RANJU DODUM | 30 DECEMBER, 2018
Journalist arrested for raising a voice
This past year witnessed several events and incidents that marked the happenings in the Northeast. Much of the attention of the ‘national mainstream media’ was, of course, focused on the inauguration of the Bhupen Hazarika and the Bogibeel bridges in Assam by the prime minister. There were, however, other events and developments that occurred, several of which- from elections and opposition to oppression -were tied by a common thread of the idea of identity.
This year four states in the region went to polls, with the BJP playing a role in almost all four of them, although its only real victory came in Tripura, a state that hit headlines more for the gaffes and ramblings of its new chief minister rather than any other pressing issue.
The BJP came to power this year in Tripura riding on a wave of decades-long anti-incumbency against the Left Front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that was in power since 1993. Manik Sarkar’s almost 20-year reign came to an end in March when the BJP came to power with Biplab Deb at the helm of affairs.
Deb was in the news throughout the year for comments he made including stating that the internet and manmade satellites existed during the time of Mahabharata. The mainstream media kept its eyes focussed firmly on the chief minister, waiting for him to slip up while little attention was paid to another important aspect of life in Tripura.
While anti-incumbency played a role in the ousting of the Left, the BJP also managed to win a large chunk of the tribal vote thanks to its tie-up with the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT).
The once-majority indigenous Twipra people have been a minority in their home state to the larger Bengali-speaking community for years. One of the demands of the IPFT and its sympathisers was that a separate state of Tipraland for the indigenous people of the state would have to be carved out.
So far, nothing has come of it.
This year, Nagaland state politics also saw the return of the veteran Neiphiu Rio who gave up the state’s lone Lok Sabha seat to make his entry as ‘the saviour’ of Nagaland after the previous year witnessed violence over women’s reservation in urban-level elections and the continued hype of the Naga Peace Accord.
Rio came to power with his Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), which was formed after months of infighting within the Naga People’s Front, and forming an alliance with the BJP.
With the BJP at the Centre and an alliance partner in the state, a solution to the Naga political issue seems as distant as it did six decades ago with the details of the Accord remaining a mystery to the public.
While leaders who are party to the Accord say that no concessions will or have been made in the quest for integration of areas comprising of Naga tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, and even Myanmar, the fact is that no one has come out in public to concretely give a statement detailing what the Accord actually says.
In Meghalaya, the Congress emerged as the single largest party in the polls but it was the National People’s Party led by former Lok Sabha speaker PA Sangma’s son, Conrad.
The close numbers that the two parties secured in the state elections meant that with just two MLAs, the BJP managed to form an alliance with the NPP and come to power as a partner.
The coup in Meghalaya only strengthened the BJP’s claims of being on its way to achieve a ‘Congress-mukt’ India and the fact that it was in power (primarily as an alliance partner) in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, and Tripura, the last stronghold of the Congress was Mizoram.
As election season neared towards the end of the year, anti-incumbency in the Christian-majority state began to seep in. When results were declared, a shocker came: Lal Thanhawla, the sitting Congress chief minister and a stalwart of Mizoram politics had lost from both constituencies he had contested from.
The end result marked the return of the Mizo National Front (MNF) leader Zoramthanga as chief minister. And although the MNF is a constituent of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance and supports the NDA in the Centre, the two did not contest the elections as allies.
In fact, it was reported that before the election, Zoramthanga had dismissed the chances of the BJP winning even a single seat- which it did.
In a fairly religiously homogeneous state like Mizoram where most people identify themselves with the greater Zo identity and are primarily Christians, there are pockets where the ethnicity of the people are different, as is the religious and cultural practices; among them are the Chakma people.
The Chakmas have traditionally been Buddhist and in Mizoram are the primary residents of the Chakma Autonomous District Council (CADC). It was here that the most unusual of partnerships was formed earlier during a local level election.
In April, despite the MNF emerging as the single largest party in the CADC election, it did not. After the results were declared, the BJP and the Congress came together to form an alliance to keep the MNF out of the Chakma area.
