If you are not from the region, the only way to witness the brutality that the sweeping power of AFSPA enables—to search, seize, arrest or shoot to kill—is to have a friend who has endured the savagery of its operations, and for him to trust you deeply to describe it in you. I did. He did. After having known me for two years, he placed his faith in our friendship and shared a minute-by-minute account of one gruesome night that changed everything for him.
It was one ordinary evening on which he sat down for dinner with his family (an ordinary evening in conflict-ridden places brings relief and thankfulness), when he heard a loud banging on the door. He would run to the door to let them in, had he been younger, or, had the knocking sounded like one of their own calling, but, this was a pounding, a force that wasn’t asking for the door to be opened; the door seemed to be in its way. He turned to his father to see his eyes filling up with trepidation. The door was soon torn apart by soldiers who barged in and began pointing guns at everyone. They turned the food table upside down, poked into stuff on the shelves with their barrel, stomped all over their belongings, shouted profanities at everyone, and yelled out questions that didn’t make any sense.
When my friend—frightened, but raging—screamed back at them, they paused for a moment, took one long look at him, and decided to drag him out, shove him into a jeep, and drive away.
His mother chased after the jeep screaming and wailing, but not his father—he did not resist the soldiers, he did not talk back at them, he did not make eye contact with them. The moment the soldiers had seized his son, he threw himself at the other (younger) children to envelop them in his arms and—as if he had been training for this moment his entire life—crouched his body over them instantly, squeezing them tight with his fingers dug into their chests, holding them so close they felt each other’s hearts racing against their skins, while struggling to breathe freely. The father didn’t turn to look at the soldiers when they hauled his eldest son to their vehicle. He kept his face buried in his chest, clasping desperately what his arms could gather amidst the violent housebreaking. He remained cowered indoors, huddled in a corner with the rest of the family, as the soldiers sped away.
Why didn’t his father try to resist the soldiers? Was he reminded of a past trauma? Was it the anguish caused by years of living in a violent region that paralysed him, a territory that is besieged by curfew timings and sound of gun shots for years? Was it the fear that it could’ve been far worse, a reality that he had witnessed far too often in his neighbourhood? No one could tell, no one urged him to explain it.
Scenes from The National Highway A play directed by Amitesh Grover in 2004
The soldiers took my friend to a nearby camp, where they stripped him, tied him up, and inquired about an incident he had no knowledge of; still, they held him captive through the night. He was beaten, spat at, denied food and water, and at one moment, he quivered with terror uncontrollably at the sight of a cutting plier that a soldier brandished in his face; it was meant as a threat to pull his toenail. Following hours of torture, my friend eventually passed out. When he came to his senses the following morning, he had been untied, and his clothes were back on, somehow. He dragged himself out of the tent into the harsh light of daybreak, which had always seemed softer in the hills before. Soldiers seemed busy with their morning chores, but one of them who noticed him hopped over, put his hand around his shoulder, and declared, without regret, that they had made a mistake: They had picked up the wrong person, it was a case of mistaken identity. He was free to go.
That morning, he walked back home barefoot. He left the camp battered and bruised, but what he left behind was his dreamy, starry-eyed adolescence —he was no more than a few weeks older than 16. He reached home to a panic stricken family, who thanked the lord for his life, his safe return, and that the ordeal had lasted a single night only. Young kids his age had disappeared for far longer, some forever, and this the family knew very well. His father made him take a pledge that day that he must make a life for himself elsewhere, and leave home at the first opportunity that arrives for him. He did exactly this, and never once returned.
The ordinary evening on which he recollected this extraordinary one, had come at the end of a long day we had spent rehearsing for a play. The moment that triggered his memory belonged to a particular scene we were developing together; a scene in which an illegal detention takes place.
He sat carrying an irrecoverable body, one that had survived an assault to that fragile thing we call human dignity. The sharing of his experience changed the course of the play’s artistic journey, and going further, it seemed more and more urgent to offer his testimony centre stage. This offer, he graciously accepted, and went on to lead and give shape to that particular scene based in the memories of that horrific night which he had endured years ago.
A day later, while rehearsing the same scene, he shared a remarkable observation. He remembered that not everyone in the camp was an unruly bully. There was this one soldier—not much older than he was at the time—who offered him water, sprinkled some on his face, and gently pressed his feet to ease the pain from the beatings. This was a brief few minutes in the middle of the night before he passed out from the agony. That soldier didn’t speak a word, not before nor after, but there was something in his demeanour that offered hope to my despairing friend, and this had made the night less inhuman for him to bear.
Art-work: Shiva Gor
His real life narrative became a part of my degree show at a theatre school, which looked at the dark history of our country and the deep scars of violence in our memory. This was 17 years ago.
The incident that triggered my memory of his recollection is no less gruesome: On December 4, 2021, the Indian armed forces ambushed and killed 14 civilians in Nagaland’s Mon district.
These killings, too, have been officially admitted to be a case of mistaken identity during a counter-insurgency operation. The Union home minister described it as an unfortunate incident, but this senseless massacre of 14 civilians and the death of one soldier reminds us again of the burden we still carry: the constitutional abomination that AFSPA is, and why it needs to be repealed.
Until that happens, Indian democracy will remain compromised and the trauma of generations that endure this inhuman act will continue to haunt us for years to come. The official deadline for the AFSPA in the state is December 31, 2021. Will we have the courage to fight for justice? Will we put an end to this cycle of violence and terror?
My friend confessed recently that he continues to experience chilling nightmares induced by that memory, which leave him awake and trembling in the middle of the night, 25 years after the incident took place. He remains bound by family honour, which forbids him to speak of the night to anyone, not even to his wife. He broke that pledge for making theatre with me, of course, but that is because we know that the fiction of the stage affords us a safe space to claim what reality takes away from us—our dignity.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Fright Nights")
(Views expressed are personal)
Amitesh Grover is an award-winning artist, performer and writer