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The Plague in India Called AFSPA

By EMN Updated: Jan 05, 2022 7:08 pm

On the fateful night of the 4th of December 2021, as the Hornbill Festival of Nagaland was being celebrated with pomp and splendour, an old enemy crept in through the darkness of the night and as dawn broke over the village of Oting in the northern district of Mon, news spread like wildfire that innocent civilians were shot dead by the Indian Military (21 Para SF). The Hornbill Festival was called off a few days later, and rightly so; stand we will, we must, but as one, as united Nagas. Not surprisingly, this caused a growing fire of hatred as its first wave of reactions, and understandably so, all through the history of men hitherto, killing has always infuriated someone or the other and bred retaliation as a result of which, the cycle of hatred continues. Protests, marches and agitations of all sorts began doing the rounds and of course, condemnations poured in from all corners of society, for as a society, maybe it is at times such as these when we ought to leave our differences behind to unite and condemn when it is rightfully our place to do so. And amongst the people taking part in all of these acts and movements made towards injustice, there are some, if not many, who have suffered the same injustice, whose families have had to bear the brunt of acts of impunity committed upon them, whose ancestors had to suffer, maybe not knowing their descendents will have to suffer all the same. And these people, their numbers grow, with every passing incident, their numbers grow. There is a fire that has been burning for a very long time, and with every passing incident like the one at Oting on the 4th of December 2021, the flames of this fire are kindled further. And thus so long as the injustice stands, so does our message, that in this remote North-eastern corner of India in a place called Nagaland, “the people have not forgotten”. And if injustice is to remain standing, so should our message, “the people will not forget”.

Oting and AFSPA

“The eight coal miners who were returning home in a pickup truck at around 4:10 PM in the evening of the 4th of December were ambushed and 6 of the were killed while 2 were critically wounded by Security Forces (reportedly, 21 Para Special Forces based in Assam) apparently without any attempt for identification”, read the Official Spot Report submitted to the Government of Nagaland by government officials. We later find out that the Army Personnel were loading the dead bodies onto another truck, and this is when some of the other villagers (who had come to check on their fellow villagers as they had not returned to the village and because they heard gunfire) came upon the Army. On finding the dead bodies of the coal miners, violence broke out between the villagers and the Armed Personnel and 7 more villagers were killed as the Army resorted to firing at the infuriated villagers. For any educated person reading this piece of information stated above, this news must be absolutely shocking, but to the Naga people, this is nothing new. And why is it that this is allowed to happen? Why is it that it is okay for the Armed Forces (who are supposed to safeguard the lives of the citizens) to kill innocent civilians returning home from work? And as W. Wangjin noted, it is also baffling to think that in the explanation which the Indian Army gave, they stated that the mission in Oting was carried out after “credible information” was provided from intelligence sources. However, at the same time, to complete their excuse, they stated that the whole accident was a case of “mistaken identity”, the same message which was also conveyed by the Home Minister (Amit Shah) in both the houses of the Indian Parliament. This is a completely paradoxical statement and what had actually happened, we may never know. This piece of writing will not be a criticism of the Army, but rather an attempt to bring the “enemy” to light, which is in this case, the law imposed by the Indian Union known as AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act). This law was imposed in 1958, about five years before the state of Nagaland even came into existence. This law, termed as “draconian”, “undemocratic” and “inhumane” by many, has, very evidently, been weaponised as a tool of oppression, a clear representation of the dark side of the Nehruvian Model of a “United India”. This act has played a big part in institutionalising state sponsored violence and further militarisation of the state while granting complete impunity to the Armed Forces, who have in many cases used this law as an excuse to carry out severe human rights violations on innocent civilians; all of this has been internalised in the lives of the people of Nagaland and the North East as a whole. There may be some who would argue about the relevance of its imposition and the necessity of its existence, but what they cannot hide is that it is oppressive in nature nonetheless.

