On March 5, a mob broke into a jail in the city of Dimapur, in the northeastern Indian state of Nagaland. Easily overcoming the police officers guarding the jail’s gates, they pulled out 35-year-old used-car dealer Syed Sarifuddin Khan, who was detained on accusations of rape weeks before. After stripping him of his clothes and binding his hands, the crowd of as many as 10,000 dragged him nude toward the center of town. They beat Khan to death along the way and strung his limp body from the clock tower.
At first, Khan’s murder may appear a reaction to India’s rape crisis. Underpolicing, a sclerotic court system, and a culture of male entitlement have created an atmosphere that abides crimes against women. According to the New Delhi-based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, which analyzed more than a decade’s worth of case files, around 57 rapes were reported every day between 2001 and 2013. To put it another way, a rape occurs every 30 minutes on average in India. (This does not include the untold number of sexual assaults that go unreported out of fear of reprisal or stigmatization.) And the country’s notoriously slow justice system is ill-equipped to hold perpetrators to account.
Khan’s murder, however, had little to do with rape.
On March 3, two days before he was killed, the Naga Students’ Federation (NSF) — a politically powerful student organization representing the region’s indigenous ethnic group, the Naga — released a statement condemning the alleged rape as that of “yet another Naga girl by a person of Bangladeshi origin.” The next day, the NSF and other anti-immigrant groups gathered in the city center. Some carried placards that read, “IBI [illegal Bangladeshi immigrant], get out of Nagaland.”
Two days after Khan was killed, it emerged that he was an Indian citizen. Furthermore, on March 11 a government report challenged the rape accusation, claiming that Khan was having a consensual relationship with his alleged victim in exchange for money. (Khan reportedly told police that when he turned down her demands for more money, she filed a complaint of rape.) By then, though, Khan was already a victim of the simmering xenophobia that has come to define relations between the local tribes and the state’s immigrant community.
Nagaland sits at the intersection of Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. It has thus become a melting pot for outsiders from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Myanmar — some of whom enter the state illegally. Although official figures are hard to come by, M. Amarjeet Singh, an Indian academic who focuses on migration in the region, estimates that at least 100,000 illegal immigrants are in the state — or roughly 4 percent of the state’s population of 2.3 million. In October, the NSF launched a campaign to count the number of illegal immigrants in Dimapur. (The group has yet to release its figures.) Bangladeshis, who are predominantly Muslim, and Indian Muslims like Khan have borne the brunt of local resentment in part because of their faith. Here, like in conservative communities elsewhere in India, Muslims are stigmatized as outsiders. But in Nagaland they are also the subjects of resentment because locals see them as putting pressure on the state’s limited resources.
Intertribe conflict, an ongoing separatist insurgency, and the state’s isolation from India’s financial centers have conspired to undermine economic prospects. Between 2005 and 2010, Nagaland saw the highest rise in poverty level of any state in the country. Employment is particularly problematic. According to a recent employment survey by the government, only 59.4 percent of workers in Nagaland had jobs throughout 2013.
Local anti-immigrant groups have played on the state’s economic troubles to fuel this xenophobia. Jakato Sumi, the head of one such group, called Survival Nagaland, alleged that “IBIs” were buying prime real estate in Dimapur, the state’s largest city. (In other parts of the state, non-Nagas are restricted from purchasing land.) Just a month before Khan’s murder, Survival Nagaland published a news release claiming that most of the stores in Dimapur’s largest shopping arcade were being unofficially rented to outsiders. Naga women, the group claimed, were left with no place to sell their wares.
In October, another anti-immigrant group, the Naga Council Dimapur, reportedly urged Nagas in Dimapur to pledge to “wholly and steadfastly boycott illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.” Signatories to the campaign promised to shun “business establishments of IBIs who now control the economy of our state.”
For others, though, the threat of the foreigner is simply the threat of ethnic assimilation. Intermarriage between Muslim men and women from a major local tribe known as the Sema Naga has already led to the creation of a racially mixed community — the Semias. Although small in numbers — there are no official figures on the Semia population — indigenous Nagas nevertheless see the Semias as a threat. And Khan was, in fact, married to a Sema Naga woman. “There is a real fear among communities across the Northeast of being demographically marginalised by those much more numerous than them,” the journalist Samrat, who goes by one name, wrote in a March 11 op-ed in the Asian Age, an Indian newspaper.
Recent events are part of a broader ethnic conflict playing out across India — one in which northeastern Indians are not simply the perpetrators, but also the victims, of xenophobic and racist violence. In the days after Khan’s murder, 4,000 Muslims purportedly left the state — just like in the summer of 2012, when thousands of northeast Indians living in the southern city of Bangalore fled after rumors circulated that they would suffer retribution for ethnic violence occurring in the northeastern state of Assam. And in January 2014, a group of people in a Delhi market beat to death 20-year-old student Nido Taniam from Arunachal Pradesh — another northeastern state. His family said that the fight started after the men yelled racial slurs.
Back in Dimapur, police have arrested 55 people for their involvement in Khan’s lynching. On March 19, the Nagaland government recommended handing over the investigation into the attack to the Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s top law enforcement agency. For at least some in the state, the news was well received. In the local newspaper Eastern Mirror, retired civil servant Khekiye K. Sema called the lynching a “disaster” and said that only an inquiry led by the central government would help restore the image of the Nagas. An image, he said, that the lynching had “mutilated.”