Book review by Rakhi Dalal
Title: Waiting for the Dust to Settle
Author: Veio Pou
Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020
In his debut novel, Veio Pou weaves fiction to chronicle the forgotten history of Naga people, a past whose dust, even after three long decades, is yet to settle. Waiting for the Dust to Settle is set against the backdrop of Indo-Naga conflict in Northeastern India.
The story of this novel follows the life of a ten-year-old Rokovei from Senapati district in Manipur from late 1980s onward. He lives a peaceful life with his parents. Fascinated by the convoy of army trucks passing daily in front of his home, he secretly wishes to become an army officer. Once, while visiting his native village of Phyamaichi, he witnesses atrocities committed by the soldiers on the villagers. His disenchantment with the army comes to the fore when he becomes aware of his people’s sufferings as a consequence of confrontation between Naga undergrounds and the Indian Army. At the center of this novel is the Operation Bluebird, carried out in the state in 1987.
In September 1958, the Government of India enacted Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in the North-Eastern states to quell Naga resistance. In July 1987, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) attacked an Assam Rifles post at Oinam village, in Manipur’s Senapati district. The Naga undergrounds of NSCN looted large arms and ammunition from the post. The Assam Rifles launched a counter-insurgency operation code-named “Operation Bluebird” to recover the looted arms and ammunition. This intense search operation, which was carried for three months in nearly thirty villages, was a torturous period for the residents of those villages. The Rifles committed large-scale human rights violation, including forcing two pregnant women to give birth to their babies in full view of the soldiers.
By spinning the narrative around the operation, the author attempts to give voice to the otherwise erased account of a people’s history from the consciousness of a country. The final erasure came when in 2019 the Manipur High Court disposed case against the Assam Rifles, filed by Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR), after twenty eight years citing dislocation of entire record of the case. Nandita Haksar, who was the lawyer who filed the case on behalf of NPMHR, wrote in an essay that the entire record consisted of twelve volumes of evidence and ran into thousands of pages.
Through account of Rokovei and his family’s life after Operation Bluebird, Veio Pou brings to notice the physical as well as mental sufferings endured by the victims of army brutality. Disillusionment of natives with respect to Naga undergrounds and their cause, the splitting of NSCN and rivalry between Naga factions, increased awareness among natives for better education, the issue of racism that people from North East face in Mainland India, are the themes dealt prominently within this novel.
Rokovei, while studying in Imphal, witnesses the hostility between Kuki and Naga factions after their conflict in the 1990s. When he moves to University of Delhi few years later, he comes in contact with Lalboi – a Kuki, but does make friends with him because he is the only other boy from the state in his class. After coming to Delhi, he realises the difference of living in a place where no ASFPA is enacted, an experience which should have come as a breather but is marred by racism which he confronts and leaves him astounded. The prejudice that he faces makes him wonder about his identity. Rokovei wishes to find answers. His conversations with his cousin Joyson, with whom he lives in Delhi, gives him a clearer perspective on the history, issues and realities of his people and state.
Finally, keeping in mind better prospects for the future, he settles down in Delhi. It is the year 2008, five years after the leaders of NSCN visited Delhi to meet PM Vajpayee and yet a solution to the political question his people face is nowhere near. Rokovei ponders over the relevance of Naga resistance which had once started with the dream of a sovereign state but was subsequently made weaker by the split in the party. He reflects upon the corollaries of a struggle which had left the natives disappointed because at stake was a peaceful existence that has long been denied them. For him the dust hasn’t settled yet and his hopes are tinged with despair.
The history of a place is essentially the history of its people. To recapitulate it, especially when it is complex and painful to remember, must be an arduous task for the people who have witnessed harrowing times and have lived every subsequent day of their lives watching the repercussions unfold. To pen a fictional account of such history therefore requires conviction and also courage to endure the trauma all over again.
This book is not only an attempt at chronicling the events which led to the political question that kept haunting the lives of the Naga people but is also an effort to bring their predicament to the attention of people who have little idea about their sufferings and about the gravity of denial of justice to them.
Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .
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