Traditional Attires and Naga Sovereignty

On the eve of the 5th of December, one could see candle light marches and gatherings in protest in every district all around the state and in every community that recognised themselves as “Nagas”. Men and women, young and old, all coming together in unison, black flags everywhere and everyone dressed in their respective traditional clothing. This sight of seeing people putting on their traditional attires – shawls, waistcoats, etc, brings along with it, a very deep connotation, one that opens up the viewers mind to the very unique socio-political situation which Nagas find themselves in. What I am referring to here, is the Theory of Social (cultural and political) Identity. Generally speaking, Nagas today (a fairly large number of them) bring out their old trunks and suitcases and get their traditional attire only during events such as cultural festivals, jubilee celebrations, tribal meets and events, fashion shows, etc. What does a protest or a funeral or a situation of that sort have to do with bringing out traditional attires and wearing them in large numbers? What does AFSPA have to do with traditional attires? The people may not have realised it themselves, but the answer is something very simple and basic which is discussed every now and then, and not some complicated quantum mechanics equation. These traditional attires of ours give us something of great importance, called “identity”, our identity as a people, as people different from those who are not us. This then goes on to bring out the concept of “us” vs “them”. The feeling that, “we are different, that we are not them, and they are not us, and more importantly, that this is our land, and that they are not from here, they do not belong here.” The people may not know, but there is a subconscious feeling of Nationalism that comes alive every time an “Oting” is inflicted upon the people. And it is known to everyone that this incident is not something that has happened just once, regardless of whether the centre treats it as an isolated incident of a disaster of an army operation or not, the people certainly will not look at this in the said manner. This is because the people know this has not happened for the first time, and as I mentioned before, there is a fire that has been burning for a long time, and everytime injustice is inflicted upon the Naga people by the Indian State, this fire manifests itself in various different ways. Be it the Konyak Union (as well as various other tribal bodies) calling for non-cooperation with the Indian Army, or be it the attack by the public on the Assam Rifles camp in Mon district, be it the imposition of bandhs on all Naga inhabited areas which was imposed by the NSF alongside almost every other major tribal and civil organisations, NGOs, etc in Naga inhabited areas, the list goes on. These are all manifestations of the concept I mentioned earlier, the manifestations of the concept of how “we” will not allow “them” to have “their” way in “our” land. Even after 74 years of Nagaland being a part of the Indian Union, there exists an inherent feeling of nationalism and to an extent, separatism (although not in its complete form). Of the list I mentioned above, the last point, if elaborated, will provide us with a perfect example to give further evidence to my claim.

When the bandh was imposed in all Naga inhabited areas by major tribal bodies – students giving exams, medical and police officials, etc. were exempted from the bandh, however, the Army Personnel were not. Any sort of military vehicular movement was not allowed to take place in all Naga inhabited areas as per the bandh that was imposed. Why is this so? The Army is probably the most legitimate institution in the country. Regardless of this fact, most of us came across the news and have probably seen the videos of Armed Personnel who showed complete disregard of the imposition of the bandh and set out in their armed trucks and vehicles being confronted by the people from the tribal bodies (some in traditional attires) and being asked to go back to their camps. What gives these tribal bodies and organisations, from the president right down to the volunteers on the streets the confidence and belief that they have a legitimate right and the authority to impose a bandh upon the Army of the nation they are a part of? It is the belief in the Sovereignty of Nagas in their own land. The Article 371A already provides special provisions to  the state of Nagaland with respect to the practice of Customary Naga laws, as well as giving some autonomy to Nagas to some extent. But whenever the “fire” burns strong, even people without any knowledge of any of these said factors stand up against “them”, simply because of the belief in Naga Sovereignty. Now the very concept of Naga Sovereignty may not be the telos or the end goal for a majority of the people, but when they proceed with acts such as imposing bandh on the army because of the belief that they have the authority because “they” (the army) do not belong here and “this” is our land and therefore our laws and our decisions in our land outweigh any legitimacy held by “them” (the army), because that very legitimacy itself is given to the army by the Indian Union. What is “Sovereignty in one’s own land” if not this?

