People Want Fewer Jackboots in North-east India

Local governments have started paying heed to weariness about the overwhelming presence of armed forces in northeast.

3 min read
Indian Army soldiers take part in a military exercise at Teesta firing range, about 42 km (26 miles) from the north-eastern city of Siliguri. (File Photo: Reuters)

In heavily militarised Northeast India, people now want fewer (and definitely not more) jackboots on the ground. Local governments have started to pay heed to popular weariness about the overwhelming presence of the armed forces in the region.

The government of Tripura, a landlocked state bordering Bangladesh, turned down a request from the Indian Army to set up a field firing range for artillery last week. This followed an outcry by villagers protesting the establishment of the military complex.

The Indian Army had requested for land (for a firing range) and a joint survey was to be taken up. People did not agree. We took a decision about a week ago not to go ahead with it.
— Manik Sarkar, Chief Minister, Tripura to The Quint.


Protests Against Military Exercises

  • Tripura turned down a request from the Indian Army to set up a field firing range.
  • Turning down the proposal saved tribals from being displaced.
  • North-eastern states, along with J&K, come under the AFSPA – which Tripura has done away with.
  • Following Tripura, other states have started resisting acquisition of land for firing ranges by the military.

According to a state home ministry official, the Indian Army had sent a proposal to set up a field firing range in the tribal belt of Longtharai Valley in Dhalai district about a year ago.

About 32 villages, largely inhabited by Tripuri, Reang and Chakma tribes, would have been displaced if the proposal had gone through. By terminating the project, Tripura has averted another round of popular protests.

Sarbarai Tripura, a native of Manikpur village, said that he will be happy if the firing range does not materialise. But the government has not officially told the locals about scrapping the project yet. “There’s no way we will give our land,” Sarbarai, a government teacher, said over the phone.


Growing Antagonism Against Army

India’s defence forces operate around 81 field and air-to-ground firing ranges in the country, according to information provided by Defence Minister Arun Jaitley in the Lok Sabha last year. Because of paucity of practicing grounds, defence forces lease land from states.

At least three large field firing ranges are currently located in the Northeast: Darranga in Assam’s Baksa district, Leimakhong area in Manipur, and Nara Tiding in Arunachal Pradesh, where the Manoeuvres Field Firing and Artillery Practices Act, 1938, apply.

Members of a tribal refugee family of the Reang community in a village near Agartala. (Photo: Reuters)
Members of a tribal refugee family of the Reang community in a village near Agartala. (Photo: Reuters)

But acute shortage of land, safety concerns, and the fear of wayward artillery shells landing where common people live, is being met with growing public opprobrium.

In Mizoram, public opposition to a field range, run by Assam Rifles, in the state’s southern region has prompted the government to undertake a joint inspection soon.

“We’ve been getting complaints from villagers to shift the firing range. We expect to carry out a joint survey to inspect the appropriateness of the area, and whether it has to be shifted,” said Lalbiakzama, the state’s additional secretary. The firing range is located near Pukpui village in Lunglei district, he said.

Protests against military exercises are not restricted to the Northeast alone.

Last year, the Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) government had asked the army to release land in the Khurbathang Plateau of Ladakh for artillery practice. According to a news report, this is the third “strategic base the army has had to vacate in recent times after Tosa Maidan and the Akhnoor firing range.”

All north-eastern, along with J&K fall under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). (Photo: ANI)
All north-eastern, along with J&K fall under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). (Photo: ANI)

Incidentally, all the north-eastern states mentioned above, as well as J&K, fall under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). The AFSPA allows the military to enjoy extraordinary powers over civilian populations, without any fear of judicial scrutiny.

Tripura scrapped the act earlier this year.

But other states, which do not come under the ambit of AFSPA, have also started pushing back against the military’s attempts to acquire land for firing ranges. Earlier this year, a public demonstration halted land from being acquired in Jaisalmer district of Rajasthan. Similar protests have also broken out in Belgaum, Karnataka, where a civilian was asked to hand over land by a government notification.

(Maitreyee Handique writes on India’s Northeast and keeps a watch on labour, industrial safety and human rights issues)

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