On 4th December, 2021, a Special Forces Unit of the Indian Army ambushed a van in Oting village in Mon district of Nagaland. Six men killed in the ambush were miners returning home after the day’s work. Seven more civilians and a soldier died after villagers, alarmed by the massacre of the miners clashed with troops. This violence once again turned the focus on the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which is still prevalent in many parts of the Northeast region of India. Reflecting on the grave injustices that the people of the region have faced due to militarisation and laws such as the AFSPA, we publish a short story by noted writer Aruni Kashyap from his recent book, His Father’s Disease (2019) and a response to the story and on violence perpetrated by the nation-state by academic Pratisha Borborah.
BEFORE THE BULLET
Minutes before the bullet was fired, Digonto was standing impatiently in front of the officer at the army camp in Teteliguri village, Kamrup district, Assam. He had just returned from a six-year stay in Indiana, United States, having completed his PhD on the effects of neighbouring perturbation on drop coalescence in colloid/polymer mixtures.
The military officer, commanding Digonto to stand straight, asked about the weather in America. About the snow. About ‘American women who wear short skirts and fuck men as often as they change bras’. And Digonto answered to satisfy his curiosity: yes, it is cold, it snows, but there are no issues with that because everything is internally heated, and during the winter months, though it is unbearably cold, the best thing is cups of hot coffee. Yes, American women sleep around (he didn’t want to debate), change boyfriends like their underpants. The officer asked if he had carried Assam tea with him. Digonto replied, yes, but by the end of the first year, it had run out and he’d had to depend on various blends of American coffee bought from Walmart. The officer said, ‘The whites should be posted in Siachen, Kashmir, and they will forget their snow for life.’ Digonto said, ‘Yes, they should be sent to Siachen, in Kashmir — the highest battlefield in the world.’
The army camp was at the edge of the village. Digonto hadn’t known of its existence until that day. It wasn’t there when he had left in 1997. Their village had no insurgents, unlike the remote places of Assam. He had been stopped because he wasn’t supposed to pass the camp on his bicycle; he was supposed to stop and disembark as a mark of respect to the Sikh regiment officers and soldiers stationed there, and who hung around carrying their AK-47s like khadi-clad leftist students might carry their satchels. Digonto, who did his high school in Guwahati and then left to study in the US, was returning home after six years, didn’t know that the once-free village now had certain rules and regulations. Rules that were not made by the village council, but made and monitored by men in olive-green uniform who had set up camp there around five years ago.
When the officer had stopped him, Digonto was puzzled. He’d stopped pedalling and asked, ‘Are you asking me to step down?’ That was about half an hour before the bullet was fired.
About an hour before the bullet few into the air, Digonto de-boarded with his luggage at the Tetelia bus stop. He took the regular route to Teteliguri, where he had grown up, a village he had left less than a decade ago, a village that was named after a 350-year-old tamarind tree. He inhaled the smell he so loved, of dust mixed with dried cow dung. When he saw the newborn calves, he knew he would get to drink ‘real milk’ after a long time. Milk that you couldn’t store for long because it didn’t have preservatives. Milk that you needed to boil thrice a day during summers and twice a day during winters so that it didn’t curdle, in a village that had no refrigerators.
How many calves had their cow had over these years? But it had been six years: did cows live that long? After six years of drinking Hy-vee and Walmart Whole Milk, he was eager for home milk, unfrozen vegetables and real rotis (not tortillas, which were a poor substitute). But, of course, like every Assamese, he preferred rice.
Digonto was in a hurry to reach home but he didn’t quicken his pace, even though he had borrowed a bicycle from a neighbour he met at the bus stop. So he wheeled the cycle and walked. He wanted to smell the forests that the dusty gravel road cut through, and gaze at the light-brown empty paddy fields interrupted only by patches of first-rain grass raising their adamant heads. Soon, it would rain a lot and the fields would be under water, ready to receive the rice seedlings. For some reason, that scene reminded him of his American university. There was farmland around the university too, but no laburnum trees. When he reached the gravel path under the silk cotton tree, a little ahead of the primary school, he mounted the bicycle. He would cycle for a while, walk a little; he would enjoy the fresh air properly.
He shouldn’t have sat on the bicycle.
