In the late 1970s, a group of Naga students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s campus in Delhi put up small impromptu concerts in front of the girls’ hostel of the University. Top singers, no doubt, the Naga students attracted friends, to whom they started relaying the incidents of human rights atrocities unfurling back home for two decades already.
For India, the emergency had ended in 1977 and an atmosphere of freedom reigned. Civil, political and human rights were the talk of town, and the Naga students had keen ears in Sitaram Yechury, George Fernandes and AB Vajpayee, among others.
“This is when we realised that we should represent the Naga people, not just the students,” reminisces Ahu Sakhrie, who was one among these Naga students in Delhi, who gave voice and face to Naga human rights issues. They came together to constitute the Naga Peoples’ Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR) in a small room of a JNU hostel in 1978—their main aim was to oppose the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) and make known the atrocities meted out to the Naga people.
35 years hence, Sakhrie laughs at how many “chit chat” and “out of library” sessions contributed to the historic formation. “The Delhi Students’ Union, the bar association, journalists, professors and many important people began to back us. Instead of shooting guns from jungles, they said, this would present a greater challenge to Indian suppression,” says Sakhrie.
Over the next decade, the NPMHR investigated and reported on cases of human rights violations in the Naga areas. They were actively supported by the People’s Union for Democratic Rights
(PUDR) andPeople’s Union for Civil Liberties
(PUCL) in India. NPMHR became the first organisation to challenge the AFSPA in Gauhati High Court and then the Supreme Court of India, setting a precedent for other movements that have attempted to question and counter the draconian law.
Zone of influence
The NPMHR’s zone of influence spread wide. “NPMHR was successful in opening up networks outside the region [North East] that many organisations have since used,” highlights Xonzoi Barbora who assisted Assam’s Manab Adhikar Sangram Samiti, which collaborated closely with the NPMHR. “We gave voice to people at a time when only violence could be heard from both the state and the non state,” Barbora says, drawing similarity between such movements across the region where there was rare hope of spiraling out of violent conflict. Human rights movements created that space for democratic and non violent confrontation.
The Imphal valley of Manipur, where the movement against AFSPA is now centered, also found its inspiration in NPMHR. “Its biggest contribution has been in the form of the Supreme Court case against AFSPA,” acknowledges Babloo Loitongbam, Director of Human Rights Alert, an organization that now works with Irom Sharmila as a voice against AFSPA. Though the NPMHR case got a positive hearing in the Gauhati High Court, the SC under Justice J.S. Verma accepted the government’s case for keeping the AFSPA with an undertaking for “good behavior” of the army. That never happened, of course, especially in Manipur and Kashmir.
The NPMHR’s “valuable campaign,” however, says Laxmi Murthy, a journalist based in Bangalore, who, as part of Saheli worked with NPMHR in Delhi and was part of fact-finding teams to Nagaland in the 1990s and early 2000s, “had significant implications for all democratic rights work.” According to her, challenging the State on grounds of national security was a “David versus Goliath battle” that the Nagas helped “mainstream Indians” visualise.
For indigenous people of the North East region and beyond, the NPMHR brought good news. The Jharkhandis’ Organisation for Human Rights (JOHAR) was formed in 1988, following the NPMHR’s example. “No one knew about human rights in Jharkhand before the organization was formed. The government called all peoples’ movements for rights “secessionist.” Compared to the mid-1980s, there has been an improvement in the human rights situation here thanks to this,” informs Xavier Dias, a human rights activist from Jharkhand who attended North East India’s first human rights conference in Ukhrul (Manipur) arranged by the NPMHR in 1985.
Through its connections, other peoples’ movements gained access to international forums. As far back as in the 1978, the NPMHR went to Singapore, moving people who heard the Naga story to tears. In 1991, its representatives observed India under scrutiny in New York, at the United Nations. “We were also able to lobby with the NPMHR at the UN,” says Dias, who is also thankful for the inspiration provided by the NPMHR to the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), which provided a common platform to the indigenous peoples of South and South East Asia to collectively approach the issue of indigenous peoples’ rights.
Human versus political rights
The NPMHR, in its objective to address “human rights” as well as the “political and cultural independence” of the Naga people, has seen observers see-saw on what the “right approach” should be.
“The moment you articulate concerns that are the same as a political group, there is no point having a human rights organisation,” asserts the NPMHR’s lifelong friend and critique, E. Deenadayalan of The Other Media, for whom there is a thin line between “human rights” and “political rights” which needs to be straddled carefully. While leadership defined a large part of where the NPMHR was taken over the years in terms of issues, there was also a “great struggle” within the NPMHR to go beyond structures that could fashion it along completely political lines.
Though Deenadayalan does not think that this impeded the NPMHR’s ability to question violence within the Naga political movement, the latter made the NPMHR eventually “fall in line.”
Another leaf of the same book, Tapan Bose of the South Asia Forum for Human Rights, who has also worked extensively with the NPMHR, is of the opinion that the NPMHR maintained its distance from political organizations, though the Government of India and its army tried to project them as “over ground” supporters of the same. The NPMHR’s activists remained under constant threat from the State—its previous headquarters in Ukhrul was raided, activists were held up or detained by the army (particularly the Assam Rifles); eventually one of its founder member’s passport was confiscated by the State—he has not seen home in 20 years. Despite this, “they maintained their political independence,” says Bose.
