Bearing Literary Witness

Violence founds and preserves the state. Monopoly over the legal use of violence is, Max Weber reminds us, indispensable to all modern states. The postcolonial Indian state became the principal vehicle of political development and agent of nation building, though by the mid 70s, and by other accounts even earlier, this nation-building euphoria began to disintegrate. Sankaran Krishna coined the term “cartographic anxiety” to describe the persistent Indian practice of state and nation building: an anxiety that stems from its peculiar circumstances of birth – its creation by amputation as a result of the partition – and also an inherent confusion of who it marks as the “outsider-foreigner” and the “insider-Indian.” It is a country forever suspended between the “former colony” and “not yet nation.” 

Independent India inherited the former British Protectorate of Assam, which borders with what is now Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, China, Sikkim, and Tibet. If history had taken a different turn, it could have been siphoned off to East Pakistan in the partition scramble. Assam, located in India’s northeastern borders, became India’s colonial hinterland, born and butchered out of nationalist consolidation and confusion. Beginning in the 1960s, seven northeastern states were carved out of the old Assam; only one of the states retained the name. The Indian state’s persistent failure to build a nation of inclusive citizenship, coupled with stunted post-national economic development, created a breed of discontents.

The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) was founded in 1979, around the same time as the beginning of the anti-immigrant Assam Movement1. Assam, they claimed, had never been part of India. ULFA engaged in a liberation struggle against “Indian state terrorism,” “economic exploitation,” and the establishment of a sovereign independent Assam through “scientific socialism.” At the height of its popularity, ULFA was an enigma. Journalist Praful Bidwai claims that “[e]veryone was afraid of it and in awe of it.” The early cleansing violence was overlooked and newspapers, reporting romantically, idealized them as “primitive rebels.” ULFA gained popular support by taking over local administration in rural areas where government machinery had broken down. Assamese who did not support its demand for independence still welcomed ULFA’s capacity to address the problems of an ineffectual state government. Between 1988 and 1990, ULFA’s use of violence escalated. Evidence of these abuses came to light when a mass grave was uncovered at Lakhipathar, the headquarters of the commander-in-chief of ULFA.

On Nov 27, 1990, the Indian government imposed president’s rule and launched a major counterinsurgency operation. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) was brought into force, ULFA was outlawed and a military crackdown was launched against the insurgent group. In September 1991, “Operation Rhino” was launched, employing between 40,000-50,000 troops. By 1992, ULFA was a house divided. A large group of leaders and members of ULFA who had previously wanted nothing short of secession from the Indian Union surrendered to government authorities, earning the name SULFA (Surrendered ULFA). Then Chief Minister Hiteswar Saika, in one of his television interviews, referred to SULFA members as “the return home of the boys.” Acts of resistance were reduced to juvenile rebellion. These former members were allowed to retain their weapons in order to “defend” themselves against their former ULFA comrades, and offered large bank loans without any liabilities. With unlimited cash, coercive power and no accountability or state loyalty, fratricidal violence ensued. The boys came home with guns and caused quite a bit of havoc.

Set in the volatile and turbulent times of secret killings, Aruni Kashyap’s The House with a Thousand Stories takes place in the village of Mayong and is a compendium of love stories and simple human aspirations that struggle to breathe in a world wrought with violence. In Mayong, the trauma of existence is palpable. Death and violence pervade the book. ULFA members and their families are brutally gunned down. The newly rich SULFA members run amok in fancy cars with weapons. A woman previously raped by four Indian soldiers becomes mere residue of physical and sexual violence; she turns into a ghost when she sees an army patrol walk into Mayong. There are revenge killings by masked gunmen. Fear of being raped drives yet another character to suicide. The purifying violence inflicted on the local people by ULFA, SULFA and the Indian Army are woven into the dailyness of things. Scars are made, healed and made again. People pray, plot and mate, and then die on a scale both unimaginable and uncomfortable. There are moments of brief peace and quiet reprieve, but an actual break with violence never comes. In The House with a Thousand Stories, violence always stages a stunning, silencing “catastrophic comeback.”

Pablo is an adolescent with urban privileges who lives in Guwahati, and the novel is set between two events linked to him: the funeral of his father’s cousin, Bolen Bortta in 1998, and the wedding of his aunt, Moina Pehi in 2002, which brings Pablo to his father’s ancestral village. He is the familiar outsider, narrating his life through events in Mayong. His ancestral village is a surrogate of a home that he can discard anytime. When trouble knocks, his parents arrive in their car and whisk him away. For the people of Mayong, that option does not exist. This world is not their oyster, but one where limits are known. The characters in rural Mayong collectively stand at the verge of the world not accessible to them. To live or even aspire beyond it leads to immense heartache. Characters aspire to fall in love with all its grand illusions, to elope with a beautiful Nepali outsider, to discover sex, to refuse marriage – but everyday even these simple acts of loving and living cause upheavals.

