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ACAUT: the watchdog on a mission to reclaim Nagaland

LiveMint logoLiveMint 06-09-2017 Sudeep Chakravarti

It may take a rat to bring about change in Nagaland. Even a “Frankenstein’s monster” of a rat. But you won’t find ACAUT complaining.

The brave citizens’ movement is too busy escalating matters, and it has spectacularly done so since 25 August, turning the idea of entitlement on its head. At an impressive rally in Dimapur, the state’s commercial capital that is also near the headquarters of two major rebel groups, the quaintly but aptly named citizens’ movement—Against Corruption and Unabated Taxation—unveiled its “Battle to Reclaim Nagaland.”

ACAUT, mainly through its best-known public face, the widely respected former bureaucrat Khekiye Sema, a mix of erudition, emotion and a degree of seemingly reckless eccentricity, placed suggestions before the public. These include a suggestion to involve all Naga rebel groups in the ongoing peace talks between the government of India and National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M), the largest Naga rebel group.

There was a call for the state government to do away with posts of advisers with cabinet rank and parliamentary secretaries to government, a way to pacify legislators, cronies, loyalists, coalition members, who are not directly made ministers. (Nagaland has a 60-member assembly. The current chief minister, T.R. Zeliang, in end-July appointed nine advisers with cabinet rank, 26 parliamentary secretaries, besides the dozen cabinet ministers, including Zeliang. It covers the National People’s Front-led coalition government, including legislators of the Bharatiya Janata Party).

ACAUT also demanded the appointment of a Lokayukta; termination of all “back door appointments”; better roads using the funds already with government; and a central government investigation into siphoning of funds.

In the run-up to the rally, widely publicized through local media and its own social networking platforms, it created a bit of history with NSCN (I-M), which had given it the monster-rat moniker in the first place.

The name-calling began when NSCN (I-M) officially responded to ACAUT’s initial anti-taxation rally in October 2013—a stunning development by any standard in a conflict zone—by suggesting the monster of a “rat” was the creation of India’s security establishment and what it termed traitorous Nagas.

Nearly four years on, that rat, to use an exuberant expression, is rocking. The watchdog’s Facebook page has more than 90,000 members, almost all Naga (I’m among the few non-Naga members). It has added nearly 40,000 members since June.

As far back as 2013, ACAUT representatives actually met NSCN (I-M)’s leadership, and managed to do the unthinkable. It drew out the outfit’s general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah, to warn the watchdog that it had become “political and serious”; and that his organization was the “right government to collect tax from the Nagas”. He actually threatened ACAUT that it could of its own volition face “unwanted incidents” in future.

Muivah didn’t gain face with this. ACAUT did. It capped four years of demanding accountability in a region in which there is so little of it, where citizens are sickened by conflict, corruption and stasis.

Since I introduced ACAUT to readers of this column a couple of years ago, the watchdog has taken issue with all Naga rebel groups for imposing taxes on citizens and businesses and running parallel administrations—which the governments of Nagaland and India have for long permitted in games of realpolitik.

Its leaders have been held hostage by Naga rebel groups—and released after intervention by citizens: a stunning development.

In the past two years, ACAUT has broadened its base by focusing on corruption. In mid-August, it filed a public interest litigation or PIL at the Kohima bench of the Gauhati high court, in the hope of cleaning up bogus voters in electoral rolls—after proving through a Right to Information (RTI) disclosure that in as many as 23 constituencies there were several polling stations where registered voters exceeded the population of entire villages.

I first met Khekiye Sema about a decade ago when he was the ranking bureaucrat for tourism in Nagaland. Punctilious and polite but punchy, he spoke freely about the morass Nagaland had descended into, and his dreams for a future Nagaland that would not only have honourable closure of conflict but honourable public life that put the state and its citizens first.

Are he and his colleagues and supporters at ACAUT now out on a limb, considering that cleansing Nagaland could take decades, and a blowback could come from influential groups of citizens fattened on entitlements and corruption? Perhaps, but as the watchdog’s growing public appeal shows, the time for blowback against status quo may well have truly arrived in Nagaland.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.

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