Swarajya's slander in Nagaland

BY VIKAS KUMAR| IN Media Practice | 09/04/2018
An amazing article accusing former CM T.R. Zeliang and the Baptist Church of Nagaland of funding terror drew a threat of legal action and a denial of Swarajya's claims from the Army.
VIKAS KUMAR reports on the anonymously sourced charges

 

 

On April 2, 2018, Swarajya carried an item “NIA’s Naga Terror-Funding Probe Reveals Insidious Role Of Top Bureaucrats, Politicians And Church Elders” written by its associate editor. It was later removed from the magazine’s website. A cached copy was available on the internet until Sunday morning, which was also removed after the magazine apologised in the afternoon. Former Chief Minister T.R. Zeliang had threatened legal action if Swarajya “did not issue a clarification and apologise… before 6 p.m. of Sunday, April 8.”

Swarajya’s apology noted that “While checking and verifying the sources, we found that much of what was stated in the article was not true. We have taken down the article from the website and also had Google delete it from its cache. Swarajya sincerely apologises to Shri T. R. Zeliang, leader of the opposition in the Nagaland Legislative Assembly, for any aspersions that the article may have cast on his honour and integrity”. (emphasis added)

 

“Facts” and claims

The item, a cached copy of which is available with The Hoot, deals with extortion carried out by Naga insurgent groups. It focused mostly on the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K), which unilaterally walked out of a decade-and-a-half long ceasefire in March 2015 and was involved in the June 2015 ambush of army men in Manipur.

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) was entrusted with the investigation of the ambush and a probe into the sources of finances of the outfit was a logical corollary. The agency has already arrested several government servants based on the evidence it has collected over the years.

The investigations have uncovered an elaborate, overground “tax” collection machinery that siphons off as much as a fourth of the salaries of government servants and allocations for development projects. Extortion has ruined the economy of the state and affected development projects.

From these widely known facts, the item jumped to two highly contentious claims on the authority of anonymous investigation and security personnel in the NIA, Assam Rifles, and an unnamed central investigation agency.

It first claimed that “An NIA probe revealed that [TR] Zeliang was personally involved in the collection of ‘taxes’ on behalf of the NSCN-K … is likely to be arrested.” It also suggested that this “was the reason behind the BJP breaking its alliance with Zeliang and the NPF.”

"From these widely known facts, the item jumped to two highly contentious claims"

 

It then added a series of claims about the Baptist Church:

(a) “The church in Nagaland is a powerful entity and has very strong and intimate links with the terror outfits. Church groups campaign for the outfits and often act at their behest”;

(b) “The church also collects money on behalf of the terror outfits and routes the amount collected to them, but also benefits from the extortion since it gets to retain a part of the sum collected for its activities, including evangelization”;

(c) “The NSCN-K wanted Zeliang to retain power… [and] asked the Baptist Church to launch a campaign against Zeliang’s opposition.”

 

The reaction

Two days after the post appeared on Swarajya.com, Nagaland’s newspapers reported the allegations and also highlighted that the Army “clarified that no such information was provided to Mr. Mazumdar or anyone else. All such claims in the said article are incorrect.”

As noted above, Zeliang threatened legal action. The Naga People’s Front (NPF) and the NSCN-K condemned the attack on the integrity of the Church. The NPF advised the journalist to do research on the contribution of the Church to Naga society. The NSCN-K also wondered why the ongoing investigation did not cover the equally ruinous extortion of the NSCN (IM), its rival faction that dominates the peace process.

The Nagaland Baptist Church Council (NBCC) denied all the allegations made in the “degrading and provocative” item. The NBCC noted that this was not the first instance in which theconcerned journalist targeted the Church. It advised him to “enlighten and not malign individuals or institutions for personal gain.” It promised that it “will in no way stand in the way of the people and agencies who are in the business of cleaning the hated rampant corruption and extortion in the society.”

 

Fact-check

The Church acting at the behest of insurgents, let alone at the behest of a non-dominant faction, sounds highly implausible. Even the NSCN-K’s rivals have never made such an allegation.

