Onus on N-E states for lifting AFSPA

Unless North Eastern states demonstrate their ability and willingness to restrain and curb insurgents, withdrawal of AFSPA is unlikely

Protests against AFSPA (Representative photo)
Protests against AFSPA (Representative photo)

Patricia Mukhim

The clamour for the Union Government to withdraw Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from N-E states has grown following the December 4 incident in Mon District of Nagaland, when Assam Rifles opened fire on a civilian vehicle. Six civilians were killed on the spot and seven others succumbed to their injuries later.

A Special Force of Assam Rifles inadvertently killed coal miners on their way home for the weekend. They were on a pick-up truck and were mistaken for insurgents. The army claimed they had intelligence that insurgent outfits of the NSCN(K) were crossing over from Myanmar. Conversations intercepted, they claimed, had clearly mentioned that the insurgents would be travelling in a white vehicle at the given time. It appears now that the Special Force which set out for an encounter with militants were either fed wrong intelligence or something somewhere went horribly wrong.

AFSPA actually dates back to 1942 when Lord Linlithgow used it to control violence in the wake of the Quit India Movement – a call by Gandhiji for the British to quit India. After India became independent, AFSPA was amended in 1958 by Parliament to suit the Indian situation and was promulgated in Nagaland and the Union territory of Manipur that same year to contain the Naga struggle for independence.

It is worth noting that while other kingdoms and principalities of the North East such as the kingdoms of Manipur and Tripura besides the Khasi chieftains had all signed the Instrument of Accession in 1948, Nagas and Mizos never signed such an Instrument and therefore they saw Indian occupation of their land as an act of aggression.

New Delhi, not too familiar with the situation in this distant region, did what it thought was right in preventing the region, which was then a part of Assam, from breaking away. The army was therefore deployed to contain Naga guerillas. Needless to say, Nagaland was alien to the Indian army, which was accused of committing atrocities, which have been recorded by survivors of that time. The Indian army was accused of fighting an enemy and not people who its government believed were Indians.

It must be mentioned that Clause 3 of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act empowers the Governor of a state or the Administrator of a Union Territory to declare an area ‘disturbed’ if it is under threat of being attacked by forces inimical to the state such as underground insurgent outfits that operate from across the border and are trained and armed by enemy countries.

The NSCN(IM) was trained in China and continues to receive arms smuggled from across the Myanmar border. The 1643-km long border between Myanmar and Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh is designated as a Free Movement Regime (FMR) which allows people from both sides of the border to come up to 16 kms inside one another’s borders.

This arrangement has been there since the Anglo-Burmese war, because the boundaries drawn were such that they divided people of the same ethnic group bound by clan and kinship ties in two different countries. While the FMR was granted in view of the need to connect people of the same ethnic ties, this free movement of people and goods has also allowed smuggling of arms and drugs coming from Myanmar. The border is a treacherous terrain that is difficult to police and has been under the supervision of the Assam Rifles.

It is a fact that even after the peace talks of 1997 between the NSCN(IM) and the Government of India, reinforced in 2015 by the Framework Agreement which both the NSCN(IM) leadership and Government of India had claimed to be historic, militant outfits in Nagaland continue to carry arms and roam around taxing ordinary people and subjecting them to extortions at gunpoint. The state government of Nagaland is unable to rein in these militant outfits. Despite the peace deal, therefore, one side is evidently not conforming to the arrangement that until a final settlement is arrived at, the NCSN(IM) cadres would be restricted to their designated Camp at Hebron near Dimapur. But the NSCN(IM) cadres continue to move around unhindered and appear to be enjoying state patronage. While the NSCN(IM) has given up the demand for sovereignty, its insistence on a separate flag and Constitution has let the stalemate to continue. Conceding the demands would clearly mean that Nagaland will not be run according to Indian laws but by tribal laws.

Article 371(A) of the Indian Constitution confers special status on Nagaland whereby any law passed by the Indian parliament in respect of (i) religious or social practices of the Nagas (ii) Naga customary law and procedure, (iii) administration of civil and criminal justice involving decisions according to Naga customary law and (iv) ownership and transfer of land and its resources, shall not apply to the state of Nagaland unless the Legislative Assembly of Nagaland by a resolution so decides.

If despite Article 371(A) the NSCN(IM) still demands a separate flag and Constitution and continues to endanger the integrity of the country, then revocation of AFSPA would clearly not be possible. While killings by both state and non-state forces have come down significantly over the years, Nagaland Police is still unable to control insurgent outfits whose diktat continues to be the law and to whom people of Nagaland continue to pay ‘taxes’.

States demanding the revocation of AFSPA therefore must demonstrate first that they are capable of handling the internal security situation and that they are able to contain the militant/insurgent outfits in their states. Tripura has shown by example that it is possible by first removing the Disturbed Areas Act. But it must be said to the credit of former Chief Minister Manik Sarkar that his overtures to militant outfits to surrender in droves and to be mainstreamed by giving them a surrender package was better than a never-ending war of attrition and counter-insurgency operations in which common citizens are always the casualty. The case of Manipur, where over two dozen militant outfits continue to operate without any fear of the law, is not very different from Nagaland.

In such a situation, demands for revocation of AFSPA will not carry much conviction unless they come with commitments from state governments concerned that they will be firm in tackling militancy, and that they will not treat insurgents with kid gloves. Unless the states show such capability and political will, there is little or no chance of AFSPA being withdrawn.

(The writer is founder editor of Shillong Times. Views are personal)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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