Legend has it that the “best warrior” in all the 16 tribes of Nagaland is the one who protects the women and children of his village. This is “an important context”, says a 36-year-old Naga businessman, to understand the “raw emotions” behind the incidents that unfolded on March 4 and 5, when a mob marched to Dimapur Central Jail, dragged out a rape accused from judicial custody and lynched him in public.
At 10 am on March 4, when students of the women’s college where the alleged victim studied stood outside its gates, it made a powerful picture. “Against the brick red wall of the building were these angry girls in their blue and white uniforms. They just stood silently. Nobody in the press dared speak to them,” recalls a local reporter.
The narrow red lane boxed by the college on one side and a temple on the other was where it all started. But in those early hours of March 4, it was “still a crowd condemning the rape”.
By the next morning, the “obsessed mob” had taken shape. Sharif Khan, 35, was now not just a “rapist” but also the face of an “Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrant (IBI)”, who had taken their land first, then their jobs, then married a Naga woman and now had become “emboldened” to “rape another”.
By early evening of March 5, as the sun set in Nagaland, the mob had dragged Khan over 7 km, kicking and abusing him, to finally tie him at City Clock Tower — a poor replica of the Eiffel Tower, at the popular town square —and beaten him to death.
“In Nagaland, a rape and an illegal migrant can be an explosive combination,” says Wabang Jamir, IGP (Range). An IPS from the Gujarat cadre, and a Naga himself, he says to explain Nagaland to an outsider can “still be complicated”. Customary law, police say, runs parallel to the Indian Penal Code.
“It’s a traditional system used mostly in land disputes and sometimes in cases of bodily harm. It’s common to have settlement out of court,” adds Liremo Lotha, DIG (Range).
On March 5, says Jamir, “it’s a sense of proportion” of this alternative dispute resolution system that the crowd appears to have got wrong.
In Dimapur, Nagaland’s commercial capital, there are two identities you hear repeatedly, “plain” and “Nagas”. “We are the outsiders, people from the mainland plains,” says Uttar Pradesh native Bijesh Sharma, 30, who runs a shop that has been with his family for three decades, on Jain Temple Road, very near the college where the protest began.
He recalls angry girl students walking past his shop on March 4. “There were a few boys, in college uniform and that of the Unity Education Institute, who kept shouting ‘close the shop’,” says Sharma.
He reopened only six days later. Ask Sharma about the law, and he says, “Yehan kanoon hai, yehan kanoon nahin hai. It depends on which side of the border you are, Naga or plain.”
Sharma also remembers that they heard of the alleged February 24 rape only that day. That morning, at least three big state dailies put the news on their front page. Two featured photographs of Khan prominently, one identifying him as a ‘businessman based in Dimapur’ and another as a ‘married man’. Leading newspaper Nagaland Post went one step further, headlining the report as ‘IBI rapes woman in DMU’.
A joint statement by the Naga Council Dimapur and the Naga Women Hoho Dimapur carried by all the papers said, “We are once again compelled to condemn the rape of a Sumi Naga girl by a suspected IBI. Not only was the girl raped multiple times, she was beaten up and threatened… Unless all Nagas take responsibility to tackle the menace of an unabated IBI influx… crimes against our women and daughters by these people will only increase.”
By March 6, it would be revealed that Khan was a resident of Karimganj in Assam, and that two of his brothers were in the Army and his father had served in it. By March 11, the Nagaland government would tell the Union Home Ministry that Khan and the alleged victim could have had consensual sex, though the Chief Secretary has since denied that such a report was sent by the state, and police insist they are probing rape.
But by noon of March 4, Khan’s fate had already been sealed. At New Market, 2 km from City Clock Tower, a 25-year-old second-hand clothes shopkeeper, also a native of Karimganj, remembers hiding the trade licence displayed at his shop. A migrant can’t set up a shop or occupy rented space in municipal markets in Nagaland without the paper, and it was the one thing he couldn’t afford to lose if his shop was torched.
The protesting students followed a now familiar drill, he says. “They asked for our identity cards. They looked at our names and slapped us. ‘Sab Miyakani yatepora jaba lagibo (All Muslim illegal migrants get out)’, they yelled.”
Eight days later, every time a Naga walks past the shop he took over from his father and has since refurbished with Rs 8 lakh of own, he tenses up. “I fear for my life,” he says.
Around him are seven other shops owned by men with identity cards from around Karimganj and Silchar, all speaking Sylheti (a Bangaleshi dialect) and all dubbed IBIs by locals.
An IBI doesn’t have to be of a particular religion, the 25-year-old shopkeeper explains. “He comes with a national identity.”
The Nagas across the spectrum, from a policeman and a commerce official to a housewife, also agree that while IBIs may be referred to loosely as ‘Miya’, the issue is not of religion. “The Nagas use this for any IBI as after 1971, most of the immigrants have been Bangladeshi Muslims,” says one.
