It is kosher to wax eloquent on human rights at seminars, but the real world is inhuman and cruel. In India, the state is brutal, and this has been witnessed when farmers were mowed down by a man who happens to be the son of the Minister of State for Home. The Minister continues to hold his post and it took the Supreme Court days to initiate proceedings against the killer driver. Then on Saturday, the Assam Rifles gunned down 14 civilians – six of them coal mine workers in a pick-up van who were on their way home. The paramilitary force says it had intelligence that some rebels of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) of the Khaplang faction had crossed over from the neighbouring porous Myanmar border to Mon District, Nagaland.
AFSPA Is Used as a Shield
The intelligence proved to be unintelligent, and the action following it even worse. As a rule of thumb, the state forces involved in counter-insurgency operations do not shoot to kill unless they are attacked first and have to shoot in self-defence. This operation looks like it was completely botched up, but who will be held accountable? The colonial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) imposed in Nagaland, Manipur and Assam give the armed forces who assist the state police in CI-Ops complete immunity from prosecution. Without the AFSPA as a shield, the Army would not agree to operate in a “Disturbed Area”.
There was a hue and cry when the farmers were run over by Ashish Misra, son of Ajay Kumar Mishra. Will the country rise as one to protest this killing of 14 unarmed civilians by state forces? Or will this be another forgotten story, since it happened in the last frontiers of India, frontiers it is trying to control with an iron hand?
The Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force, is always headed by military officers, although it is administered by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Anyone who has visited Nagaland or Manipiur will see the slogans, “Friends of the Hill People” and “the Sentinels of the Northeast” emblazoned atop the Assam Rifles gates. But after what happened on Saturday at Oting in Mon District, where the friends of the Northeast actually gunned down 14 defenceless labourers, should make our blood boil.
Worse is that this incident should happen during the ongoing Hornbill Festival, which draws visitors from across the country and the world. But those who know Nagaland also know that Mon is one of the most neglected districts of the State.
No Conclusion to Peace Talks
Normally, when two contesting groups are engaged in peace talks, operations are suspended. So, why are army operations ongoing and the rebels, too, roaming around with arms? What sort of peace talks are we talking about here? In any case, the peace talks that have been carrying on for 24-odd years seem to be getting nowhere. The only people who face the brunt of it all and are caught between the state forces and militants are the ordinary people of Nagaland. They continue to be extorted and to live under the shadow of the gun.
Interlocuting has become a business – a speciality of retired Intelligence Bureau officials, who have excelled in the game of, “wait and watch”. They have nothing to gain or lose. The Naga insurgent outfit currently in talks with the government of India – the NSCN(IM) led by a wily veteran, Th Muivah, who plays mind games better than the Intelligence Bureau – is perhaps not so keen to see an end to this ‘extractive industry’. Hence, the NSCN (IM)’s demands border on the bizarre – a separate flag and Constitution – knowing full well that the government of India will find that difficult to concede, considering that parts of the Naga-inhabited areas are in the state of Manipur and a separate Constitution for one ethnic group amongst the many in Manipur is untenable, if not a cause for greater conflagration.
The so-called Naga peace talks followed by the Framework Agreement of 2015 have become urban legends of sorts. Nagas born in 1997 are now young adults. These young Nagas are angry about Nagas from Manipur calling the shots on an issue that is crucial to peace in Nagaland.
They are angry about the ongoing extortion that continues unabated in Nagaland and puts paid to entrepreneurship, and a huge strain on those running businesses.
Following the Mon incident, the Nagaland government has resorted to an internet ban, deeming it as the easiest mode of countering public anger and disgust and the spread of information from that district. But videos of the incident showing helpless men being shot down mercilessly and screaming for their lives have been circulating since yesterday morning.
Such incidents bring back memories of Army operations in the insurgency-affected states of Manipur, Nagaland and Assam, which carry the tag “Disturbed Areas”, following which the AFSPA was imposed.
Raising a Counter-Insurgency Force
While citizens are dismayed by these repressive, colonial laws, the Chief Ministers of these states apparently call on Delhi to handle militancy at the drop of a hat. Reason? The state police forces have become decrepit and servile and are only engaged in serving the rulers and not the ruled. The situation has only gotten worse, and law and order in the Northeast is in the doldrums. It would have been in the fitness of things for this country to raise a counter-insurgency force to deal with internal security instead of relying on the Army, which is trained to deal with enemies from across the borders.
The question is – how long will India use the military to maintain internal security? As of today, the military has developed a vested interest in keeping insurgency alive as they and the Intelligence Bureau have access to funds, with no accountability as to how those funds are used.
The Naga insurgency started a day before India’s independence. Since then, the Army has been used to counter the Naga rebels who were treated as alien people. The Army comprises mainland Indians, who are posted to a hostile region with people having no racial or cultural similarities. Accounts of Army atrocities are fresh in the minds of octogenarians. We have come a long way since then, and Naga young people are today studying in the national capital and also working across the country. But have the attitudes of the military changed? Or do they still think of themselves as an occupation force?
How People Have Got Used to 'Intrusions'
Coming back to the reckless act by the Assam Rifles in Oting, Mon district, it would be a lost opportunity if people of the seven states of the Northeast don’t stand together and demand an end to the militarisation of the region. Manipur alone has about 55,000 security personnel for a population of about 3.3 million people. It’s a different matter that people are used to physical checks and other intrusions that civilians in other states would find offensive. How long can the Northeastern states of Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur continue to be termed “disturbed areas” and be circumscribed by the AFSPA?
The Indian Army and Union Home Minister Amit Shah were quick to issue statements expressing grief and announcing a Court Martial and a probe by a Special Investigating Team of the Nagaland government, respectively. But such actions appear banal for those that have lost family members in a brazen violation of human rights.
India’s Northeast is yet to be emotionally integrated with the nation. This is a work-in-progress, but this psychological distance is not understood by those that govern Delhi and only come to the region on flying visits. Prime Minister Modi waxes eloquent on the Northeastern states being the jewels on India’s crown, and to be fair, much work has been taken up by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government to speed up infrastructure creation. The problem is that those governing the states have used this sense of alienation to blackmail successive Central governments, and while funds have poured, in there is no visible sign of development.
Employment generation is not possible since there is hardly any industrialisation due to the atmosphere of insecurity for investors. The Centre does not monitor and evaluate how funds are spent. Much of those funds flow into the coffers of militants and the governing tribal elite. This is the stark reality.
The people of the Northeast need to reclaim their voices and demand the revocation of AFSPA and an end to the climate of impunity in the region. This demand should be sustained and not be allowed to slither away into the black hole of history until another killing or another desecration of our right to live with dignity and self-respect is violated. AFSPA has to go.
(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.)