The Re-telling of a Conflict

It is now winter and the mist of the morning cloaks cop and robber alike. There is a distance between man and mortality at this point. There is nothing left of the previous night, but between the daylight and the dying light of the moon, there exists the dark and the people who dwell in it; cop and robber alike. Perhaps I should be more specific. Cop and insurgent. Robbers are welcome here. They are the lesser criminals. The self-interested idiots who think only of small gain, not concerning themselves with matters of state and government, regime change and gun-running. The evil ones are the cops. The gallant ones are the militants. And between cop and militant there is an understanding, battle time is battle time. And not all times are battle times. One can go to a popular club and find in one corner a group of surrendered and current militants and in the other the cop with his girlfriend. They nod to each other and continue to drink.

This world is topsy turvy in more ways that I can describe. Normalcy in everyday affairs seems deviant. It is an interloper. I can go to a coffee shop and sip cappuccino and at the same time, someone in the corner is looking online on the relative merits and demerits of RDX and how to make a pipe bomb. I do not understand the language, but I see their eyes and I know they think of me as a privileged outsider. What am I doing here they wonder. There is less hostility and more curiosity.

Samuel from the HNLC was all of 19 years old. He had joined the camp a month ago and had just learnt how to deal with the AK like it was part of his body. An extra limb that needed to be accepted and cradled. This weapon, his commander had said, can save your life and bring down the government. The policeman shot Samuel dead in cold blood in the pre dawn sleep hour. He didn’t have a chance. The counter insurgency team swarmed the hideout in the middle of the West Khasi Hills and silently made their way to the main cluster of small huts on stilts, under which the rebels slept. The lookout for the camp had already been silenced by a quick switchblade operation by one cop. Samuel breathed his last thinking that some heavy object had fallen on his chest. Perhaps the whole hut had collapsed on him. He slept on a bed of bamboo branches held together with some string. He was still asleep when the two bullets from the cop’s Glock were pumped into his chest. He didn’t have a chance to wake up except for vaguely recollecting an important mission he had run for the HNLC that day. Some of the camp members got away that night. But most didn’t. They were killed where they slept and the Meghalaya state police notched another win in the battle against militancy. But they had to do it, they reasoned. It was the MLP doing an efficient job or the central forces coming in to do they dirt, clean up job for them. An outside police force was unwelcome and would lead to more human rights violations. More women being raped, more women at risk, less mobility and more incessant and indiscriminate killing.

The exercise of sovereignty was never easy for any central government. And here it is more difficult than ever. The lack of public institutions and the failure of parties have led to a vast and immense political vacuum which is increasingly being filled by youth organizations, the legitimate voice of the people. And everyone seems dysfunctional. Everyone plays a game. Maybe I am expected to play even though I am an outsider. I am release for some people here, who cannot express their thoughts to anyone else without any consequences. But in gathering this excess information, which I have no need of, I may have become a small-time player, a confidante, a person on whom burdens of knowledge can be placed. My own inability to process this information is limited. And personally I try not to care. But hearing about how person A shot person B and then being shown a video of the same can mess up the best of us. I do not like to pretend that I can watch an encounter video without a chill running down my spine and a feeling of loss and senselessness at the madness of conflict.

But, who am I to spurn privileged insight? Is not this my job, to understand how people and societies tick in the worst of circumstances and situations? I write because it is a process of debriefing for me. But at the other extreme lies the swarm of numbers that calls itself American Political Science and I think I am about to secede from it. I understand now why people and researchers take refuge in numbers. I understand how it keeps emotions at bay and I understand quite correctly that reducing everything to a model-able game helps keep things impersonal. Distance is crucial. But a part of me wants this to be personal. The people I have met breathe, eat, sleep, and fornicate too. And they are all polar opposites of each other. I cannot reveal who they are and what they do. But I think for the trust they placed in me, I cannot reduce them to a number on a data table. I just can’t. That would just be simply – wrong. So how do I write about my conflict zone and talk about what is going on in my states of research? These garrison states where people live and people die and are ruled by reluctant, elected lords, turning their constituencies into fiefdoms.

I cannot bear the thought of presenting a paper at a forum in the US about these living spaces and talk about direct correlations between phenomenon A and variable B. So I think I must find myself another medium of expression. Recently, I was at a friend’s book launch and one of things he said stood out in my mind, “This book of mine”, he said, “is a political act”. And the more I think about it, I believe him to be right. Academia has for too long tried to Sanskritize itself and has dipped itself in jargon. Beyond this world of academia, there IS something real. The telling of complex stories can be kept simple. We don’t need clever concepts and worry about whether they stretch or don’t stretch to other parts of the world. We just need to tell the truth as simply as possible.

But Samuel from the HNLC is still dead at the age of 19. I watched him die on a video shot by one of the cops. Another man ran and was felled, like an actor in a bad war movie. He slumped forward and was still. The dulled shot of the AK which got him, seemed to be a cue for him to lie down and he did. Yet I am still here and as I sit in my nice little over-expensive hotel room, young boys play cops and insurgents in the dead of night.

(NOTE:the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) is a Khasi militant organization operating in the Indian state of Meghalaya. The HNLC claims to protect Khasi tribal identity against non-tribal outsiders, mainland Indians. It has been involved in a low intensity conflict with the Indian state for 17 years. Most of the top leadership of the HNLC operates from Bangladesh, specifically in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. It has strongholds in the West and East Khasi hills and the state capital of Shillong.)

A personal narrative and reaction to being told stories of conflict from India's northeast.

Trackback URL for this post:


Interesting. I grew up in

Interesting. I grew up in Shillong,  graduated from St Edmunds, lived in the Lachumiere neighborhood,  near the Loreto Convent compound. Reading this piece makes me really sad.


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.