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The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) & the North-East: Facts vs. Propaganda – PART – 2

February 14, 2022 Authored by: Dr. Ankita Dutta

Historically speaking, the British colonial power had first identified the ‘Land of the Nagas’ as “virgin soil” for the planting of Christianity. In an archival document from the year 1875, cited in the ‘Descriptive Account of Assam’ by William Robinson and Angus Hamilton, it was written about the Nagas as – “Among a people so thoroughly primitive, and so independent of religious profession, we might reasonably expect missionary zeal would be the most successful.”[1] Accordingly, Christian missionaries were encouraged to open Government-aided schools in the Naga Hills (covering the present-day states of Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, and a few parts of Manipur) and through them propagate Christianity. It would be wrong to say that this strategy wasn’t successful, because within a 10-year period from 1891 to 1901, the Christian population in the NEFA (North-Eastern Frontier Agency or present-day Arunachal Pradesh) region increased by 128%.

Today, the problem is no longer limited to Nagaland alone, because the fake narrative of a “separate Christian state” and a cohesive Naga identity propagated by the NSCN is making its presence felt among the Naga population residing in the Manipur hills, Mizoram, and Arunachal Pradesh. The main aim of the NSCN is to establish a sovereign Christian state called ‘Nagalim’, unifying all those areas inhabited by the Nagas in North-East India and neighbouring Myanmar. The slogan of the organisation is “Nagaland for Christ”. Its manifesto gives credence to the idea of what can be termed as a ‘Christian theocracy’. It is based on the principle of Socialism for economic development, informed by a Baptist Christian religious outlook. Government of India has declared it as a terrorist organisation under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.

For those who might not know, there is a small region in Nagaland called Hebron, situated at a distance of around 110 km from Kohima. Dominated by Baptist Christians, Hebron has been named after the town mentioned in the Old Testament. The NSCN (I-M) almost runs a parallel government in Hebron by the name of ‘Government of the People’s Republic of Nagalim’, complete with ministries and a 15,000 strong army. It has its own Parliament called Tatar Hoho within the precincts of a Church in the northwestern part of Hebron. The Tatar Hoho makes its own laws and metes out severe punishments to those who break them. No wonder, entry into Hebron has always been forbidden to outsiders (specifically meaning non-Christians). When young men and women join the NSCN, they swear by the Bible and the bullet that they won’t betray the nation or compromise the security till the last drop of their blood.  

Now, coming to the question of a ‘cohesive Naga identity’ of the NSCN, leaving aside the Tangkhul Nagas of Manipur, most of the communities of Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh like Monpas, Mishimis, Nyshis, Sherdukpens, Apatanis, etc. aren’t Nagas in reality. However, more and more people, in the recent times, have begun to identify themselves as Nagas more frequently. These are largely the neo-converts who, in due course of time, become mentally programmed to unquestioningly accept their new identity as not only different from the rest but also ‘superior’ to that of any other. The only common element amongst all these so-called “Naga” groups is the American Baptist Church. This raises many questions with respect to the larger designs, aims and objectives of those forces responsible for fanning insurgency in North-East India.

In the year 1971, the Christian population in Arunachal Pradesh was less than 1%, which increased to 30% in 2011. In Nagaland, it was less than 1% in 1901, but shot up to a whopping 90% in 2011. The Christian population of Mizoram accounted for less than 1% in 1901. But, as per Census data of 1991, it increased to 86%. The subsequent rise of secessionist movements along with the simultaneous growth of Christianity in this region is not just mere coincidence; it was a planned progrom. Hence, the situation in the North-East is not normal; it is extraordinary, with not one but many different hostile forces working together at the same time to destabilise Bharat from within. Hence, AFSPA is required to deal with these forces whose clearly stated objective is to break up the country.

Repealing AFSPA is not very difficult, but before that, we need to understand the complexity of the problem of insurgency and the challenges associated in dealing with it in the North-East. Can the Government deal with insurgency and a host of other problems here without resorting to AFSPA? If it can, it’s well and good, but this war is lethal, more so because the North-East is connected to the rest of the country through the narrow yet crucial strategic point popularly known as the Siliguri Corridor or ‘Chicken’s Neck’. The proclamations of anti-nationals like Sharjeel Imam to cut off this region and separate Assam and the entire North-East from India, are another testimony of the plan that is afoot since a long time now under ‘Operation PIN CODE’ sponsored by Pakistan’s ISI and supported by several Islamic organisations in Bangladesh.