Regarding the claim that the Church collects money on the behalf of insurgents, it perhaps suffices to recall an interesting statement of S.C. Jamir: “With the barrel of the gun democratic rights and civil liberties have been destroyed in Naga society. Even Churches are not spared. Ao Baptist Church Kohima has been asked to pay Rs. 50 lakhs. After finishing secular institutions, they have now encroached upon the arena of God. Christ is the Head of the Church. In the name of Nagaland for Christ, they are now confronting with Christ. Is it really Naga Politics? Is it the way we have to struggle for the noble cause of the Nagas?’ (Speeches of Mr. S. C. Jamir Chief Minister Nagaland 1994-1996,pp. 123-124, also see p. 179-180).

One could argue that the situation might have changed after the late 1990s. An earlier contribution to The Hoot discussed several op-eds highly critical of the corruption within the Church, but none remotely hinted that the Church is a sub-contractor to extortionist insurgent groups.

Further, it is true that in the run-up to this year's assembly elections the NBCC issued an unprecedented statement addressed to the faithful. It appealed to people to cast their vote with responsibility and check communal parties. An earlier contribution to The Hoot discussed at length the Church’s statement and the strong and diverse reactions it triggered.

However, to suggest that the Church campaigned in favour of Zeliang is misleading. At best, it can be said that the Church’s statement benefitted the NPF, which was battling disunity within its ranks and severe anti-incumbency. However, the NPF was not the sole beneficiary. The Congress too tried to benefit from the development.

"The impugned Swarajya news item seems to be motivated insofar as it overlooks several well-known facts to arrive at motivated conclusions"

 

It might be true that individual members of the Church campaigned for Zeliang in his constituency. However, almost all Naga politicians, including those who contested on BJP tickets, tried to leverage clan, village, etc ties to rope in, among others, the local clergy during elections. As discussed earlier, op-ed contributors to Nagaland’s newspapers strongly condemned the politician-local clergy relationship in the run-up to the elections.

Equally important is the fact that Zeliang, who is a Baptist Christian belonging to Peren’s Zeme tribe, was widely seen in the state as being soft toward “Hindusim and Animism” (see, for instance, "An open letter to ABAM and ABPF," The Morung Express, February 11).

In fact, even the NPF President once called him “Heraka boy.” He was suggesting that Zeliang was close to Rani Gaidinliu’s Heraka movement that aimed at keeping the pre-Christian tradition and culture of the Zeliangrong community alive. (The RSS has engaged with the Heraka movement over the years.)

Just before the elections, Zeliang welcomed the Patanjali Group’s massive investment plan. Four of the five proposed projects - “a Para Medical & Nursing College, an Ayurvedic College, Management College and a National Institute of Fashion Technology in Punglwa, Peren” - are located in Zeliang’s constituency.

Next, consider the claim that the BJP pulled out of the longstanding coalition with the NPF because it did not wanted to be associated with someone accused of funding terror. The BJP pulled out of the alliance only for the purpose of elections because the Neiphiu Rio-led Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), a splinter of the NPF, offered far more seats under a pre-poll alliance than the NPF was ready to offer.

In any case, the MLAs of the BJP happily continued as ministers in the Zeliang government until the very end. So, the BJP went to the polls playing both sides. Even on March 3, the day of counting, Kiren Rijiju said that his party was open to forming the government with either faction of the NPF!

To conclude, the impugned Swarajya news item seems to be motivated insofar as it overlooks several well-known facts to arrive at motivated conclusions. It is not the case that the Church is above reproach. In the run-up to the elections, the people of Nagaland themselves openly questioned the Church’s brush with politics and the corruption within the Church.

Readers’ polls in a leading daily of Nagaland showed that while the people did not appreciate the Church’s involvement in politics, they also agreed that the BJP’s communal politics was not good for their state. On earlier occasions, questions were raised over the Church’s commitment to gender justice.

There are several other questions that can be raised vis-à-vis the Church. If recent trends in public debate within Nagaland are an indication,these questions will surely be raised in the days to come.

However, unlike Swarajya, the critiques will perhaps not overlook the enormous contribution of the Church to primary education, reconciliation between factions within the insurgency, clean election campaign, tourism development, and apple cultivation, among others.

 

Vikas Kumar teaches Economics at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

 

 
 
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