By Angomcha Bimol Akoijam
In a recent speech, the Chief Justice of India S.H. Kapadia reportedly said that the recent exodus of the northeast people from cities like Bangalore had brought tears in his eyes. And in the same speech, he also remarked, “India is the only country where a member of the minority Parsi community with a population of 167,000, like myself, can aspire to attain the post of the Chief Justice of India…These things do not happen in our neighboring countries”. These remarks convey the contrasting images of self and “minority” in this country.
It speaks of, on the one hand, the disturbing experiences of some people who come under the category of “minority community” in this country and on the other, the democratic ideals of equal opportunity being given to the citizens, irrespective of their community or group membership. While people belonging to ‘minority’ communities have risen to hold high offices in this country, opportunity being deprived of or denied to the ‘minority’ communities have also been realities of this country (such as indicated by the Sachar Report).
Besides, orchestrated and gruesome violence against ‘minority’ and denial of justice to the victims of those brutalities continue to haunt the ideals and proclaimed democratic and multicultural character of a society and its polity even today. The cases of pogrom and or genocidal violence against the Sikhs in 1984 and the Muslims of Gujarat in 2002, which allegedly implicated the involvement of the State machinery and established political parties, speak of the potentiality and reality of life and times of ‘minority’ in this country as well.
These are well-known issues. However, there is something striking about the expression ‘minority’ with reference to the people from the ‘northeast’ which has come up in the recent exodus.
With reference to the ‘northeast’, the expression ‘minority’ has been invoked implicitly such as the Chief Justice’s reference to the moving moment vis-à-vis the exodus that had come up in the same breath as the takes on Parsi as a minority. While some other explicitly deploys the expression such as the description of the recent development as a case of one minority (the Bodos or the ‘northeasterners’) pitted against another minority (the Muslims).
It is quite obvious that the expression ‘minority’ has been used in this country predominantly in terms of religion or religious groups (e.g., Muslims, Sikhs, Parsi, Christian etc). This being the case, what is the criterion (or criteria) which has been invoked while terming the ‘northeast’ as a ‘minority’? Obviously, religion and language, the two usual criteria which have been used to define a ‘minority’ in this country, are not the ones. After all, just as the so-called ‘mainstream’ has multi-lingual and multi-religious groups, the ‘northeast’ does have the same character. So, what is that which has made the ‘northeast’ as a ‘minority’ vis-à-vis the so-called ‘mainstream’ or, for that matter, vis-à-vis the Muslims?
On the face of it, it is a geographical criterion which has been used to define the ‘northeast’ as a minority. But then, has any other geographical part of the country (for instance, South India or North India) been termed as a ‘minority’ vis-à-vis the so-called ‘mainstream’ or, for that matter, a religious group? Certainly it has not been. If so, how is that a seemingly ‘geographical’ expression has been used to readily term and understand some people as a ‘minority’?
The truth is, there is something that constitutes the ‘mainstream’ that fundamentally excludes the ‘northeast’ as the ‘other’. And that has lots to do with the ‘racial’, civilizational and, to a great extent, political criteria that informed the idea and praxis of India as such. Take for instance, the innocuous sounding observation that “South East Asia” begins from ‘India’s Northeast’ is a reminder of those contrasting criteria. And it is these aspects which have readily rendered the ‘northeast’ as a ‘minority’ in this country.
Contrasting Norms and Institutional Mechanism
These differential criteria not only have marked the ‘northeast’ as a ‘different minority’ from the rest of the country but also informed certain kind of politics in the region that compliments these criteria. One glaring example is the ‘state of exception’ which is created due to the incompatibility between the normative and institutional mechanisms of a constitutional order and imperatives of the extraordinary law like the AFSPA.
It is a well-known fact that the military has never been deployed as a normalized instrument of regular administration in any practicing democracy. The same has been seen in the so-called ‘mainstream’ wherein the military has never been used as an instrument of regular administration, albeit the presence of what has been described as the ‘greatest internal security threat’ in the country in the form of the communist insurgents in the so-called ‘mainstream’.
While the use of the military in this fashion, which is being made possible by the AFSPA, is concrete and tangible, there is a subtle but more serious issue associated with this Act: the ‘state of exception’ that it introduces.
We know that under the constitutional order, no life can be taken without due process of law or procedures established by law. Take for instance, even a person who has been caught red-handed while committing a crime shall be assumed innocent until a court of law proves it otherwise after following the due process of listening to the defense lawyer and the prosecutor and measuring the evidences. Even when the guilt is pronounced, the quantum of punishment differs depending on the seriousness of the pronounced guilt. And only in the case of ‘rarest of the rare’ cases, death penalty can be awarded. That’s the rules of law of a democratic constitutional order that seeks to protect the citizens against archaic practices of the absolute systems wherein the powerful voice decides who is innocent or guilty.
Of course, in a war like situation or armed conflict wherein the constitutional order has limited role, such a protection gets weaken. Even then, there are international protocols that seek to protect people, including the combatants, against the use of unbridled force. Incidentally, the Supreme Court denies that the disturbed condition wherein the AFSPA has been invoked is due to ‘armed rebellion’.
In contrast to the imperatives of such universally accepted norms and institutional mechanism, under the AFSPA, one can be killed on the basis of suspicion, whether one has committed a crime or not. While the Constitution operates in the region and hence its norms and institutional mechanisms (such as noted earlier) seek to protect the life of a citizen in the ‘northeast’, the AFSPA allows the same citizen to be killed on the basis of suspicion, that too irrespective of whether she or he has committed a crime or not. As both the contradictory parameters (that of the Constitution and that of the AFSPA) operate in the region, it creates an ‘exceptional situation’ wherein the personnel of the security forces ‘decide’ whether one can be protected as a citizen under the constitution or killed as a suspect under the AFSPA. In short, it is a ‘rule of decision’ rather than ‘rule of law’. Obviously, the former smacks of truth being determined by those who have power as in the archaic systems.
Unfortunately, it seems that neither these differential markers that set up the ‘northeast’ as the ‘different minority’ nor the ‘state of exception’ that is being used to govern that ‘different minority’, leave alone the systemic distortions of normative and institutional mechanisms that followed, in region have been hardly acknowledged. But the fact remains, any meaningful attempt to address the ‘northeast’ must honestly acknowledge these differential features. And that is the fundamental and difficult challenge for any believer in the idea of India in the ‘mainstream’ or the ‘northeast’. After all, the issue brings out contrasting images of self which call for radical self-introspection and orientation.