There were cases of kindness as the mob drove on. A vendor who has a small shop of khadi clothes, belongs to Badarpur in Assam and wears a skull cap, was returning from the mosque on March 4 when a group of Naga girls asked him to run home or he might be attacked. “They study in the same school as my daughter, St Mary Montessori,” he says.
Soon, the lane was swarming with the crowd as it made its way to the Deputy Commissioner’s office at Duncan-basti, asking that trade licences of IBIs be seized.
Police say it’s very difficult to ascertain the number of IBIs in the state. “The FRRO (Foreign Regional Registration Office) routinely sends documents to the Assam Police to verify antecedents. We never get a response,” says an FRRO official.
The mob demanded that Khan be handed over to them. When the Deputy Commissioner and Superintendent of Police refused, a section of the crowd turned its ire on New Market and nearby Hazi Park. Both markets have shops owned by the Nagas but run by non-Nagas.
At the corner near G S Road in Hazi Park is a group of men from Bihar selling fish. Some have lived here for three decades and get their stock of salted, dry fish from Gujarat, Maharashtra, Kerala, and an expensive variety from Lucknow. However, since everyone associates meat shops and those dealing in second-hand items with IBIs, they faced the mob’s wrath.
“It’s only today, when I saw men from the CRPF, that I felt safe,” says K Gupta, 26, whose shop was ransacked. He re-opened a week later, on March 11. The CRPF men are from the “plains” too, unlike personnel of the Nagaland Police and Indian Reserve Batallion.
Gupta’s brother too used to live in Dimapur, but early in 2013, he left for hometown Muzaffarpur after he found “the discrimination difficult to bear”. Ironically, Gupta adds, Muzaffarpur is no stranger to riots.
Yogendra Prasad, 42, whose shed, located next to Gupta’s, was also smashed, has been selling fish for 26 years. “The collective loss is in lakhs, and we do not know if our FIR will amount to anything,” he says.
Prasad has been slapped around earlier by locals over bargains gone wrong, but he had started to feel he had turned the corner. He has some regular customers now, speaks Nagamese (a creole based on Assamese) and his daughter has Naga friends in school.
“Though the attackers have since apologised, we will always be an outsider… Kabhi sochte hain, paristithi (It’s our circumstances),” Prasad shrugs.
On March 4 night, a vendor who doesn’t want to be named got a call that his shop was being torched. “I ran. I was stopped by two youths. I lied, said I am a Hindu from Uttar Pradesh. I got a phone call and they asked me to answer it so as to figure out my identity. I said I won’t, and started walking. I thought if they attack me, I would get better, but if my shop was burnt, everything would be finished,” he says.
While the alleged rape occurred on February 24, IGP Jamir says the case was not made public “on the request of the victim”. It was on March 3, when a police team was seen entering her college premises, that the press got wind of a “possible crime”. On March 4, hours after the newspapers had carried the story, ‘Naga Blog’ and ‘Naga Spear’ blogs picked it up. Soon they were getting a stream of radical reactions.
While Naga Blog administrators tried to filter some of them, Naga Spear made no such effort. Twenty-five of the “core accused” in the mob that lynched Khan and who are now under arrest have said they got incited after reading the blogs.
A week later, even the Nagas are shocked at how things escalated so fast. At the Hazi Park market, Kiyekhe Chophy, a representative of the commerce body, is taking stock of the loss. A Naga himself, Chophy says he feels embarrassed. “It’s still difficult to walk here. I feel helpless I could not protect them.”
Pointing to the nameboards around the market, saying ‘Rangeela’, ‘Shree Ram’, ‘Shibani’, ‘Hussain’, ‘Kushboo’ etc, Chophy says there are no Naga shops anywhere or even a Naga shopkeeper. “That is what killed Khan.”
In the past six months, locals say, there have been a series of episodes indicating “the growing resentment and frustration of young locals”. “The NGOs have failed them, the role of community bodies has become diluted, and the government has not responded to their woes,” says a Naga woman.
An RTI activist who does not want to be named claims that in response to a petition, he found that of the 11,000 government jobs vacated by retiring staff over five years, only a very small portion had been filled through competition. “Those who didn’t get jobs are angry,” he adds.
Many Nagas agree it was this anger that was on display on March 4 and 5. “When an outsider remains a minority, history has taught us it’s peaceful. Anything else is trouble,” says a businessman.
A movement called Survival Nagaland that has quickly garnered support within five months of its formation talks of making the state “free of IBIs”. The Naga Students’ Federation (NSF) launched a campaign recently to create awareness about “the onslaught of IBIs”.
Nagaland politicians have earlier blamed Assam for the IBI “problem”. Former chief minister Neiphiu Rio (now a Lok Sabha MP) had accused the Congress government in Assam of “aiding and abetting” the influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh to Nagaland.
