AFSPA – the biggest impediment to peace

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By R N Ravi
Strife- torn North-East, home to countless ethnic insurgencies, stares at  the Republic of India as  a moral question mark. While the state and non-state agents of violence are mutually engaged in a relationship ranging from active conflict to uneasy truce; the ordinary people caught in between live in Hobbesian environment where life is nasty, brutish and short. They do not share Mr P Chidambaram’s ritualistic claim made  every month  in his  media briefings that peace is returning to the region because  the gunshots and coffins are relatively lesser now.

AFSPA - the biggest impediment to peace
From our archives: AFSPA protest at pune

With an intimate ringside view of the theatre for over two decades, one is increasingly convinced that among several reasons sustaining militancy in the North-East, the most crucial one is unwarranted application of the Armed Forces(Special Powers) Act,1958. This Act is a sinister legacy of the colonial days- a reincarnation of the Armed Forces(Special Powers)Ordinance,1942,which was liberally used by the British to quell dissent during the Second World War.  Implicit in this template of security management is prevalence of a war-like situation and at stake is integrity of the state. Such a scenario may entail temporary suspension of the civil liberties and pre-eminence  of force as a tool to deal with it. The normal jurisprudence of justice is set aside for a period.  Its indiscreet use is unacceptable as it tends to cast the conflict as a state vs the people  and makes it  self-perpetuating. It is so obvious in Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura and Assam where this Act is in force.

India, staggering in the aftermath of the bloody Partition, did not have the stomach to brook yet another disintegration. In this back-drop when the A Z Phizo led Naga National Council waged an armed campaign for a sovereign Nagaland, it  came down on them  with a sledge-hammer. The AFSPA was exhumed from the colonial archives in 1958 and the Army was unleashed on the Nagas.

Over half a century down the line things are far different in Nagaland. The government of India and the Naga militants are in mutual ceasefire- with the NSCN/IM since August 1, 1997 and with the NSCN/K since April 28, 2001. Although contesting parties are going round and round the mulberry bush in the name of ‘peace-talk’ keeping the people bewildered and at bay , the security forces and the militants are in truce for over a decade.  The state police is restrained  by the Nagaland government from  engaging with the militants  as they do not like to be seen as a spoiler in a bilateral talks between the government of India and the militants. Now the moot question is, if the forces of the Union and the State have  not been doing counter-insurgency for over a decade,  why should there be AFSPA in Nagaland? A sinister situation prevails in the state where although the militants are immune from the Act, the ordinary people have to suffer its curse and ignominy.

Manipur is a witch’s brew rendered so to a great deal, by dilettante interventions and paternalistic proclivities  of the government of India. Alacrity with which Don Quixotes in Delhi tilt at the every wind mill in Manipur  leaves little room for a serious local initiative.  The security agencies of the Union and the state have unbridled run of  the place. The chief ministers are  viscerally aware of their vulnerabilities.  Manipur has become a cursed place where brothers  are reflexively  distrustful of each other. Ethnic  diversities  which could have been, in  a syncretic environment, a beautiful mosaic , have become unbridgeable divides  and given  rise to innumerable militias each keeping their guns cocked at the others.  Distrustful of the demographically dominant and politically powerful Meiteis, hill tribes are hell-bent on dismembering the state- the NSCN/IM for a greater Nagaland  and over a dozen Kuki-Zomi militias for a separate homeland.

Instead of casting a benevolent and sobering influence over all the constituents of the state for a democratic synthesis, the  government of India is perceived partisan and its minions are long known for playing the divisive  game of pitting one against the other. All these are under the cover of Manipur being a ‘disturbed area’ under the AFSPA.

Gandhian protest of  fast unto death by Irom Sharmila  since November 4, 2000  for removal of the AFSPA, triggered  by vengeful  killings  of 10 innocent  persons   by the Assam Rifles did not move the government. Even the ultimate act  of despair by a bevy of brave women from Manipur  who disrobed themselves in a publicly held  protest  demanding justice for  the deceased Manorama who was abducted from her house on the night of April 11,  2004, by the Assam Rifles  and brutally killed after alleged rape did not shame  the government of India. Perpetrators of this abominably heinous crime had easy escape thanks to the AFSPA.

Everyday wounds –  physical and emotional are gashing .  The criminal justice system has been totally debunked. Against the all India average of police  filing charge-sheet in 88% of  reported  heinous crimes after investigation, Manipur’s record is 4%! Obviously, the aggrieved looks for alternative course of justice.

Tripura presents a queer case where, even though the state is off the insurgency map of the Union Home ministry  for the last over four years, yet  a large swathe of its territory  inhabited by the indigenous tribes is under the spell of the AFSPA.  The AFSPA in Tripura is sustained by the state government and not by the Centre. Since its application is only in the tribal areas, the indigenous people believe it is a tool of ethnic domination by the ruling Bengalis. Tribals, doomed  to eternal neglect, are kept  suppressed and at bay by this Act, ironically  by a government  whose creed is to swear by the proletariat.

Assam is an yet another illustration of an indiscreet application  of the AFSPA.   The state confronted virulent insurgencies- the ULFA and the BLT, NDFB etc during the initial  decade of unrest  without the AFSPA.  It  successfully weathered    the most  virulent  popular resistance-  the  Assam Agitation(1979-85) , which fiercely challenged the Indian state  for over six years and took a toll of over  five thousand human  lives, without this Act.  It was only towards the end of 1990,  that  Delhi , alarmed by the state governor’s report  about  collusion of the P K Mahanta government with the ULFA and  resultant  collapse of the constitutional machinery  in Assam ,  dismissed the state government, imposed President’s rule  and  chose to move in the Army  for counter-insurgency  against the ULFA.  At the Army’s insistence  the AFSPA was introduced in Assam.

Over the years armed insurgencies in Assam have  faded. The once dreaded ULFA suffered enormous  degradation through splits and surrenders  and is arguably a mere comical shell of its earlier-self  though its Paresh Baruah-led stump is seeking new allies and accessories to breathe life into it . The state and the Union governments have solicited and obtained truce with different militias and claims to have clinched  deals  with some of them. And yet the AFSA will not go.  When the issue of its further extension came in October 2011, the writer of this essay had vehemently opposed it. However, ironically the Assam government insisted on its continuation and they prevailed. The Act was extended on November 4 , 2011 for yet another year.

Meanwhile extra-judicial killings in Assam are mounting exponentially. There were 87 such killings in 2011, 54 in 2010 and 31 in 2009.  Contrast  these with the  killings attributed to militants, 32 in 2011,  65 in 2010 and 174 in 2009.    When  militancy is palpably ebbing, militancy by the state is on high tide. Could it have been possible without impunity built-in under the AFSPA? The answer is an emphatic No.  For then the laws of a civilized society would have asserted  themselves  and exacted  due cost of every reckless act of the  perpetrators .

Inherent in the  AFSPA  is a philosophy of   governance by   application of brute force, a force that explicitly mandates state’s forces to  kill  and maim  the citizens with impunity. It is indeed an extraordinary measure to meet a war-like situation.  How can anyone think of peace in the North-East when the people live in a perpetual war-like situation, thanks to the AFSPA?

(The writer is a recently retired Special Director, Intelligence Bureau. He can be reached at ravindra.narayan.ravi{at}gmail{dot}com)

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