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Culture of silence around Naga killings, as institutions 'behave with toxicity'

By Ashok Danavath, Taniya Laskar* 

Two recent tragic incidents have left Indian people in shock and despair. One is the death of the former Army Chief and the first Chief of Defence of the Indian Armed Forces General Bipin Rawat along with 12 other defense personnel and another is the gunning down of 14 innocent civilians by the Indian Army under the alleged suspicion of them being militants. Both of these incidents are very disturbing and need the attention of Indian people in their own spaces.
But if we examine closely, we see a disturbing silence around the Nagaland incident among all the media platforms, be it mainstream, alternative or social media. Major politicians, film actors, celebrated cricketers, social media influencers etc. have expressed their condolences over the former incident but kept almost a not-to-speak-of on the later one.
Nagaland is a tribal dominated State. It has been under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) since 1958. Widely described as draconian, under this Act any Army personnel, even a non-commissioned officer, can fire upon civilians on the basis of mere suspicion. The enforcement of this Act is very controversial since among the five States in which it is in force, three are tribal and the other two are minority dominated states.
The Act was challenged in the Supreme Court of India by the organization Naga People’s Movement of Human Rights in 1980. But the Supreme Court upheld it as a temporary measure. Yet, after four decades it's still operative over there.
In 2016, it again came into controversy due to unaccountable encounters done by the Indian Army in Manipur. An enquiry was ordered against 1,528 extra-judicial killings done under the impunity granted by AFSPA. Despite this there is a culture of silence maintained by sections of Indian media and other democratic institutions towards the oppressive nature of the law and the irrational impunity granted to the armed forces in those states. This culture of silence can enable any institution to behave with toxicity.
The Indian Army has also been enjoying impunity against several allegations of caste discrimination and gender-specific violences. For example, in December 2014, the Court directed the Indian Army to pay a sum of Rs 10 lac as ex-gratia amount to the family of Thangjam Manorama, who was reportedly raped and killed by the paramilitary unit of Indian Army. Such a case also happened in 1991 in a village named Kunan Poshpora in Kashmir.
In the absence of a counter-narrative the common masses get influenced by the mainstream media narrative
Similar incident of gang-rape happened on gun-point in a place called Vakapalli, Andhra Pradesh in 2007 by the Greyhounds personnel, a police special force against the anti-Naxalites. The victims of the vakapalli are yet to get justice. In January 2018, a video posted by one Indian Army soldier named Kamlesh Yadav went viral on social media as he alleged that he is facing caste discrimination in the army.
He said that he made several complaints but got no redressal. In Central and Southern part of India another law named Unlawful Activities Prevention Act,1967 exists, which is also used mainly against the Dalit and Adivasi people. There are many such incidents of torture and discrimination around India.

Media 'consent'

After the BJP came to power in 2014, amidst allegations of the government politicizing the security forces, sections of media houses started to radically accommodate news favoring the defense institutions over mass issues. They justified the disastrous economic measures like demonetization by comparing common people standing in queue to the army personal patrolling in borders.
This kind of act of the media towards manufacturing consent in favour of government policies, be it economic, political or cultural, can be a threat towards the democratic set up of the Indian state if left unchecked. Even the caste privileged academia of India also shows less interest to be critically engaged with such topics.
In the absence of a counter-narrative the common masses get influenced by the mainstream media narrative and a common consent is developed in favour of the behaviour of the army as well as police. Take for example another recent incident from Assam, an adjacent state of Nagaland, where on November 29 a student leader was lynched by a mob.
In response to that a demand of instant justice was called by people on social media. A State-based journalist said in a viral video why the person who was leading the mob needed to be shot at sight. Later on, when the same person had been apprehended, he was killed in a similar situation where the police claims that he got hit by a police van after trying to run off from another police van.
This death was celebrated by bursting crackers and shouting slogans in favour of the police in Assam. One thing worth mentioning here is that, in most of these extra-judicial killings the victims belong to a marginalized identity be it caste, class or gender.
This sense of impunity may lead to the total collapse of rule of law in a country. Hence, it's the right time to end or at the least address this culture of silence maintained by the mainstream media, political parties and other democratic institutions. Otherwise it may lead us to a police state and our greatest achievement as the largest democracy of the world can also come under threat.
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*Ashok Danavath is a tribal graduate scholar from TISS, Hyderabad, has worked as a Policy, Development and Welfare professional at Libtech India and is currently at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam, Netherlands, researching on marginalization of SC-ST communities in India. Taniya Laskar is Secretary-General of the Barak Human Rights Protection Committee; a lawyer by profession she is also a rights practitioner and activist working on NRC citizenship issues of marginalised people in northeast India. A version of this article has appeared in Live Wire

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