The Centre’s decision to constitute a panel to consider withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from Nagaland is a step in the right direction. Ever since six civilians were killed in a botched Army operation in Mon district on December 4, and eight more in related violence thereafter, civil and political society in Nagaland have been demanding that the Centre withdraw the Act. On December 20, the Nagaland Assembly passed a unanimous resolution for repealing the Act while civil society organisations have led massive street protests across the state. In Nagaland, like in most parts of the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir, the Act is seen to provide immunity even to those security personnel who target innocent civilians in the name of counter-terrorism operations. In any case, the colonial-era law, which overrides the authority of civil administration and accords extraordinary powers to the security establishment, must not be enforced in perpetuity in any region.
Insurgency in Nagaland is as old as Independent India. It has claimed hundreds of lives and transformed it into a garrison state. The Army was entrusted with the task of securing peace against insurgents with bases across the international border in Myanmar. The AFSPA was imposed to provide legal protection to the Army, which had to operate in a war-like situation against well-armed and well-trained guerrilla outfits in hostile terrain. The 1997 ceasefire signed between the government and the NSCN-IM, the most powerful of the insurgent outfits, has enabled a conversation towards ending the insurgency. Subsequently, the 2015 Framework Agreement signed between the Centre and NSCN-IM raised hopes of a resolution, including on the question of Naga sovereignty. The events of December 4-5, however, threatened to turn the clock back on the Naga talks and endanger the gains of the past two decades. The challenge now is to revive the spirit of dialogue and peace, with the onus on the Centre to win back the people’s trust.
The AFSPA panel, which is to submit a report in 45 days, will need to keep in mind the groundswell for peace in Nagaland, a result of the extraordinary work put in by civil society groups such as the Naga Mothers Association. In recent times, the Centre has withdrawn AFSPA from large parts of the Northeast — Tripura, Meghalaya, districts in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, for instance — in response to a decline in violence. The Naga insurgency is a far more complex phenomenon, of course, but a new generation, more invested in peace and prosperity, has come of age in Nagaland. Their future needs to be guarded from the vicious cycle of violence that has laid previous generations to waste: The government needs to walk the extra mile to ensure it.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on December 28, 2021 under the title ‘Welcome outreach’.