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Interning Insurgent Populations

by Nandini Sundar, 8 February 2011

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Darzo (Mizoram) was one of the richest villages I have ever seen in this part of the world. ...My orders were to get the villagers to collect whatever moveable property they could, and to set their own village on fire at seven in the evening. I also had orders to burn all the paddy and other grain that could not be carried away by the villagers to the new centre so as to keep food out of reach of the insurgents...

Night fell, and I had to persuade the villagers to come out and set fire to their homes. Nobody came out. Then I had to order my soldiers to enter every house and force the people out. Every man, woman and child who could walk came out with as much of his or her belongings and food as they could. But they wouldn’t set fire to their homes. Ulti- mately, I lit a torch myself and set fire to one of the houses. I knew I was carrying out orders, and would hate to do such a thing if I had my way. My soldiers also started torching other buildings, and the whole place was soon ablaze. There was absolute confusion every- where. Women were wailing and shouting and cursing. Children were frightened and cried. Young boys and girls held hands and looked at their burning village with a stupefied expression on their faces. But the grown men were silent; not a whimper or a whisper from them... When it was time for the world to sleep, we marched out of Darzo – soldiers in front, with the Mizos following, and the rear brought up by more soldiers...We walked fifteen miles through the night along the jungle and the morning saw us in Hnahthial. I tell you, I hated myself that night. I had done the job of an executioner. The night when I saw children as young as three years carrying huge loads on their heads for fifteen miles with very few stops for rest, their noses running, their little feet faltering, for the first time in my life as a solider I did not feel the burden of the fifty pound haversack on my own back.

But there was something more to be carried out. I called the Darzo Village Council President and his village elders and ordered them to sign a document saying that they had voluntarily asked to be resettled in Hnahthial PPV (Protected and Progressive Village) under the protection of the Security Forces as they were being harassed by the insurgents, and because their own village did not have communications, educational, medical and other facilities. Another document stated that they had burnt down their own village, and that no force or coercion was used by the Security Forces. They refused to sign. So I sent them out and after an hour called them in again, this time one man at a time. On my table was a loaded revolver, and in the corner stood two NCOs with loaded sten-guns. This frightened them, and one by one they signed both the documents.
- –An army officer’s reminiscences reproduced in Jaffa (2001: 240-43).

The ‘Age of Camps’

How will our century go down in history? Will it be under the name of the ‘Age of the Camps’, of flesh turning cancerous?
- –Bauman (1995: 192).

For a counterinsurgency strategy which has affected the lives of millions in the 20th century, and which continues1 to be popular, grouping, regrouping, villagisation, strategic hamletting, or forced population removal, as it is variously known, is a surprisingly understudied topic. Usually an aside in a larger narrative, the account is couched in terms of the outcome for the incumbent state. For instance, we are invariably told that the Malayan regrouping “succeeded” while the Vietnam strategic hamlets “failed”.2 In India, grouping is said to have “succeeded” in Mizoram where a peace accord was signed between the Mizo National Front (MNF), which had been seeking independence and the Indian government in 1986, but “failed” in Nagaland, where the movement for self-determination continues.3 .

While it is true in Malaysia that regrouping and the associated starvation helped to militarily defeat the Malay communists, as Malayan Communist Party (MCP) leader, Chin Peng acknowledged in his memoirs (Peng 2003: 395), counter-insurgency never stoops to question its ends – that success in the Malay counter-insurgency, for example, was about maintaining empire and harnessing the revenues of Malaya for the reconstruction of post-war Britain. Nor does it look at “success” from the point of view of those uprooted and imprisoned.

Not surprisingly, all the victims of internment have been either colonised populations, inhabitants of the internal colonies of democratic countries like the Philippines or India, or “enemy races” as in the US (Murray 2008; Mindanao Documentation Committee for Refugees 1982). The Naga and Mizo struggles for self-determination rested on the assertion that their demands were part of the unfinished decolonisation of the Indian subcontinent, a claim that was only buttressed by the grouping strategies of the Indian government.4 . . .


Interning Insurgent Populations: The Buried Histories of Indian Democracy
by Nandini Sundar
in The Economic and Political Weekly, VOL 46 No. 06 February 05 - February 11, 2011