“There is absolute frustration at jobs going to migrants,” says Khukeugha Tuccu, chairman of the Confederation of Nagaland Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Hokivi Chishi, 48, who represents the Dimapur Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says he could see the anger in the eyes of the students on March 4, and ordered the shops shut. “I know many of them since their childhood, but they wouldn’t be stopped,” says Chishi.
Lashing out at the administration, he adds, “Where have you heard of Section 144 being relaxed for two hours for a protest?”
At the supermarket — on the other end of Dimapur — Naga women sell tribal souvenirs. Nearby, at a traditional market, tribal women sell everything from dry fish and pork to frogs, snails, bee larvae and red ants.
Vihuli Assumi, 39, is a Sema, the same tribe as the alleged victim. “It’s not easy for a local to earn like the migrants,” Assumi says. “There are no subsidies or grants or encouragement from the administration. Traditionally, the Nagas prefer to work in the administration as they feel secure. With jobs depleting and a growing population, it has become very difficult.”
In a complex on the highway to Kohima, with single rooms up for rent, the alleged victim and Khan were neighbours. “Khan lived in the fourth room, the girl in the ninth,” says a nearby shopkeeper who also collects the rent for the rooms on behalf of the owner. The two also knew each other as Khan’s wife belonged to the same village as the alleged victim.
Charles Chasie, a journalist based in Kohima, laments that the incident will perpetuate the image of the Nagas as “head hunters”. “Some vested interests definitely instigated the youth. Every responsible Naga is angry. Yet, it is a fact that the influx of Bangladeshis has created a problem.”
Chasie too blames the administration. “How can a mob take law into its hands? What were the authorities doing?”
By the morning of March 5, fuelled by social media and its calls for “a united Naga response”, the angry protest of the day before had morphed into a “politically motivated mob”. Jamir says a preliminary probe indicates that the vandalism of the previous night had only stopped after students’ representatives were told by the authorities that they would be allowed to hold a peaceful protest the next day. He adds that student group representatives, including of the NSF, had driven down from Kohima and held a late-night meeting in Dimapur on March 4. “They were brought in to bring order to the chaos.”
By 9 am on March 5, all roads led to the City Clock Tower, with protesters coming in from even outside Dimapur. Police say inflammatory speeches followed by suspected representatives of Survival Nagaland among others. When, around 11 am, the crowd was asked to disperse, they didn’t. “Every rally looks for a resolution, and here I believe, there was none. This angered the crowd,” says Tuccu.
The government made some half-hearted attempts, including with tear gas, but the crowd pressed on towards the Dimapur jail. “The NSF or anyone else did not have control. The mob clogged all the routes, seized a national highway leading to Manipur and blocked the way for any reinforcements, using women and minor girls in the front,” says a police officer.
Jakato Sumi of Survival Nagaland says they tried their best to control the mob. “At around 4 pm, a number of us, including from Naga Hohos, Naga Council, church bodies, the Dimapur Chamber of Commerce & Industry etc, met to discuss how to stop them. But then we heard that the mob had already entered the jail,” Sumi says.
At around 5 pm on March 5, the mob dragged Khan out of jail, and then paraded him to the Clock Tower through the markets operated by migrants. “There was nothing subtle about it, it was for all of us to see,” says a vendor.
A social media administrator who is helping the police probe says “extreme elements based out of New Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad played a very important role in making the issue communal”.
As Tuccu sees it, if new opportunities open up, the frustrations would ease. He speaks of a tie-up with the Chamber of Commerce in Maharashtra, a state that faces “similar migrant issues like us”.
At her home, Bano Haralu, 51, a former journalist, was sitting down to watch the banned documentary India’s Daughter on YouTube on March 5 evening when she was alerted about the story unfolding in her backyard. “I find it ironic that in a Christian state, a man was lynched, in many ways similar to what Jesus had to undergo,” she says. “My head hangs in shame.”
In the week since, DIG Lotha says, police, commerce associations and the Muslim Council Dimapur have taken measures to bring peace. The Muslim Council issued a joint statement with Naga Hoho saying it was a “social issue” and not religious or communal.
Breaking down, Haralu says such measures can no longer suffice. “Nothing, no reason can justify what happened. Let the probe take its course but it’s time we addressed our problems. This episode has left us with no face. The only redemption would be if the family of Khan forgives us.”
But two days after the incident, Nagaland Post, that had dubbed Khan an IBI, wasn’t too apologetic in its editorial: “What happened should not have happened… But it is now too late even for an academic debate. For one, the problem lies in the fact that though all Bangladeshis may be Muslims (at least in as far as the issue is involved); yet all Muslims are not Bangladeshis.”
At the camp behind New Market, a vendor from Assam is closing his shop for the day. “I come from Karimganj and there is only one border I know,” he says, “the international border. And a Naga and I are on the same side.”
with inputs from Samudra Gupta Kashyap