News that areas under the Disturbed Areas Act, the forerunner to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), have been significantly reduced created a temporary flutter in the media. The matter, however, quickly slipped out of public attention as mainstream media turned its focus to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s desperate googly.
To give credit where due, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre has so far been the only one to take the eight northeastern states seriously enough to review whether the contumacious AFSPA needs to be revoked, and if so, from which districts of the four states where it is being imposed.
The Union Home Ministry on 31 March announced that the Disturbed Areas Act would be removed from several districts comprising Nagaland and Manipur and partially from one district in Assam. In Manipur, AFSPA will no longer apply to 15 police stations areas of six districts. Similarly, in Nagaland, the AFSPA will not be in force in 15 police stations across seven districts.
Who Does the 'Dirty Job' in Nagaland?
The Home Ministry apparently acted on the recommendations of a high-level committee that was constituted after the Oting killing in Nagaland in December last year, where 14 civilians were mistaken for militants and shot in cold blood. The committee was to consider the feasibility of lifting the AFSPA completely. How the committee concluded on which areas to lift the AFSPA from is a matter that requires careful analysis by independent security experts.
Interestingly, what made it to the headlines was the lifting of AFSPA from certain areas of the three states of Nagaland, Manipur and Assam. What was not mentioned was that AFSPA was reimposed in certain districts for another six months, beginning 1 April.
In Nagaland, the areas that are still considered ‘disturbed’ are the districts of Dimapur, Niuland, Chumoukedima, Mon, Kiphire, Noklak, Phek, Peren and Zunheboto districts, and areas falling within the jurisdiction of police stations of Khuzama, Kohima North, Kohima South, Zubza and Kezocha in Kohima district; Mangkolemba, Mokokchung-I, Longtho, Tuli, Longchem and Anaki 'C' in Mokokchung district; Yanglok in Longleng district; and Bhandari, Champang, Ralan and Sungro in Wokha district.
We can only surmise that being commercial hubs, the people in these areas are subjected to regular extortion and intimidation by Naga militant outfits, and because the state police don’t have the wherewithal or the spine to curtail this – since the NSCN(IM) has a tight hold on the government – an independent force has to do the dirty job.
In Assam, the 'disturbed area' tag has been withdrawn completely from 23 districts and one sub-division of the state's 33 districts. Only nine districts and one sub-division will still be tagged as ‘disturbed area' under the Act.
Ethnic Bias in Manipur?
In Manipur, the 'disturbed area' tag will no longer be applicable in seven police station areas of Imphal West district, four police station areas under Imphal East district and one police station area each in the districts of Thoubal, Bishnupur, Kakching and Jiribam. The six districts from where AFSPA is withdrawn are in the valley. Since 2004, the AFSPA stands withdrawn from the Imphal municipality.
The AFSPA, therefore, continues to be enforced in the hill districts of Manipur, where the NSCN(IM) and other Kuki outfits operate. There is clearly an ethnic bias here, as has always been the case in Manipur, where the politics of the hills and plains has been the bone of contention.
Out of 60 seats in the Assembly, 40 are from the Imphal valley and only 20 are from the Naga-inhabited hills.
In Arunachal Pradesh, where no change has been made, Tirap, Changlang and Longding districts border the Mon district of Nagaland, which is the area dominated by various factions of the Naga militants. Namsai and Mahadevpur police stations in Namsai district border those areas in Assam that ULFA militants use as a passage to Myanmar. The above areas are declared 'disturbed areas' and AFSPA has been extended there, too, for six months beginning 1 April. The rest of Arunachal Pradesh is relatively peaceful.
Why Can't Other States Follow the 'Tripura Model'?
It may be noted again that the Disturbed Areas Act precedes the AFSPA. The Disturbed Areas Act can be invoked by the Governor of a state or the Central government. Only after an area is declared as ‘disturbed’ can AFSPA be invoked. It follows, therefore, that once the ‘Disturbed Area’ tag is lifted, AFSPA is automatically revoked.
One state of the Northeast that set an example and revoked AFSPA after assuring the Central government that the state no longer needs the Act was Tripura, whose then-Chief Minister was Manik Sarkar. This was in August 2016. Tripura has remained free from insurgency, although political violence erupts there every now and again.
