West indian culture

The people of Nagaland deserve neither AFSPA nor gun culture

The sight of a dozen or more coffins lined up as helpless young widows and grieving elderly parents face their loss is both outrageous and painful. The dead were ordinary citizens returning home to their Nagaland village after work. In an overwhelming moment, their life was extinguished; just like that. For the army special unit, this was an intelligence error to which they overreacted. What is the source of this information? Of course, the government cannot hide behind the smokescreen of “classified information”. There have been too many killings based on such misinformation in Nagaland, Manipur and Assam.

With every such encounter in which innocent people are broke, the clamor for the revocation of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) grows shrill – but is seldom sustained. A few years ago, all the northeastern states came together to call for this law to be struck down. This remained in the domain of another “request”.

How can a country pass colonial law designed to counter the Quit India movement of 1942 to fight its own people? How can independent India impose a law that grants legal protection to the armed forces to shoot down anyone “suspected” of being a terrorist / extremist / insurgent? In 1997, after the most tenacious insurgent formation in Nagaland, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN), led by Isak Swu and TH Muivah, first decided to talk about peace with the Indian government, the Movement of the Naga People for Human Rights (NPMHR) had appealed to the Supreme Court for the revocation of the law. But the Supreme Court then upheld its constitutionality and declared that it was an enabling law that grants minimal powers to the military to operate in situations of widespread internal disorder. Public memory is short and it is important to draw inspiration from it. Irom Sharmila of Manipur had undertaken a 16-year fast against the law, with the state insisting on keeping her alive through regular medical intervention. Sharmila gave up her lonely battle in 2017 when she decided to run for the Assembly in Manipur. Why did it take more than 60 years for AFSPA to become an electoral issue? It was not until 2016, after numerous PILs had been filed in the Supreme Court, that the court asked for details of the 1,528 cases of alleged extrajudicial executions between May 1979 and May 2012 by the Manipur police and the armed forces. The CBI has been asked to look into a few of these cases. But in his report filed in March of this year, he said he had no conclusive evidence and, therefore, closed the cases.

The unanswered questions remain: why are the northeastern states of India and Jammu and Kashmir chosen for the imposition of AFSPA? Are there not also internal rebellions in the rest of India, such as “left extremism?” Why are these areas not called “disturbed areas” followed by the invocation of AFSPA? The reality is that the North East is not only less understood by far-flung Delhi, but is also still considered “alien” to the nation due to racial and cultural dissimilarities. Nation building in the region is a work in progress; the insurgency is the result of the replacement of a colonial power – the British – by a power that the inhabitants of Nagaland consider to be similar to its predecessor.

Many wonder if the peace talks between the NSCN (IM) and the Indian government are now in tatters. Unfortunately, the media has focused exclusively on the NSCN (IM) and ignored the other Naga National Political Groups (NNPG), which have been integrated because they are based in Nagaland and speak exclusively for Nagaland. The NSCN (IM) is headed by a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur and the majority of its cadres are also Nagas from Manipur. The NNPG and the Gaon Bura Association of Nagaland doubt the ability of the NSCN (IM) to bring lasting peace to Nagaland. They know that the NSCN (IM) is not an organization with which dialogue is possible or which is used to examining its conscience and regretting its actions. It exists to arouse resentment and to direct that resentment against the usual target – Delhi or India.

It is important to take stock of the situation on the ground as it has existed since 2015. NSCN (IM) cadres, although living in a designated camp at Mount Hebron near Dimapur, move freely with weapons and extort with impunity. In the past, they have mercilessly slaughtered rival factions, but there has been no reaction as the people of Nagaland are very traumatized. Having faced the wrath of state and non-state powers, they had lost their voice until a few years ago when people began to voice their anger at such killings and extortion on social media.

Since 2015, the Nagaland Gaon Bura Association, the umbrella body of the Nagas which includes the 16 recognized tribes and the NNPGs with the exception of the NSCN (IM), have sent several memoranda addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Minister of ‘Interior Amit Shah, asking that anything the terms agreed with the NSCN (IM) should be concluded and the remaining issues resolved by peaceful means. Why did the Center ignore these petitions?

These representatives of the Naga people are not asking for a separate flag or constitution because they understand that these are tenuous demands. This is a matter settled that there will be no territorial rearrangement and the areas inhabited by the Naga of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam will not be reorganized as it would unleash a Frankenstein monster. These groups have never raised the question of sovereignty. The working committee of the seven NNPGs, enlisted to join the peace talks, is also opposed to the idea of ​​changing interlocutors as and when the NSCN (IM) decides.

Today, the people of Nagaland are held hostage by the state and central governments. People wonder why the Center is bowing to the NSCN (IM) to the detriment of the people of Nagaland. Why continue to use the army and the AFSPA when the killings have considerably decreased? The umbrella body specifically mentioned that they wanted to be freed from gun culture. Why is the Center not responding to this call? In fact, the GoI is seen as bending to the political leaders of Nagaland, who are alienated from the people, instead of responding to the aspirations of the Naga people. It goes without saying that if the state uses armed forces, there will be excesses because the army is trained to kill the enemy. The deployment of the military means that the Indian government regards the areas where AFSPA is invoked and the people who live there as enemies.

The fight against the insurgency in the northeast is also heavy due to the Free Movement Regime (FMR) between India and Myanmar. India shares a 1,643 km border with Myanmar. The RMF signed between the two countries authorizes movement up to 16 km within their territory for trade and commerce. But it is misused by activists to smuggle drugs and weapons. The FMR was suspended in March 2020 due to Covid – but smuggling has only increased. This border is the most difficult terrain to monitor. These issues must be resolved for lasting peace to prevail.

This column first appeared in the print edition on December 10, 2021 under the title “Ending impunity”. The writer is the editor of the Shillong Times

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