Arrangements had been made: he’d sent an email to his friend in Guwahati; his friend’s father had called up his uncle’s mobile phone; his uncle had cycled two miles (and crossed two rickety bridges: one wooden, one bamboo) to tell his mother, grandfather, brother and sister-in-law the exact date he’d arrive. ‘On the 25th, he will land in Delhi, stay back with a friend at the university there before boarding the connecting fight to —’
Konmai, his mother, had interrupted her brother in a shrill, displeased voice. ‘What? His friends are more important than his mother who hasn’t seen him in six years? I knew this would happen. I knew he would go mad staring at those glass tubes inside that lab or whatever he calls it.’ Konmai sat on the blackened wooden chair, on which only men were supposed to sit, and shed tears.
Her mother-in-law raised an eyebrow when she saw Konmai sitting there in front of so many men, but then she thought, let it be, I can understand. ‘Get up, my dear.’ She caressed Konmai’s head with her wrinkled hands, smiling with her wrinkled face. ‘Get up, my dear; it’s not a big deal. He mustn’t have got a ticket in that Flying Ship on the preferred date.’
‘I knew this would happen!’ Konmai continued to weep. ‘What’s the point of such university degrees that keep you away from loved ones for so long?’
‘But he has sent money. Look, this is not the old thatched house,’ her brother consoled her. ‘ Don’t forget the US dollars he sent you over the years, savings from his scholarship.’
Wiping her tears at her brother’s consolations, Konmai thought of the small and big sacrifices he must have made to send those dollars that had turned into many rupees when they reached the State Bank in Maloybari village. She never understood the mystery of how a few dollars turned into many rupees. But when was there time to worry about such things? Certainly not after his father had passed away. The debts the man had taken to educate his son, the holes in the roof, raising money for her twenty-year-old daughter’s wedding — these were the worries that occupied her, not the mystery of dollars and rupees or small sacrifices.
But his American trip was a sort of lucky charm. The first prospective groom who had come to see Digonto’s sister Poree, the young moustached boy who taught physics in the government school a few villages away, had asked them where her brother was, right after Konmai had proudly displayed Poree’s embroidery and footloom work.
The boy’s eyes twinkled. ‘What does he do?’ he asked eagerly.
‘He teaches,’ Digonto’s mother had lied.
Poree, embarrassed, corrected her mother, ‘Actually, he is doing a PhD and he has a teaching assistantship.’ But they didn’t understand what that meant. Since Poree had passed high school, she could at least repeat the things he wrote to them.
The middle-aged prospective mother-in-law said pejoratively, ‘Oh, assistant?’ She had a black mole on her upper lip. Four strands of hair sprouted from it; one of them was greyish. ‘I guess he cleans desks and benches at the university?’
The boy’s aunt, who supported the prospective mother- in-law in everything she uttered, added, ‘Must be like our Komol in Delhi. He even bathes his professor’s dog, gets them groceries. You have to do a lot of humiliating jobs when you are an assistant.’
Later that afternoon, after they left, Konmai sat in a corner and howled, ‘Who will marry you? You just can’t keep your loud mouth shut!’
Poree stared at her mother, furious. ‘I don’t care. Why do you go about bragging that your Great Son is a professor in an American university? He has gone there to be taught, not teach. That assistantship is a part of his scholarship — he said all this very clearly in his letter.’
Konmai didn’t like the way Poree spoke. ‘I don’t know from which angle I am lying. It is not a joke: teaching sums to American kids. How many people from our village have done that? How many from all the villages in this region?’ She spoke with such confidence that anyone would think she had travelled around the world, knew just how difficult it was to teach in America. But the truth was that, after she had eloped with Digonto’s father at the age of sixteen, she hadn’t travelled out of that region. She hadn’t even been to Guwahati and that was only about an hour away.
Konmai had predicted that no mother-in-law would like to have a daughter-in-law who interrupted elders’ conversations. But so wrong she was. Two years before the bullet went off one afternoon under the laburnum tree, that man with twinkling eyes had coloured the white middle parting of Poree’s hair with red vermillion powder. He was proud to have a wife whose brother worked abroad. Proud to have a brother-in-law who sent him an America-bought shirt and a greeting with a hundred-dollar bill pinned inside its pocket.
