A glimpse into the life of Peingam and Luingam Luithui between their home in India and life in Canada where they were forced to live in exile for 22 years as their citizenship question remained in the air. The Delhi High Court has now restored their access to community and homeland through a judgment passed on August 23, 2017.
From statelessness to becoming a citizen again
Morung Express Feature
Dimapur | September 8
Joseph K., the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’, is arrested one morning. Cashier at a bank, he cannot think of a crime he committed. He is not told who has charged him, with what, or what process sanctions his sudden trial. He is faced with a heavy bureaucracy with secret rules. K. traverses a blind, often arbitrarily complex, system to uncover the uncoverable.
Bewildering agony and frustration unfolds.
Found widely in Kafka’s works, this experience often explains the term Kafkaesque.
In a 2014 writ petition filed in the Delhi High Court to restore their citizenship rights, the life of human rights activist Luingam Luithui (66) and his wife, Peingam (47), was described as a “Kafkaesque world of statelessness.”
From 1994, the couple began to be forced into statelessness. Peingam’s passport was stolen in 1994 along with her bag while shopping at a local market in Bangkok. When she applied for a new passport at the Indian Embassy in Bangkok, the Government of India (GoI) did not respond. After waiting for months, and faced with the risk of penalty under Thai laws, Luingam filed a writ petition in Delhi High Court on her behalf. The case was disposed off with an undertaking from the GoI to issue her with an “emergency travel document;” the document was never issued. She had to finally take the protection of the UN High Commission for Refugees that advised Luingam to do the same.
In August 1996, Luingam was in Ottawa, Canada. When he applied for additional pages to his passport, the Indian High Commission in Ottawa confiscated his passport without assigning a reason. On complaining against this, officials mentioned the word “impounded.”
This was the first time he found out that his passport, an official document of citizenship while traveling abroad, was allegedly impounded way back in August 1995. He was still in India at the time, ironically, fighting Peingam’s case before the Delhi High Court.
This came as a surprise because, in effect, he had been traveling for over a year on the same passport the GoI had allegedly impounded!
Kaskaesque. And this is just a brief of the entire ordeal.
Banished and stranded, Peingam eventually acquired Canadian citizenship in 2001 and Luingam in 2006 in order to secure and enable their lives.
Faced with a bureaucratic blank wall for years, the Luithui family filed a series of Right to Information applications to uncover the reason for the impounding of Luingam’s passport. It ultimately culminated in another writ petition in the Delhi High Court in 2014. A case that surprised even the judges hearing the petition (Acting Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice C. Hari Shankar), the Court wondered during the proceedings if any official order to impound Luingam’s passport even exists?
With no crime to their record and without due process, the government seemed to have abused power to criminalize Peingam and Luingam for over 22 years.
The Delhi High Court, on August 23, 2017, passed a seminal judgment restoring their citizenship rights. It ordered the GoI to prepare the couple’s citizenship documents within the next year. The GoI has assured that the couple’s movement will not be henceforth restricted.
All for nothing?
“All this isolation and suffering -all for nothing,” Peingam told Lui (Luingam’s popular moniker) when they heard the Court’s decision that will allow them safe passage home. Their ordeal was unnecessary, complicated and frustrating. The family is now elated but disoriented by their experience of forced homelessness.
Lui explains how “dreadful” statelessness was—“You become an alien in any part of the world and left at sea without any safety.” He feels relieved to have shed the shadow of the government off his back. “I want to start feeling free again; that someone is not always following me. Now they (the government) can be held liable if something happens to me,” notes Lui of the judgment’s effect on his life.
Peingam had swollen eyes for two days after the judgments, says Lui, able to speak to her over Skype. Her father and two brothers passed away while they were in exile. Albeit trained as a photographer, she now works for a housekeeping service in Canada.
But for years, they struggled economically. During a short visit to his ailing mother in 2003, enabled by a temporary travel document, Lui was “shocked by the state of our people, ravaged by corruption and accumulation of status.”The world back home had changed and it took him “a while to get out of the shock.”
This debilitated him till 2010; what could he do from so far away?
Lui had spent his youth addressing issues of human rights violations; he was one of the founding members of the Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights, established on September 9, 1978. He had developed essential nonviolent movements in the North East that attempted to repair unjust situations; steering away from exclusive politics, his generation of activists built robust alliances of nonviolent movements across the Indian subcontinent. He was instrumental in forging trans-regional and international networks that addressed issues faced by the indigenous peoples in the 21st century.
So, living in a foreign land for two decades as the socio-political reality of Naga people changed colour was a test of patience.
In 2010, Lui began wage work in the housekeeping sector. “As Naga men, we are not used to housekeeping!” he laughs. “There were so many times I almost failed and had to rise up. My colleagues were very tolerant.”
Slowly, they earned money enough to get a space to call home (albeit temporarily); a table, a chair, some books and life’s dreams were gradually rekindled.
“All said and done, we are fortunate. I got a lot of time to study what I had skipped in my younger days. It has equipped me for what is to come ahead,” says Lui in a quick summation of their two decades in exile.
Being back home, even for the short visits that were allowed in the past few years, has been a preview of awaiting struggles.
If the experience of statelessness was Kafkaesque, being a Naga citizen of the Indian Union today will prove to be no less so.
The Luithuis will first begin paperwork, from Canada this time, to become Indian citizens again. As per protocol, the Canadian government will make sure that the couple is not leaving under duress. The journey will involve bureaucracy but under the keen eyes of the Indian judiciary.
Meanwhile, Lui is charting plans ahead.
“One part of Naga tradition has been direct democracy—a strong sense of self reliance and self accountability. We need a political system to justify this tradition,” notes the activist.
With the judgment, the Luithuis have gained back the social space they want to address such issues; this space “comes with many responsibilities and we must stand up to it,” he acknowledges.
Since the 1997 ceasefire, he observes, “we have stopped examining our national life” and have not scrutinized “how our traditional systems have survived, or how to make them whole again.” Today, Nagas have many freedoms but “we have allowed ourselves to be restricted more than when the Army operated.”
Those leading the Naga people, say political parties (state and non state), have gotten away without accountability and transparency, claiming all efforts and victories as theirs alone. “We have given too much room to them. Not questioning them has planted seeds of corruption,” Lui says.
If he had expanded activism globally before, he is ready to bring the focus home now.
The work he left behind will continue despite years of persecution for, “I still haven’t found ways to give up on dreams.”