The question that arises, therefore, is why are other states afflicted by AFSPA unable to follow the Tripura model? Is it because the State governments rely heavily on the Centre for the maintenance of law and order? Why are the State police unable to tackle extortion that continues unabated in Nagaland and Manipur? Do we actually need the army – a force meant to tackle the enemies of the country – to tackle armed, subversive outfits who make intermittent noises about sovereignty and a separate Constitution even while they enjoy all the perks and comforts of life bestowed on them by a compliant Indian government?
A Case of 'Stockholm Syndrome'?
In Nagaland and Manipur, there are alternative voices that assert that revoking AFSPA would make them vulnerable to the underground outfits, ostensibly in peace talks with the government of India, while back home, they are as mercenary as they can get. One is reminded of the Stockholm Syndrome where the victim falls in love with the oppressor.
The killing of 14 people last year in the Mon district of Nagaland generated wide public backlash. But otherwise, the AFSPA has been a perpetual plague – nay, a sore – that people in the Northeast have learnt to live with now. Taking the matter to the Supreme Court by human rights groups of Nagaland and Manipur has brought little solace.
Sure, the top court had appointed the Jeevan Reddy Committee to take stock of this colonial law dating back to 1942, when the Indian Independence movement was at its height and its leaders demanded that the British quit India. The movement became violent and was leaderless. The then-Viceroy, Linlithgow, promulgated the above Act to contain the violence with an iron hand. This same law was with some amendments reintroduced in Parliament in 1958 to deal with the Naga insurgency then. The Jeevan Reddy Committee submitted its findings but with no outcome.
How British Used ILP to Keep 'Savages' Away from Tea-Growing 'Sahibs'
It bears repetition to remind readers that AFSPA, as we have all heard ad nauseum, confers on the army and other central para-military forces the ‘license’ to shoot to kill, search houses and destroy any property that is “suspected” to be used by insurgents in areas declared as “disturbed” by the Home Ministry.
Decades ago, as a newly independent nation, India might not have been fully aware of the ecosystem in its northeastern periphery. Here was a region comprising people of different races, not in the least “Aryan” or “Dravidian” in their looks, cultures, et al and exacerbated by the fact that the British kept them away from the ‘civilised’ people residing in the plains of the then-state of Assam, by an instrument called the Eastern Bengal Frontier Regulation Act, 1873, now known by the nomenclature of Inner Line Permit (ILP).
The British used this Act to keep out ‘wild savages’ who were likely to hurt their tea-growing sahibs. The Nagas and Abor tribes of the then-NEFA were known to regularly venture into the tea gardens to assert their authority over what they knew were their territories.
It is intuitive that the same ILP is being put on its head and is now used to keep other Indian visitors from entering the states of Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh unless they get an entry permit. And the surprise of all surprises is that the BJP government enforced the ILP in Manipur before the state elections in 2017.
Manipur Alone Has Over 1,500 Cases of Fake Encounters
Since 1958, AFSPA has been liberally invoked whenever the “territorial integrity” of any state is threatened. It was invoked in Punjab in 1983 during the insurgency years and revoked in 1991 when order was restored in Punjab.
While the armed forces defend AFSPA to the hilt, the Act has claimed many lives in fake encounters. In Manipur alone, 1,528 such cases have been documented and presented before the Supreme Court. India has failed as a nation if in seven decades it has not developed a force to counter internal rebellion.
It’s disturbing to note that a nation that broke free from colonial rule, should continue to use the same laws that were used by a foreign power on its subjects. Can the people of the Northeast then be blamed for the narrative that one colonial power (the British) has been replaced by another colonial power (India)? Does this imply that the country’s ‘Ashta Lakshmi’ cannot be trusted to do the right thing unless their actions are guarded by a force that is meant to fight an external enemy? These questions arise when a part of the country is put under the yoke of a colonial law.
In a liberal democracy – one which believes in a Constitution that guarantees the right to life to its citizens – laws like the AFSPA and sedition are black marks on the annals of this country. It’s time we threw these out and other colonial laws from our law books.
(The writer is the Editor of The Shillong Times and former member of NSAB. She can be reached @meipat. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)