When the soldiers first stopped him, Digonto had told the officer, in Hindi, that he was returning to his village after many years to be with his family. The bicycle didn’t belong to him. He had borrowed it from their neighbour at the little kiosk near the bus stop. He didn’t tell them that he knew his mother was waiting with cooked food. That his sister would have woven for him traditional gamusas with large flowers on them. That his brother-in-law would have arranged a a duck from somewhere, or a turtle, to be eaten with rice. But his movements, his quick, polite and firm replies told the officers that he wanted to be on his way as soon as possible.
When the officer called him a bastard, Digonto looked at him, surprised, and without dismounting, asked him in English why he was behaving like that.
The officer looked astonished, as did the soldier standing beside him. ‘Where are you coming from after so many years?’ They wanted to see his passport, the official identity card of his university. The soldier told him, ‘It’s a rule that people dismount from cycles and bullock carts on this path, this path that runs in front of the army camp.’
‘It was also a rule few years ago to take off any footwear, place it on the head to cross this stretch. But the days are peaceful now, so you don’t need to do that anymore. The elderly men are not made to frog-jump for kilometres for criminally sheltering insurgents, or serving them meals when they came knocking at the door with guns hanging from their shoulders,’ the heavy-built officer said. He then asked Digonto about Assam tea and snow and how cold it got when it snowed in America.
The disbelief and disgust on Digonto’s curled lips didn’t go down well. They looked at his passport, went through its pages several times. They took a long time, like a cat might smell strange food from several angles before taking a tiny bite.
Digonto wanted the ordeal over with. They had no right to search him like that, he thought. He distracted himself with thought of the dishes his mother would have prepared. He looked at the laburnum tree a little further and felt better. It was fifteen minutes before the bullet, and the crows and sparrows were peaceful, perching, futtering their wings on the branches. Digonto yearned to stand under the laburnum while the officer interrogated him. The birds had gathered to discuss, as they did daily, which group would occupy how much spaces among the blooms on those robust branches. So many flowers, so yellow, a tree made of round gold coins. During dark nights, when someone holding a bright lamp walked under it, the tree looked like a tall woman dressed in a glowing dress. He wanted to go closer. They were still looking at his passport.
He asked in English, ‘Are you done?’
Giving him a long stare, the officer replied, also in English, ‘Yes, you can go now.’
The officer hadn’t expected someone in the area to know English, speak in fluent Hindi, to be America-returned. He didn’t like the confidence, the stamp on his visa that allowed him to work in the States, the swagger Digonto had when he spoke, when he remounted his cycle. The officers were used to submission, earned from the fear that they had spread in the past five years. Last night, there had been a roundtable conference in the army camp discussing the funds that came for counterinsurgency operations: the money needed to be used up or it would be summoned back to the capital. The best way to use it was by demonstrating corpses.
In this business, only the dead spoke to the government agencies. If there was no unrest (deaths, chases, corpses), the camp would be called off: the camp that laid golden eggs for the soldiers and officers here. Officers didn’t like the confidence of men who had been educated in Delhi or London or the US. What if the story of a young local man who didn’t dismount from his bicycle, who spoke in English at the army camp in a village where people didn’t even know how to speak Hindi, went around? It could create a hushed confidence in the mind of the villagers.
The officer looked at Digonto’s retreating figure. He was just reaching the laburnum tree. The officer’s voice was calm. ‘Aim at his head.’
‘Do as I say, and if you miss, I will shoot your head.’
The soldier shivered. He didn’t want to do it. All he wanted was to go home. It wasn’t he who had been complaining about the lack of excitement in the last few months; no chases, no corpses, no gunshots, no skirmishes.
The birds scattered. Blood splattered onto the tree trunk. A few petals fell, turning in the wind like a spinning cricket ball. But they would have fallen anyway, because the wind had weakened the hold of their light-green stems in the past few days. The cows were the most frightened, grazing in the fields below, shaking their heads. When they heard the bullet (they didn’t see the blood and creamy brain), they raised their ears and stood stiff, as if struck by lightning. There were a few wobbly-footed calves. Confused, they curled their long tails like touched centipedes, sat down, dropped dung or repeatedly ran in circles round their mothers. From a distance, it was impossible to guess whether they were happy or frightened.
