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Nagaland’s people deserve neither AFSPA nor gun culture

🔴 Patricia Mukhim writes: The Northeast is not only less understood by distant Delhi but also considered ‘alien’ to the nation.

Written by Patricia Mukhim |
Updated: December 11, 2021 7:00:55 am
Many are wondering if the peace talks between the NSCN (IM) and the government of India now lie in tatters.

The sight of a dozen or more coffins being laid in a row while young, helpless widows and elderly grief-stricken parents come to terms with their loss is an image that is both outrageous and painful. The dead were ordinary citizens going home to their village in Nagaland after work. In one shattering moment, their lives were extinguished; just like that. For the Army’s special unit, it was an intelligence error to which they overreacted. What’s the source of that information? Surely, the government cannot hide behind the smokescreen of “classified information”. There have been too many killings based on such wrong intelligence in Nagaland, Manipur and Assam.

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With every such encounter in which the innocent are mowed down, the clamour for revocation of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) grows strident — but is rarely sustained. Some years ago, all the northeastern states had come together to demand the annulment of this Act. That remained in the realm of yet another “demand”.

How can a country adopt a colonial Act meant to counter the Quit India Movement of 1942 to fight its own people? How can independent India impose an Act that gives legal protection to the armed forces to shoot down anyone on “suspicion” of being a terrorist/extremist/insurgent? In 1997, after Nagaland’s most enduring insurgent outfit, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN), led by Isak Swu and T H Muivah, first decided to talk peace with the Indian government, the Naga Peoples’ Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR) had approached the Supreme Court for revocation of the Act. But the apex court had then upheld its constitutionality, and said it was an enabling legislation that confers minimum powers on the army to operate in situations of widespread internal disorder. Public memory is short and it’s important to jog that. 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 contest the Manipur Assembly elections. Why did it take over 60 years for AFSPA to become an election issue? It was only in 2016, after many PILs were filed in the Supreme Court, that the court sought details of the 1,528 cases of alleged extra-judicial killings between May 1979 and May 2012 by the Manipur Police and the armed forces. The CBI was asked to go into a few of those cases. But in its report filed in March this year, it said it had no conclusive evidence and, therefore, closed the cases.

The unasked questions remain: Why are the northeastern states of India and Jammu and Kashmir singled out for imposition of AFSPA? Aren’t there internal rebellions in the rest of India too, such as “left-wing extremism?” Why are those areas not termed “disturbed areas” followed by the invocation of AFSPA? The reality is that the Northeast is not only less understood by distant Delhi but is also still considered “alien” to the nation because of racial and cultural dissimilarities. Nation-building in the region is work in progress; insurgency is the result of a colonial power — the British — being replaced by a power that people in Nagaland see as akin to its predecessor.

Many are wondering if the peace talks between the NSCN (IM) and the government of India now lie in tatters. Unfortunately, the media has focussed exclusively on the NSCN (IM) and ignored the other Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs), who have been brought on board because they are Nagaland-based and speak exclusively for Nagaland. The NSCN(IM) is led by a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur and the majority of its cadres are also Nagas from Manipur. The NNPGs and the Gaon Bura Association of Nagaland doubt NSCN(IM)’s ability to bring lasting peace in Nagaland. They know that the NSCN(IM) is not an organisation with whom dialogue is possible or which is in the habit of examining its conscience and regretting its actions. It exists to recruit 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 around freely with arms and extort with impunity. In the past, they have mercilessly gunned down rival factions but there has been no reaction because the people of Nagaland are a traumatised lot. Having faced the wrath of state and non-state powers, they had lost their voice, until a few years ago when people started expressing their anger against such killings and extortion over social media.

Since 2015, the Nagaland Gaon Bura Association, the apex body of Nagas which includes all the 16 recognised tribes and the NNPGs barring the NSCN (IM), have sent several memorandums addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, asking that whatever terms are agreed upon with the NSCN (IM) should be concluded and the remaining issues be resolved through peaceful means. Why has the Centre ignored these petitions?

These representatives of the Naga people do not demand a separate flag or constitution because they understand these are tenuous demands. It is a settled issue that there will be no territorial rearrangement and the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam will not be reorganised for that would unleash a Frankenstein’s monster. These groups have also never raised the sovereignty issue. The working committee of the seven NNPGs, roped in to join the peace talks, are also opposed to the idea of changing interlocutors as and when the NSCN (IM) decides.

Today, the people of Nagaland are being held hostage by governments both at the state and the Centre. People question why the Centre is pandering to the NSCN (IM) at the cost of the people of Nagaland. Why continue to use the army and AFSPA when killings have reduced considerably? The apex body has specifically mentioned that they want to be delivered from the gun culture. Why is the Centre not responding to that call? In fact, the GoI is seen as pandering to the political leadership of Nagaland, which is alienated from the people, instead of responding to the aspirations of the Naga people. It’s a given that if the state uses armed forces, there will be excesses because the army is trained to kill the enemy. Deploying the army means that the Government of India considers the areas where AFSPA is invoked and the people who live there as the enemy.

Countering insurgency in the Northeast is fraught also because of the Free Movement Regime (FMR) between India and Myanmar. India shares a 1,643 km border with Myanmar. The FMR signed between the two countries allows movement up to 16 km inside each other’s territory for trade and commerce. But it is misused by militants to smuggle drugs and arms. The FMR was suspended in March 2020 due to Covid — but smuggling has only increased. This border is the most difficult terrain to police. These issues need to be addressed for enduring peace to prevail.

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

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