Past mistakes and changing times

These are all examples that I have taken from just the Oting incident. Everytime any form of injustice is done to the Nagas, one can see it happen in various different ways, and this feeling keeps growing. If the government in the centre chooses to not look into this matter as a chain of historical oppression and injustice done against the Nagas then it is their incompetence that will surely lead to further unease in the region. It is also worth taking into consideration the argument that says that there may have been a time when the Indian Government’s imposition of AFSPA may have been justified given the situation. However, those times are long gone, and there is no excuse to not revoke this law, especially at a time when there is ceasefire between most of the Naga National Groups and the Indian Government (excluding NSCN-K, at the time of writing this article). In relation to this, I would like to bring out the argument that the issue of the Naga Separatism was always a Political one and this is perhaps one of the great blunders on the part of the Indian Union in its political and administrative history, that they viewed (and still view) the “Naga Problem” and other such armed conflicts as a law and order problem rather than a political one. Political problems demand political resolutions, and not the imposition of laws such as AFSPA along with the act of dispatching armed personnel to subdue the people who are (and have been) raising the political issue. At the time of Indian Independence from colonial powers, there was always a legitimate claim for Naga Self Determination and their refusal to accept India’s illegal occupation of what they thought was their homeland; this is where we see the claws of Indian Imperialism at its zenith, for what is (as many people have pointed out before) AFSPA, if not an extension of the infamous Rowlatt Act (1919) or the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance (1942, 1948) promulgated by Governor General Linlithgow under Section 72 of the Government of India Act, 1935. However, going down that line of argument will be a long discussion, and so although I believe that the imposition of AFSPA was never justified in the first place in any given situation, I will leave that debate aside and stress on the point that it is high time that this law is revoked. The statement from the Naga Club could at this point be highlighted, “A nation needs laws to counter separatist movements but while deciding on the continuance of a certain law, it must review the situation in which it is being exerted. The situation in Nagaland has changed from the 1950’s to the 1990’s”.

The goal of National Integration

I think it is important to give credit where it is due, the reaction and response shown by the Naga Community as a whole following the Oting incident was altogether commendable. The Nagas showcased great maturity (barring a few incidents) and we can proudly say that the situation did not go out of hand and that the peace loving Nagas proved that to engineer a proper solution, violence and hatred cannot (and should not) be fought with more violence and hatred. We must condemn and criticise what is wrong and call out and rebuke any form of injustice, but this lack of violent retaliation by the Naga community is ironic in a way and certainly a testament to how the rest of India may view the Nagas as “barbaric” or “terrorists” (as in the case of Kashmir). In the aftermath of this recent incident, we see who the “barbarians” truly were all along. With the Naga Peace talks with the Indian Government ongoing, we are currently in a very crucial and important juncture in the history of Nagas, and the Indian Government must make the right decision and revoke the law of AFSPA which has no place in a democratic nation. Like I have stressed several times in this piece of writing, many Nagas still first identify themselves as Nagas, then as Indians, and with draconian laws and tools of oppression such as AFSPA still imposed in Naga lands, the emotional integration of Nagas into India will only be made more complicated. At this point, I would like to quote Naushir Bharucha speaking on AFSPA in the Lok Sabha on August 11, 1958, “I also want to know whether the policy of shoot to kill underlying this Bill will not have a psychological effect, first on the Nagas and secondly on the Army personnel, shoot to kill instills in the people in whose hands power is placed a sense of carelessness and callousness. There is a feeling: we are protected, we can shoot to kill. I am not for a moment alleging that our defence forces are so callous as that. But human nature being what it is, having regard to the fact that our Army may have to work in very difficult and trying circumstances wherever they are, troops may be overworked and they may resort to these because a psychological impression is created in the minds of the troops: we can shoot to kill, nobody can question us. I ask: what type of policy is this to win the hearts of the people whom you are trying to incorporate and integrate as part of India. Shoot to kill” I would also like to quote Charles Chasie, who asks, “What kind of justice can be delivered to someone who has already been killed? The only thing that can now possibly be done to give meaning to their deaths is to make sure that no such incident ever happens again. This means to remove the things that make it possible for such incidents to happen in the first place”. This is the direction toward which we need to take our battle for justice. Not just Nagas, but anyone and everyone who believes in the value of Human Life and even to an extent, the National Integrity of India. Would the government of India agree to make AFSPA an all India legislation and apply it to the rest of India as well? It does not require a super human brain to figure out that the obvious answer is NO. Why is it then, that the life of a person from the so called “disturbed area” in Nagaland weighs any less as compared to someone from New Delhi or Mumbai? If it truly is national integration that the Indian Union desires, AFSPA is not the way forward, it never was.

Vinolen John

By EMN Updated: Jan 05, 2022 7:08:50 pm