Digonto’s mother heard the bullet very clearly even though she was in the kitchen, which was filled with the noise of sautéing, boiling, sizzling food. She was, as he had imagined, cooking fish curry for him and the chicken curry that he loved so much.
Poree said, ‘Ah, don’t worry, why are you shivering like that? The army must be practising.’
Konmai pushed a log of wood into the hearth, took the lid from the iron pan where the chicken curry was simmering and stirred it twice with her shiny, fat steel ladle. ‘Hope they are! Nowadays, I have lost trust totally. In just the last ten years, I have seen so many bodies. That ten-year-old boy, what had he done? They shot him because he ran away. What do you expect when you go to talk to a ten-year-old with guns hanging from your shoulders?’
‘That Punjabi soldier who is having an affair with Nirmali? He really cares for her parents. He has helped them rebuild their house and even promised to marry her. Next month, his parents are coming over all the way from Delhi to see her. I wonder how they will talk! His parents don’t know Assamese and Nirmali’s don’t know how to speak Hindi or Punjabi. But the boy is nice. The way he respectfully addresses every woman in the village as Maaji Maaji is really heartening.’
Konmai scratched her back with a long twig and pushed it into the fire. ‘Yes, this camp’s soldiers haven’t put their hands on the bodies of women in our village, but in other villages, they have. I guess it’s because our MLA is from a nearby village. But don’t forget the number of boys they maimed and beat to death four years ago. Don’t trust so easily. They speak another language.’
By then, the laburnum flowers had covered Digonto’s smashed brain.
A RESPONSE TO ARUNI KASHYAP’S SHORT STORY AND ON THE RECENT KILLINGS IN NAGALAND
Visiting my maternal home every vacation as a child in Digboi (Tinsukia district), I grew up experiencing the familiar sights of armed forces patrolling different areas of Upper Assam. Their uniform, guns, batons and black sunglasses would scare any kid in these areas. I, however, hardly thought why elders would mention these armed forces as a means of control against me and my cousins. While our parents used them as a metaphor of punishment to discipline mischievous kids (often by scaring kids by saying that the Army will take them away if they were naughty), anyone growing up in Assam of the 1990s, heard real stories of young boys and girls being forcefully taken away from their homes by the Indian armed forces.
While the nation-state making process in post colonial India was in process, India’s Northeast did not share the sense of belongingness. The region which is connected to mainland India through a narrow corridor, popularly known as the ‘Chicken’s Neck’, remained distant and alienated from the rest of the country. For the Northeast, India’s independence from colonisation did not bring a ray of hope. Instead, young men and women saw the Indian soldier with uniform, gun in hand ready to punish the enemies of India. Subir Bhaumik in Troubled Periphery (2009) writes about the ignorance of the Indian state towards the region. He states how in 1962 when rats destroyed the crops in the Mizo hills, leaving the hills people to starve, Mizo youth took the path of armed rebellion. Jawaharlal Nehru however, left Assam to its fate and abandoned the state at the time of a major crisis (Bhaumik, 2009). In fact, conflicts between mainland India and its eastern periphery began much before the formation of the Indian nation-state. Immigration which became a major issue of conflict in post colonial Assam began during the colonial period because of colonial control over economic resources. From time to time, there have been demands and negotiations of ethnic groups over occupation of land and resources. Quite often such negotiations resulted in armed conflicts. The Indian state relied on the military to address such conflicts. Uddipona Goswami argues ‘the first response of the state towards any disturbance has been the use of violence and coercion, the most disturbing manifestation of which has been…the imposition on the region of draconian laws like AFSPA and the Disturbed Areas Act’ (Goswami, 2014). The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958 although imposed for the protection of civilians, led to brutal killing and rape of civilians through the Northeast region since the time the law was implemented up to now. The AFSPA provides for excessive power to armed forces to search, arrest, confiscate valuables and goods, and molest/rape women on any terms of suspect and doubt. The sweeping powers that AFSPA accorded to the armed forces actually created an actual ‘violation of rights that occur in disturbed areas’ (Baruah, 2010). Issues regarding life, freedom, liberty of movement, death and punishment is handled and controlled by armed forces due to the draconian power accorded by this law. Democratic spaces have shrunk and state led murders and killings on the pretext of suspicion remained unquestioned and normalised in the Northeast. Multiple incidents of abuses and murder in the name of counter insurgency operations are still prevalent. On 4 December, 2021 Indian Armed Forces killed six coal miners in Nagaland’s Mon district. The incident was later stated by an official report as a case of ‘mistaken’ identity and an ‘unfortunate incident’ (Kikon, 2021).