The China factor and Myanmar as an emerging den of drugs and arms have complicated the matters further. Hence, such extraordinary situations demand extraordinary measures precisely because the ordinary laws of the land are either not enough or inadequate to deal with an entire range of anti-India forces active here. It is futile to expect from these forces, including insurgent groups, to observe the ordinary laws of the land or obey the Constitutional mandates. The imposition of AFSPA and its continuation in these states implies that the police forces of that state and even the paramilitary forces, on their own, cannot tackle the terrorists. In other words, they are incapable of dealing with the terrorists in a terror-stricken area; hence, the Army is deployed for counter-insurgency (CI) duties for it becomes indispensable to handle the situation and maintain the unity and territorial integrity of the country.

It is because the police forces are not trained in the same manner as the Army to deal with the enemy. When insurgents open indiscriminate fire on our security forces, injuring and even killing them at times, retaliation on the part of our security forces may result in collateral damage which is unavoidable, howsoever hard the Army may try to prevent it. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a soldier to pick out a terrorist from a crowd of citizens. Any innocent person/common civilian will obey the orders of the police and the Army, say, to stop at a checkpost and subject himself and his vehicle to inspection. If he/she doesn’t cooperate, wouldn’t such behaviour naturally create suspicion against him/her? But, to entirely shift the blame onto our forces without seeking equal accountability from the various hostile forces at work stinks of a devious design.

Wouldn’t AFSPA automatically become irrelevant if terrorist groups like the NSCN (I-M) surrender? We cannot overlook the crimes committed by these terrorists (largely belonging to a particular religious denomination) such as kidnappings, killing of our Army personnel and innocent civilians, extortions, etc. while at the same time raising a hue and cry against AFSPA. It only amounts to patronising these terrorist groups but opposing the Indian state, and more specifically the Indian Army. Repealing AFSPA, as is being demanded, would mean immediate withdrawal of the Army from that state or area, resulting in a massive gap in the security infrastructure. Won’t this give the insurgents a free hand, endangering the country’s national security?

Moreover, wouldn’t disruptive elements gain advantage from such a situation by exploiting the existing legal loopholes in the system, given that insurgency in North-East India has always been a complex affair? Are we prepared for tackling such a situation in the immediate present? Is the ‘Repeal AFSPA’ lobby willing to run their political shops without the protective security cover provided by the Indian state and the Indian Army in particular? Isn’t this the same protection that has offered them the leisure and comfort of writing propaganda pieces in both national and international dailies? Most importantly, are outcries of human rights violations justified if any person disregards the orders of the Army and get shot in the process?

These are questions that we need to honestly dwell upon so as to arrive at a sound and logical explanation behind the imposition and existence of AFSPA in different states of the North-East, including Nagaland. Another argument often put forward is that AFSPA is not in force even in the Maoist-infested areas, and hence it must be repealed from the North-East as well. But, this does not hold water keeping in mind North-East India’s strategic geo-politically sensitive location. The Maoist belt of Central India extending till Maharashtra and a few parts of Andhra Pradesh are not located in close proximity to the international border with China, Bangladesh or even Myanmar.

Moreover, the religious demographic character of many states in the North-East has altered beyond reversal. Hardly any traces can be found in today’s date of local deities like Kupenuopfu, Lizaba, and Pfutsana that were worshipped by the Nagas once upon a time. The same holds true for Mizoram and almost more than half of Meghalaya as well. Most importantly, expanding India’s trade and commercial relations and as well as its cultural ties with South-East Asia, depends upon, to a large extent, on a peaceful, stable and secure North-East. This holds true mainly from the point of view of India’s Act East Policy and its successful implementation in the coming times, with North-East India being the chief driver of this Policy.

The incident that happened at Mon village in Oting-Tiru area of Nagaland bordering Myanmar on December 4, 2021 was undoubtedly unfortunate and should have never happened. It was a complete failure of the law and order machinery of the Government. At least 13 innocent unarmed civilians, all coal miners, and a soldier were killed and 11 injured in what was supposed to be a case of “mistaken identity” by the security forces who fired on them, believing them to be members of the NSCN (Khaplang-Yung Aung). The victims (mostly belonging to the Konyak Naga community) happened to be daily wagers who were returning home from the Tiru coal mining area in an ill-fated pick-up van. Oting village where the firing took place on December 4 is located at quite a distance from Mon.

