The killing of 14 civilians, including six coal miners, by the Indian Army’s 21 Para Special Forces in Nagaland’s Mon district is a painfully pointed reflection of the state’s deadlocked fate. It doesn’t just lay bare the ugliest side of India’s counterinsurgency doctrine but also shows the frustrating and destructive intractability of the political-security landscape in the Northeastern border state. The Mon killings, in that sense, hold many strands of failures that continue to victimise the people of Northeast India’s borderlands year after year.
Beyond the lingering debate around the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which rears its head only on the heels of tragedies such as these, the grisly murders in Mon should be a bigger moment of reflection for everyone concerned about peace, stability and development in Northeast India.
For the central political-military establishment, which is currently scrambling to soothe nerves through prompt missives of ‘regret’, ‘apology’ and promises of a ‘court of inquiry’, it should be a stark reminder of the Indian state’s reckless and piecemeal approach to its borderlands.
Military Solutions for Political Dilemmas
Sure, for those looking to buy immediate answers, the Home Ministry and Army have several to sell – “mistaken identity”, “intelligence failure”, the target vehicle’s refusal to stop at the checkpoint. But who will answer the bigger questions? Who will tell us why a dozen civilians in Nagaland were gunned down by Special Forces despite the Central government beating the drums on a ‘peace process’ and ‘framework agreement’ with Naga armed groups? Or why a lethal elite army unit was conducting an operation in an area without police or paramilitary support, that too based on weak intelligence? Or what this particular incident could do to the fragile peace in India’s Northeastern borderlands in the months to come?
These are questions that go to the very heart of the Indian national project and its approach to the “sensitive” territorial peripheries. States like Nagaland and Manipur straddle fateful dualities – they sit right next to a porous international border, and they never fully reconciled with postcolonial Indian nationalism.
To deal with these, the Indian state continues to unimaginatively maintain a near-permanent state of exception on both states, marked by a far-reaching martial law that gives wide procedural leeway to security forces. In response to dilemmas that are fundamentally political, it continues to fall back on solutions that are thoroughly securitised.
A ruinous combination of these realities and contradictions has confined the people of India’s Northeastern borderworlds into a hamster wheel of unending violence and counter-violence. Even the latest mishap in Mon threatens to fuel a whole new cycle of conflict in the Naga hills by giving armed groups within the NSCN ecosystem a raison d'etre to attack Indian forces and consequently, dismantling the state's brittle ceasefire regimes. Any break in this cycle of violence only seems to be ad hoc or in the narrow interests of the state and a few powerful non-state groups.
The Naga Questions Remains Unsolved
Movements for self-determination are often long and intractable. Groups collapse, split apart, disappear and reappear, which make it difficult for governments to negotiate. But, one must still ask loudly why after all these years, the Indian state – with all its overt kinetic force, covert attrition tactics, and specialised legislative tools like the AFSPA – has failed to resolve the Naga question. One also wonders why New Delhi has continued to rely on the same set of counterinsurgency strategies despite their glaring impotency in resolving ethnopolitical dilemmas. Finally, one certainly wonders why a “historic” framework peace accord signed six years ago has today become the biggest hurdle to lasting peace in Nagaland.
The answer, perhaps, is more unsettling than we would like to believe: no one wants the conflict to end, neither the state nor the non-state warring groups. Protracted insurgencies almost always create high-stake conflict economies and path dependencies for all actors involved, be it in Nagaland, Burma or Colombia. Everyone, save for the common people, stands to reap well from the spoils of war for years on end. These returns could come in the form of gallantry awards, protection money or narco dollars. But, the moment a decades-long conflict ends, an entire chain of profits comes to a grinding halt. Those who make their fortunes from this golden goose of violence and insecurity would give it all to ensure that it stays alive and fluttering in one form or the other.
That is also why a lingering state of exception works for the Indian state in a “sensitive” region like Northeast India – it preserves an endearing sense of urgency (or emergency) needed to justify the deployment of kinetic force, keep the security apparatus well-oiled and troops on their toes.
No wonder New Delhi has been extending the “Disturbed Area” tag for Nagaland year after year, without ever bothering to undertake any meaningful security sector reform. This dubious clampdown has never really seriously stopped armed groups from operating in the state, but only fueled parallel economies and networks of influence that serve no more than a select group of people.
The Problem Goes Beyond Just AFSPA
Thus, I would argue that this goes beyond a specific law like the AFSPA, which obviously needs to go. Even if the Central government repeals the AFSPA tomorrow, a new state of exception will emerge in Northeast India’s borderlands the day after. The state will find a way to circumvent the general law of the land and ensure that its security forces have a broad, discretionary and unscrutinised operational space when operating in India’s “wild east”. Non-state groups will calibrate themselves to the transient new reality. New conflict economies will emerge. And innocent civilians will continue to find themselves in the middle of deadly crossfires and “botched ambushes”.
It isn’t entirely impossible to replace this restive reality with durable peace. But, this will happen only if the Indian state is able to shed its post-colonial dogma and acknowledge the true spirit of political autonomy of its ethnic peoples, only if it can show the conviction needed to forego its security paranoias, militarily divest from its peripheries, and instead invest in bottom-up civil reforms that focus on improving the living standards, creating alternatives means of profit-making and upholding the dignity of its people, and only if it is able to comprehensively and sincerely dismantle the economies of conflict that benefit all core parties involved.
Till then, blood will continue to be spilt on the verdant hills of the east, mediated only by temporary collective outrage, faulty peace agreements and vacuous promises of accountability.
(The author is Senior Researcher and Coordinator, South East Asia Research Programme, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). He tweets @angshuman_ch. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)