It is with this background Aruni Kashyap in his recent collection of short stories His Father’s Disease (2019) writes a heart wrenching story of a young boy named Digonto who comes to visit his family in a small village in Assam from the United States after a long gap of six years. The short story ‘Before the Bullet’, paints a vivid image of the everyday life in ‘disturbed regions’ of Assam the smell of cow dung, light brown empty paddy fields, familial conversations in the kitchen, arranged marriages, significance of a government job, the excitement and apprehensions of a mother for her son in such ‘disturbed areas’, interrogations that civilians are forced to by armed forces and their brutality, and finally, the development of distrust for the soldiers by the native people. Kashyap represents to us the readers, the harsh reality of living and growing up in regions where extra judicial killings, rape, and forced disappearances become a normal event. The short story reflects on how the depiction of ‘disturbed region’ produces a space of fear and terror for the natives. With normalisation of such atrocities by the state in the region, living with fear became a part of daily life. Even an individual like Digonto with a PhD degree from a university from the US, is viewed as a threat to the state. Aruni Kashyap captures the impact and the fear of violence in his story in the following paragraph:
Digonto’s mother heard the bullet very clearly even though she was in the kitchen, which was filled with the noise of sauteing, boiling, sizzling food…Poree said, ‘Ah, don’t worry, why are you shivering like that? The army must be practising’(Kashyap, 65)
Sociologist Henri Lefebvre (2000) in his theory of social space argued that the ‘struggles over the meanings of space and considered relations across territories were given cultural meaning’ (Shields, 2002). Lefebvre’s famous aphormism ‘there is a politics of space because space is political’ remains significant because of the continuous impact of capital, states and social forces on defining public spaces. In fact, taking the Northeast as an example, one can observe how different political strategies are being mobilised to reshape political organisations. Northeast India, which is known for its natural beauty and tourism, wakes up every day to the dark truth of militarisation, while the state has continuously promoted this peripheral region in mainland India through festivals and fairs. With the continued implementation of the AFSPA even today, the Northeast is still considered to be a ‘disturbed area’ with public opinions and movements controlled by the state. The murders and killings of civilians are a way of demonstrating the power and disciplining of civil society by a heavy-handed state. Consequently, the armed forces become what Michel Foucault termed as the ‘Panopticon of Modern Society’. It is Foucault’s theory of ‘bio power’ in Discipline and Punish (1977) and The History of Sexuality (1978) that reflects on the use of armed forces as a disciplinary mechanism to control an individual’s life and death . This disciplinary technology is superimposed on an individual’s daily movements thus, controlling every action and behaviour. AFSPA, as Sanjib Baruah (2017) notes, remain a part of the dark history of independent India that has its roots in the colonial era.
- Bio power is a term coined by Michel Foucault that exposes the structures, relations and practices by which political subjects are constituted and deployed, along with the forces that have shaped and continue to shape modernity (Cisney and Morar 2015).
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Title: His Father’s Disease: Stories (2019)
Author: Aruni Kashyap
Publisher: Westland Books
Page Extent: 146 pages
Aruni Kashyap is a writer and translator. He has translated two novels from Assamese to English and his poetry collection, There is No Good Time for Bad News was a finalist for the Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize and Four Way Books Levis Award in Poetry. His short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Catapult, Bitch Media, The Boston Review, Electric Literature, The Oxford Anthology of Writings from Northeast, The Kenyon Review, The New York Times, The Guardian UK, and others. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Georgia, Athens. He also writes in Assamese and is the author of the novel called Noikhon Etia Duroit, and three novellas.
Pratisha Borborah is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Cotton University, Guwahati. She completed her PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her research interests are Economic Sociology, Gender Studies, and Urban Studies.