Deenadayalan and Bose, in separate interviews, quoted one example (the same one) where the NPMHR spoke out against an atrocity committed by a Naga political group. While it might have taken up more cases with the Naga political groups, these remained “behind closed doors.”
Many activists, both Naga and non-Naga, have long maintained an uncomfortable silence on this issue. Naga peace activist Niketu Iralu feels that the NPMHR failed to condemn human rights violations on both sides. The “moral authority” of a human rights position, according to him, comes from “ethical purity” which might have been “polluted.” Ahu Sakhrie has been long “uncomfortable” that “we voiced out against the Indian army but not our own.” For him, “shades of political colour” have crept into all of Naga civil society leading to their “reluctance in active participation.”
Bringing another perspective, Babloo Loitongbam says that the NPMHR “tied up ethnic politics with human rights” setting the standard for all human rights movements in the region, which went hand-in-hand with political rights movements. This was not necessarily a positive outcome, according to him. “National liberation movements and civil liberty movements have points of convergence but NPMHR should rise above the former and become a more purely (sic) human rights organization,” he maintains, though admitting that it is the only human rights movement in the North East that has remained consistent throughout.
Xavier Dias, however, does not make a distinction between human rights and political rights. “A case of rape, for instance, is simultaneously an issue of human and political rights, so we should not fall into the trap of distinguishing between them. The NPMHR, in that sense, has simply been doing its job,” he asserts.
“Pure human rights,” for Xonzoi Barbora, is an “unfair mirror” to hold up to the human rights movements of the region, which have addressed civil and political rights through people’s associations—through the basis that in war, there is a people’s (moral) mandate. In making people aware of this gamut of rights, these movements have had to play peacemaking roles often. “Our aspiration was never to become an Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. Our relevance might have faded but the nature of conflict itself has changed and we deserve some time to re-assess ourselves.”
The way forward
No doubt. “Though they had a profound influence on human rights movements in the region, the NPMHR now seems to be missing a sense of mission,” says Pradip Phanjoubam, former editor of the Imphal Free Press. In “peace time,” the NPMHR must re-invent its image, he proposes, to one that people can identify with.
The need for internal re-evaluation and a “post mortem” is widely felt even from within. “They must look back and appreciate their good work, but also acknowledge what was not done right,” reflects Niketu Iralu, for whom the NPMHR had become a “political alliance” through their silence on important issues.
But for E. Deenadayalan, it was not so much the NPMHR’s silence on issues as its institutional inability to deal with situations given its “lack of accountability and transparency.” This was piled on by “informality” within the organization, as well as over-emphasis on “respect for elders” that curtailed its ability to remain “democratic.” The NPMHR is an organized body, run by an executive committee with regular elections and conventions, with its members working on a voluntary basis, but Deenadayalan thinks that certain “professionalism, as well as spirit and spontaneity” is needed to retain its “movement character.”
Then there are others who feel that specifics need to be incorporated into what is understood by “human rights” in the Naga context, and the movement needs to look inward. “There is a gap between who we were, who we are and who we will be,” reflects Ahu Sakhrie, “There is a need to track cultural and social change, how the state relates to its citizens, or how elections are conducted. These are also issues of human rights.” Dr. Wati Aier, Convenor of the Forum for Naga Reconciliation adds to the thought: “Human rights abuse is not just external, but also from within. We must not get carried away by a one-sided approach but also focus on violations of human rights among our own people. This could also be through issues of child labour, gender, forced labour and so on.”
Issues surrounding human rights are many. With the Naga people stuck in political limbo, the NPMHR, firmly ingrained with the people, finds itself in a similar situation.
The NPMHR is facing a “hiatus,” says Tapan Bose. Since the ceasefire was signed in 1997, “they don’t really know what to do.” Since 1997, recounts Bose, all Naga issues have been “subsumed” by the “peace talks,” at least in Nagaland, and the NPMHR’s active involvement is now in terms of “peace work” with the Forum for Naga Reconciliation. For Laxmi Murthy, the NPMHR realizes that the need for dialogue with other groups is as crucial as reconciliation processes within the community. Many personal interactions with NPMHR activists have led Murthy to conclude that it is now committed to go beyond the “Naga cause” to work towards demilitarization and democratic rights for all in the North East.
Yet there is some way to go, and some hard measures to be adopted, to cap the gap between this thought and reality.
It is perhaps time for the teacher to learn from the student. In Jharkhand, for instance, JOHAR has kept the song alive, but changed its pitch. “Today the state and corporations have taken oppression and suppression to a new level. If there were brutal killings before, today the lands and forests of the indigenous peoples’ are being expropriated. There is mass ethnocide,” reveals Xavier Dias, who had to take up the “right to land” question as well as the “right to say NO to giving up our land.” For Jharkhand, and most of central India, there came a realization that “human rights atrocities against the indigenous peoples cannot be fought only by the indigenous peoples.” It led to an alliance with ecological and environment lobbies, cultural groups, trade unions etc. to address the new forms of abuse of indigenous peoples, their land and culture.
While Babloo Loitongbam reiterates that delinking “ethnic politics” of the older generation and stress on “universal human rights,” could lead to such an alliance in the region, others feel that this could be done while keeping alive the belief in the right to a peoples’ self determination.
The NPMHR could become relevant to its neighbourhood by “looking outward,” offers Xonzoi Barbora—by going “beyond their comfort zone” as well as practicing some level of “accountability.” Given its history of consistent work through a violent period, it is only fair, however, to give them “some time” and “some rope” to understand what has happened and “find their voice before recovering.”