While it wasn’t an election year in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, and Manipur, nowhere else was the issue of identity more acutely felt.
The proposed amendments to the Citizenship Act which seeks to reduce the number of years of residency in India required for immigrants from religious minority groups including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis, and Sikhs from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan who came to India on or before 31 December 2014 is a proposal that will affect the entire country.
Nowhere were the alarm bells that it raised, however, heard as loud as they were in the Northeast.
Aside from civil society organisations who have voiced concerns that the amendment will lead to a massive influx of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh into Assam and the region, even state governments where the BJP is in power have openly said that their state boundaries will be guarded against any intrusion.
In Assam, the concerns were highlighted by the fact that the year saw first draft the publication of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) that was aimed at identifying illegal immigrants.
The publication of the NRC has been welcomed by several organisations but it has its share of critics who view it as a list that is aimed against Bengali-speakers living in Assam.
While the NRC has been carried out only in Assam, other states have also said that the publication of the list may force ‘illegal immigrants’ to enter neighbouring states; a development that they clearly do not wish.
In Arunachal Pradesh too, the state government took extra measures to enhance security in the border gates shared with Assam to check illegal migration. But, it had its own share of issues of identity to deal with.
In the early part of December, both chief minister Pema Khandu and deputy chief minister Chowna Mein had said that the BJP government was considering issuing Permanent Resident Certificates to members of communities not identified as belonging to any of the state-recognised Scheduled Tribe.
With elections due next year and non-indigenous populations forming a sizeable portion of the voters in parts of the state, such comments could perhaps have been made as a poll platform from which to spring into action. However, in a state where some tribal communities number only in the thousands and one that is Constitutionally protected, the comments did not go down well.
Those comments came under criticism from several bodies, especially in light of the fact that a joint high power committee is currently studying the issue and is yet to submit its recommendations.
Throughout much of the year, Manipur was in the news for the 85-day long agitation in the premises of the Manipur University by students who had been demanding the removal of vice-chancellor AP Pandey and constitution of an independent enquiry committee to look into the allegations of administrative and financial lapses made by Pandey.
That agitation finally ended on September 20.
By the end of the year, a different kind of agitation began to brew- one that would lead to the arrest of a journalist.
Unlike the mass involvement of people during the Manipur University agitation, this was a singular one, led by one person, and seemingly fought by one person.
Manipuri journalist, Kishorchandra Wangkhem, working with the Imphal-based Information Service Television Network (ISTV) was arrested for voicing and sharing his opinions on social media.
On November 20, Wangkhem was arrested for criticising Manipur chief minister Biren Singh for speaking about the Rani of Jhansi’s role in India’s independence struggle and in unifying India during an event celebrating her birth anniversary in the state.
Wangkhem had asked if “Rani Jhansi had taken any role for the upliftment of Manipur(sic)”. He went to say that during her time, Manipur was not even part of India.
The journalist had told the chief minister to not “betray, insult the freedom fighters of Manipur… Don’t insult the present freedom struggle of Manipur”.
While he was initially released after the intervention from a local court, he was re-arrested under the National Security Act on grounds that he had used “obscene words thereby defaming the present Prime Minister of India and Chief Minister of Manipur” and that he “spoke and acted in support of the militant/terrorist organizations presently operating in Manipur thereby showing your seditious attitude and leaning towards unlawful organizations”.
Wangkhem will spend New Year’s eve in prison.
As the year ends, it comes to a close on a tragic note with the fate of the 15 miners trapped in Meghalaya’s illegal rat-hole coal mines remains unclear. So far, authorities have not gone on record to give their statement that the rescue operation has failed. But after more than two weeks since those miners were trapped in coal mines that were not supposed to be in operation in the first place, for the families of those miners, there is no joy this New Year.
(Cover Photograph Manipuri journalist, Kishorchandra Wangkhem, arrested under NSA for doing little more than questioning the government)