It needs to be mentioned here that Konyak Nagas share ethnicity with the Hemi Nagas and other smaller native groups in Myanmar.[2] Rebel NSCN leader SS Khaplang was also a Hemi Naga and it is said that he had several “admirers” on the Indian side of the border. The incident had triggered many other incidents of arson, rioting and attack on soldiers and an Assam Rifles camp in Mon town, resulting in more injuries and deaths, including that of one soldier. Several hundred angry locals rushed to the area and surrounded the team of 21 para-commandos, attacked and assaulted them and damaged their vehicles, as a result of which a few Assam Rifles personnel sustained severe injuries, including one soldier who eventually succumbed to them. The security forces, in order to disperse the crowd, opened fire indiscriminately in self-defence, which resulted in the killing of seven more civilians and injuring some others.

A brief statement of the 3 Corps of the Army later said that based on “credible intelligence” inputs of the likely movements of insurgents near Tiru village in Tizit area of Mon district, a specific operation was planned to be conducted in the Oting-Tiru area of this district. Hence, incidents like these also trigger the question over the standards with regard to the reliability and authenticity of the source of information. Subsequently, in the evening of December 5, a mob of approximately 250 people tried to ransack and vandalize the Company Operating Base (CoB) of the Assam Rifles at Mon town. The unruly mob burnt buildings of the base following which troops had to open fire to disperse the mob. Resultantly, one civilian was killed while another was injured.

Following the outbreak of widespread violence, as a precautionary measure, the state authorities promulgated prohibitory orders in the affected areas in order to ensure peace and tranquillity. The Army authorities deeply regretted the incident and its aftermath. Quite expectedly, the incident revived the demand for the immediate withdrawal of the AFSPA and the chorus has gradually become louder beyond the boundaries of Nagaland. Immediately, the North-East Students’ Union (NESU) which is an umbrella organisation of several Christian unions in the region, called for protests against the incident in all the seven North-Eastern states while also demanding the scrapping of the AFSPA, labelling it as the “draconian anti-insurgent law”. A shutdown was called in Kohima and different parts of the state to condemn the incident and demand a repeal of the AFSPA.

The Central Executive Committee of another Christian insurgent outfit based in Meghalaya – the Hynniewtrep Youth Council (HYC) – issued a statement in which it condemned the “brutal, inhumane and barbaric act of the Indian armed forces” leading to the death of several Naga civilians on December 4, 2021 at Oting village in Mon district of Nagaland. Roy Kupar Synrem, General-Secretary of the HYC-CEC, said – “The so-called operation of the armed forces is nothing but a mere excuse and cover-up of its complete failure to distinguish between innocent unarmed civilians and the so-called militants and hence civilian lives were lost as a result of the shooting spree.” He also mentioned that the root cause for such a “bold act of killing spree” by the armed forces in states like Nagaland, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh was the draconian AFSPA which he said, “provides immunity to the armed forces to act without any repercussion in the so-called “disturbed areas”.”

In order to avoid any further loss of innocent civilian lives and restore peace and political stability, Synrem categorically mentioned that the Union Government must repeal the operation of AFSPA in the entire North-Eastern region. To quote the statement by the HYC – “Steps should be taken towards building a peaceful North-East and the correct and necessary steps towards achieving full peace are the withdrawal or repeal of AFSPA from the region completely as well as deployment or stationing armed forces to the bare minimum.” No doubt, innocent and unarmed civilians always suffer the most in a situation of armed conflict and especially when the conflict remains unresolved for a prolonged period of time, their sufferings become endless.

But, to demand a repeal of AFSPA without solving the underlying fundamental causal factors behind insurgency and secessionism in the North-East is pointless. It is important that all agencies work in harmony with one another and ensure that no such unfortunate incident recurs in the future while undertaking anti-insurgent operations. The common Naga people have always yearned for permanent peace to return through an expeditious resolution of the armed conflict in the Naga-inhabited areas of Nagaland, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh. But, it is very unfortunate that the peace talks between the Central Government and the NSCN (I-M) which resumed after a long gap, have reached a dead end once again.