The characters in the story draw circles around their existence and learn to live within. With each successive misery, violence and heartache, these circles become smaller. Pablo’s cousin, Mridul, recounting a violent incident, says: “But on that ground where that corpse fell – we still can’t walk.” It is not that the world around them has ceased to exist; instead it is rendered incomprehensible. Affiliations become murky and fickle, and people create fluid forms of belonging and allegiances. The politics are never overt, always hidden.

“Once upon a time, there used to be only the ULFA. People used to feel proud of them. Relatives used to whisper to their jealous neighbors that their son or daughter had joined the ULFA, pride gleaming in their eyes. But what happened? The army came and broke everyone’s spine. And now we have so many organizations: ulfa-sulfa-malta-santa-kanta-and- whatnot!”

The language of India’s counterinsurgency reduces all aspects of a conflict to “dangers that threatened the state.” Here, the rules of the state do not arise out of the  population but are imposed on it by an alien force of “petty sovereigns” sent to do the dirty work of the state.2 Men who speak an alien language belong to the nation in the state’s imagination, but in the local imagination, they are foreigners who look and act differently, and speak a different language.

The army’s presence in the book is portrayed through anxiety and fear. Most of the stories about the Indian state violence are narrated through hearsay and rumors except the scene where an army patrol walks into the village while Pablo is there.

“It was then we heard the scream. Mamoni had come out of the house, sat on the veranda and had started to scream, she wouldn’t stop, she kept screaming like a lunatic until she fainted. I saw the white of her eyes; the irises of her eyes had disappeared. She was still sitting. I saw the pale yellow trail of urine sliding down from the veranda on to the courtyard. I had never seen anyone so scared. What happened to her? I asked Brikodar, but he didn’t say anything. I asked Binod, but he kept quiet as well. Later, on the way home, Mridul told me she had been raped by four military men when she had gone to wash clothes in the Pokoria River last year.”

“Cordon and Search” operations described in the novel are the hallmark of Indian counterinsurgency practices that replaced the “seek and destroy” tactics that once used large forces in pursuit of the insurgents in the jungle areas. “Cordon and Search” moved the war to the private and public spheres of civilian life and included massive house-to-house raids and searches in thousands of villages. During search operations, civilians were routinely subjected to threats, harassment and assaults. Rapes of family members were common. People encountered the state presence through intimate military presence that regularly violated personal freedoms. In the language of a retired military officer: “Cordon and search operations netted good results but led to accusations of human rights abuses and the use of excessive force.”

The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) was passed on September 11, 1958, by the Indian Parliament. The AFSPA empowers the Indian security forces to arrest anyone without a warrant, to search any premises that might harbors suspicious elements, and to fire or to use lethal force even to the point of causing death against any person or assembly of persons who are deemed to have broken the law. The armed forces are provided legal immunity for extra-judicial killing in these so-called “disturbed” areas. Indian military forces have unilateral power to detain, torture, and kill to maintaining order. Here, the law operates in and through its own suspension and legitimacy always trumps disproportional use of lethal force. The grey areas of state authority grant the license to kill and legitimize it through a judicial process. Normal laws of the state do not apply here; the state can transcend and transgress the rule of law in the name of larger public welfare.

When politics and history betray people, stories become the sites of remembrance. Stories, “train the imagination” to un-idealize the sacred, “to move it…away from belief,” says Gayatri Spivak.3When Nation and the State are the two most sacred entities of our day, how do we curtail and critique the coercive force of a state, while still living within the perimeters of its sovereignty by consent?

Can the exercise of fiction by the strength of its words demand such a discourse? How do we strike the balance between the “ideal” that regulates society and the resistance that seeks to confront it? Kashyap’s strength lies in “manufacturing our consent” to indulge in such acts of transformation. While the story richly narrates a state of exception created by military presence and insurgency, it writes out the changing forms of local resistance and the transformation of victims into perpetrators.

To act on the transformation Kashyap demands of his readers, it is imperative to go beyond the act of acquiring knowledge of the atrocities through bearing literary witness. To find answers we need to delve into political identities generated through history and politics of partition, in the failures of the Indian independence to transcend these identities, the state’s abdication of responsibility, and into regional demographic currents and migration that spill from Bangladesh and wider India. We need to look for answers not just in the transformed and transforming identities, but in reforming these identities to create inclusive citizenship with rights currently denied through neglect.

Endnotes:

1. Samir Kumar Das, ULFA: A Political Analysis, Ajanta Publications, New Delhi, 1994.
2. Judith Butler, Precarious Life, Verso, New York, 2004.
3. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Other Asias, Malden, Mass.:Blackwell Publishers, 2008.