The Danger Of A Single Story

Maitreyee B Chowdhury

Mar 11, 2015, 06:25 PM | Updated Feb 11, 2016, 08:44 AM IST

Was the alleged rapist targetted by a mob in Dimapur lynched because of his religion, nationality or skin? Clinging on to any one of these theories would be misleading

As a child, I grew up in a small industrial town in Assam. As is the case in most other industrial towns, you are slightly cut off from the reality of what happens outside of it. More so perhaps because you are under the perceivable secular thread of the township that sweeps all of us off our feet in the lull of hope. This lull often makes us forget that society remains as divided today as it was way back in history.

I am reminded of a line from Amandeep Sandhu’s book, Roll of Honour, “Of all that transpires in the heart, hope is the meanest because it tints ones understanding of reality.” As such, the bubble of our innocent understanding of society and its differences was punctured only during our many outings to the different places in the Northeast — outside the township.

The 1980s was a particularly interesting time to grow up, especially in terms of political changes in Assam when viewed from the discerning angle of an ethnographer, a role I increasingly find myself in. The immigrant issue has dominated the Northeast for many years now — one that saw the states of Meghalaya, Assam and Nagaland being particularly affected.  Even as a school-going child, I was aware of a few tangents, which seemed to be rushing towards similar goals. In the post-Bangladesh era, the anti-immigrant conflict loomed large in most of these states.

The consequent turmoil had many political reverberations, prominent amongst which was the rise of several political organizations and outfits like the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which came into being as a by-product of the Assam Movement spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union (AASU, born in 1979) that had been fighting to remove what was seen as illegal infiltration from across the Bangladesh border. Also the Khasi Students Union (KSU) and the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) sprang up during this time. While the NSCN mostly wanted the unification of all areas inhabited by the Nagas in the Northeast, the KSU operated in Meghalaya.

A scene of the curfew break in Dimapur. Source: AFP PHOTO / Caisii Mao
A scene of the curfew break in Dimapur. Source: AFP PHOTO / Caisii Mao

The common agenda here was fighting the immigrants and taking back all such opportunities which they thought were meant for the tribal people. In this fight, Marwaris, Bengalis and Sindhis were all considered immigrants of similar hue (irrespective of the intricate community differences and factions that lay within this wider group). About this very trend, it was reported in the India Today, 1-15 May, 1980 edition: “Aside from the anti-foreigner sentiment, the movement has developed other dangerous strains – anti-Bengali, anti-Left, anti-Muslim, anti-non Assamese, and slowly but discernibly, even anti-Indian.”

Back in the eighties, many of our summer vacations were spent visiting Nagaland, as one of my uncles worked and lived in Kohima with his family. In between spending time with the cousins and the extended family, we often unwittingly became witness to the movement that raged against the perception of ‘foreigners’ even then. As kids however, we restricted ourselves to being disappointed by the curfew that was levied on most days, as it meant that almost every time we were in Nagaland, we found ourselves under house arrest that restricted our movements even within the city of Kohima. Many evenings would be spent in the dark as the situation was not always conducive to touristy sightseeing or even market hopping, and being as inconspicuous as possible, we were told, was a better idea. During most of our visits, friends would drop in and we would hear stories of how pet dogs were taken away as they were considered a delectable culinary dish in this part of the country, or how in spite of speaking fluent Nagamese, non-Nagas were the butt of ridicule.

I have one particular vivid memory of the last time we visited Kohima. On the bus that would take us back to Dimapur, my father had a window seat. As we waited for the bus to leave, a rather hefty Naga man approached my father and signalled to him that he wanted the window seat. My father showed him the ticket that had allotted him that seat. In response, the man took out a large butcher’s knife and wielded it. Interestingly, not a word was exchanged as we vacated our seats and stood rather confused about where to seat ourselves next. Thankfully, another Naga gentleman signalled to my father that he should not speak or show his anger and quietly directed him to a seat next to his own.

As I recollect these stories that pervade the memory of a youngster growing up in a region that has been besieged by uprisings, cultural conflicts, agitations and much more, I am glad that I haven’t been inflicted by the danger of the single story. Most of us are impressionable and vulnerable even as children, and often we are faced with the threat of being lost in our single stories that manage to make an impression on us.

Luckily for me, I have been in a position to witness both sides of the story and have as many tales of love to narrate as there are of conflict. But today when I read, aghast at the mob lynching of Syed Sharif Khan in Nagaland over the alleged rape of a Naga girl, I wonder if even into adulthood many of us carry the burden of a single story. The danger of these single stories are that they tell us a one-sided tale, of a situation we believe in without informing ourselves better.

It is important to understand that such mob behaviour cannot be provoked by a single story of rape or a few people’s opinions about immigrants. It would suffice to say perhaps that this behaviour is a result of the latent anger amongst most of the locals, which resurfaces every time any such incident against a non-tribal is reported. There is a general feeling in these parts of the country that Bangladeshis have increasingly taken over land and other opportunities that the tribal folk feel are rightfully theirs. The statement issued by the Naga Students’ Federation (NSF) on 3 March to local dailies confirms this very anger that has been building up about immigrants from Bangladesh. The rape incident has been termed as violation of “yet another Naga girl by a person of Bangladeshi origin in Dimapur”.

There have been numerous opinions on what actually transpired, including opinions that claim that Syed was lynched because he was mistaken to be a Bangladeshi immigrant. It does not matter that the target later turned out to be an Indian from a family of soldiers. A mob neither investigates nor discerns.

This brings us to the question whether the lynching might be a case of trying to set an example for the alleged immigrants.Persecution of immigrants whether in Nagaland or anywhere else in the Northeast is not, of course, uncommon; incidentally those from the Northeast have themselves faced such behaviour whenever they have placed themselves in other parts of the country. From being called ‘Chink**s’ to being labelled as migrants into mainland India, those from the region have seen it all. This in itself re-emphasises not only the complete irrelevance of such actions against any community whatsoever, but also reminds us that the important issue of rape (here) is being sidelined.

In today’s world it is difficult to understand which action is politically or communally motivated. The danger of volatile reactions in such situations sometimes hinders the process of finding a viable solution to the actual problem. Whether we like it or not, the only truth about situations like the one that played out in Dimapur is that which takes us away from the prescribed path for justice — that of being tried in a court of law. Here again we face the danger of looking at the situation from the one angle that we perceive as correct.  If indeed the lynching of a so-called Muslim migrant was the prime reason here, are we to understand that the persecution of immigrants in the Northeast has been on the basis of particular religious community? History suggests otherwise.

In hindsight I ask myself if things were easier for us because we were Hindu children growing up in the Northeast. Were my cousins bullied less in their schools in Nagaland because they were sons of a Hindu? None of us kids had explored those angles at that time, perhaps because discrimination seldom comes with qualifiers. In the face of blind rage, whether it is discrimination against communities, rape or other gender related crimes, there is only blindness that is equally disrespectful of all kinds of human sensitivity and, in that, there is only an overpowering feeling of hurt that pervades.

Maitreyee B Chowdhury is a poet and writer based in Bangalore

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