On August 3, 2015, NSCN leader T. Muivah had signed a Peace Accord with the Government of India in the presence of PM Narendra Modi, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, and NSA Ajit Doval. However, it soon joined hands with a militia organisation named the United Liberation Front of Western South-East Asia, along with other terrorist groups of the North-East. Shortly thereafter, it broke off peace talks with the Indian Government. The Government must therefore remain alert of the fact that whenever such negotiations are in a critical stage, killing of innocent civilians by the Army during a special counter-insurgency operation only provides an upper hand to the forces inimical to India’s national security, unity and integrity.

Sustained dialogue between the Government and the NSCN (I-M) is a must to remove the bottlenecks in signing the final peace accord with all the Naga insurgent groups. The negotiators from both the sides must return to the negotiating table at the earliest to hammer out a permanent solution in a spirit of give-and-take so that the civilians are not held hostage to a long-drawn and endless armed conflict. Both Amit Shah and PM Narendra Modi are, in the meantime, keen for faster progress to the pending Naga peace talks despite major hurdles thrown by the NSCN (I-M) faction vis-à-vis a separate flag and a Constitution. These two demands cannot be met by any Indian Government worth its salt. The current coalition Government in Nagaland has only added further complexity to the Nagaland peace process.

But, the progress made after 24 years of negotiations must not be allowed to be negated by differences that have cropped up. Therefore, a mechanism needs to be worked out to ensure that both the sides continue to sit across the table despite their differences and make the best of efforts to arrive at acceptable solutions. It is incumbent upon both the security forces and the common civilians to ensure proper precaution with a humane approach in dealing with the militants. The Government owns the larger responsibility of providing adequate compensation and justice to the families of those killed and the injured to restore the trust and confidence of the people. The civil society organisations taking up the cudgels for the victims need to alert the peace-loving common people of Nagaland that allowing a state of lawlessness will only further delay the process of investigation and thereby fall short of achieving a credible solution to the problem.

The onus also lies upon the State Government of Nagaland to take effective measures in order to prevent the occurrence of such incidents in the near future. The Congress Party has lost political steam in Nagaland over the years and it stayed away from the electoral contest in many constituencies in the 2018 polls for what it called a fund crunch. Despite its organisational weaknesses, the Congress Party still has a support base in the state where it was in power for several years since 1963 when statehood was granted under the leadership of Nehru. However, ever since the SC Jamir Government was voted out of power in 2003, and the present Chief Minister Rio had quit the Congress, the Grand Old Party has been left weak and often directionless.

If things go by the set rules, Nagaland would go for the next round of Assembly elections by February 2023 along with two other North-Eastern states, i.e. Meghalaya and Tripura. The situation in Nagaland today requires smart and deft handling by the Government and the security agencies so that the anti-India forces cannot exploit the delicate situation in Nagaland the Naga-inhabited areas in the neighbouring hill states. It goes without saying that the State Government dealing swiftly with any violations of human rights by any party is critical to winning the support of the people for counter-insurgency operations.

One of the most important questions that has remained unsettled is that of choosing between the military justice system and the civil courts for deciding the cases, due to which the debate on AFSPA keeps returning to the centre-stage of the conflict discourse in the North-East. Ignoring this question has done no good and only allowed the occurrence of incidents like the one in Oting village, adversely affecting the overall image of the Indian security forces. Drugs and arms smuggling, aggressive evangelist mission of the Church and its resistance to all forms of Dharmic faith systems, blessed by China-funded Maoism, are some of the deep-rooted problems in India’s North-East that can no longer be ignored by anyone desirous of chalking out a long-term solution to the nagging problem of insurgency.

For a long time now, they have worked in tandem to restrain overall economic growth and development of this region. Interestingly, just a few days before the Mon killings, Nagaland CM Neiphiu Rio dedicated the first-ever four-lane RCC arch bridge in Sanuoru river along one of the most important roads leading to the Nagaland Civil Secretariat in Kohima. The project was sanctioned by the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways in December, 2015. It is one of the most important bridges in Nagaland as it connects the main Kohima town to the ‘nerve-centre’ of the capital. Most importantly, the bridge was inaugurated at a time when the state was looking forward to receiving tourists and guests for the famous Hornbill Festival, which was called off by the Government of Nagaland in protest against the ambush at Mon.


References:

[1] L. Khimun, Spiritual Thoughts of the North-East Bharat (Janajati Faith and Culture Protection Forum: Heritage Foundation, 2020), pp. 212-219.

[2] Dr. B. Chakravarti, The Nagas (Calcutta: Self Employment Bureau Publication, 1988), pp. 8-13.


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