the importance of locating the Dimapur Lynching to a culture of impunity, violence, and militarisation, the events that unfolded chronologically after Khan’s death showed us how a hostile wave of nationalism, religious fanaticism, and xenophobia swept across Assam and Nagaland.
Like many traders in Dimapur, Farid Khan moved within the labyrinth and nurtured friendships and alliances to seek new contacts and connections. Some commentators who painted the life of Farid Khan solely as a family man, and a Muslim victim who hailed from Assam, denied him the city where he lived, made connections, and lost his life. Such simplified renditions of reality are akin to recognising the victory of the shrillest voice in the mob that demanded his blood. To recognize Farid Khan as a foreigner and label him as solely belonging to Assam (or even as a citizen of Bangladesh had he travelled across the border) is to oppose the choices thousands of people who choose to settle down in Dimapur and call it their home.
If we do not re-examine these positions, we too join the chorus of the violent mob in Dimapur and elsewhere around the world to reproduce a dangerous myth of ethnic and religious purity, and a fixed notion of belonging and rootedness. We simply cannot afford to propagate these visions. To condemn the Dimapur Lynching is to bring the testimonies and lives of the neighbourhood which Farid Khan lived in, a locality where the poor, vulnerable and the marginalised accommodate one another, as they struggle to survive in this city of sorrow, Dimapur 797112.