The year was 1997. I was in the seventh standard. And it happened on my way to school. It should have been around 9 am (as our school starts at 9:30 am). I had only walked a few metres when I saw a young mother breathlessly running down the hill. As she ran, I saw a deep sense of fear on her face. My innocent mind assumed that a bull must be running after her. As I was about to inquire, we heard a round of gunfire (she must have heard the first one!). When I heard the gunfire, I also ran as fast as I could.
If I remember correctly, that day, all we heard was gunfire and screams of people. As the guns were being fired, some of us hid under the bed, while others hid in the corner of the house. Some of these bullets hit our neighbour’s house (or so it seems). As our houses were wooden, we took shelter in a nearby school which was built on concrete. The whole neighbourhood stayed there till the firing stopped. When it finally quietened (and what seemed like an eternity), we went back to our homes.
The following day, we found out that a convoy of the Indian army (the Assam rifles) were ambushed by Naga armed forces. This incident took place in a locality called Awungtang, near a school called Savio High School. After the ambush, the Indian armed forces did house-to-house raids in Awungtang and in different parts of Ukhrul. Several Awungtang residents and Savio School teachers were beaten black and blue. Students, who were in school uniform, were also beaten very badly. In the process, many of them had to be hospitalised. Amongst the victims, one of our relatives, Rammaso Shingnaisui, was taken to the camp and tortured to death. Initially, the army denied the whereabouts of Shingnaisui. However, upon public pressure, they handed the body to the family. The post-mortem report showed that was buried and dug up. Shielded by AFSPA, the army did as they pleased, and even as the victims cried for justice, it was not served.
The brutality of the armed forces that the locality of Awungtang, the teachers-students of Savio School, the family of the deceased, and the locality of the Ukhrul Town experienced is not an isolated event – in Northeast India. The trauma that we experienced and horrors that we witnessed is not unique to us alone. Such brutality is being faced and experienced by the common people of Northeast states (and Jammu and Kashmir) that are under Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. This Act has its root in the works of the British colonials which was initiated by Lord Linlithgow, Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinances, 1942 (i.e., it is a colonial-era law). The current Act was further amended in 1972 to make sure that the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act, 1958 is consistently applied in all the states of Northeast India.
The AFSPA, as an extra constitutional regulation, empowers the armed forces to declare a state as “disturbed areas.” While there is a question or two about whether we were disturbed areas, or we are disturbed by the enforcing of the armed forces in the Northeast region. The Act gives the armed forces the authority to “prohibit a gathering of five or more persons in an area, can use force or even open fire after giving due warning if they feel a person is in contravention of the law. If reasonable suspicion exists, the army can also arrest a person without a warrant; enter or search a premises without a warrant; and ban the possession of firearms.” The reason why this Act is called draconian is because it “gives sweeping powers to the armed forces. It allows them to open fire, even causing death, against any person in contravention to the law or carrying arms and ammunition.” Moreover, it gives the armed forces “blanket impunity” in the form of “no prosecution or legal proceedings against them without the prior approval of the Centre.” Hence, even with the use of excessive power and violation of human rights, they always go hands free.
But in the eyes of the common people, the Act is used by the armed forces with the notion of licence to kill anyone in “the so-called disturbed areas.” In our observation, what this law does is rape women, murder innocent civilians, and abuse, oppress, and discriminate human life and their rights i.e., at its core value, there is violation of fundamental freedom. Consequently, as an Act that has “no role to play in democracy,” the government of India has been asked by the United Nations to repeal AFSPA – but without success. They continue to withhold and (allegedly) enjoy the privileges of yielding excessive power at the expense of the common people. In fact, there are those who hold that AFSPA should stay. They are of the view that “the demand holds no basis and is either ill-informed or ill-motivated. Because there is no way the army can, or will, carry out internal security (IS) duties without the shield of the AFSPA.”
The latest victim of AFSPA is the killing of fourteen coal miners between Oting and Tiru village of Mon district. On 4th December 2021, eight coal miners were ambushed in their pickup truck by the Indian armed forces. Six coal miners (daily-wage earners) were killed, and two were severely injured. A survivor of the ambush, who is being treated in Assam Medical College and Hospital (AMCH), informed that they were shot by the army without any warning (dismissing the claims of Home Minister, Amit Shah). On hearing the gunshot, the villagers went looking for their friends and family members. Upon reaching the place, they found the armed forces trying to cover-up their crime; the villagers caught them wrapping and loading the dead bodies to another truck. This resulted in a conflict between the villagers and the armed force. As violence erupted, seven more villagers were shot dead by the armed forces. And several villagers-civilians were seriously injured. Here, one can assume that the armed forces staged a fake encounter with sinister intentions that we cannot fathom.
This horrid crime has invited responses from several individuals, local organisations, state politicians, and national politicians through social media platforms and other conventional modes. Several of them have sent their prayers, deep regrets, demanded action and justice, offered condolences to the victims and families, condemned the incident, asked to revoke-repeal AFSPA, etc. Dolly Kikon, a Senior Lecturer at the School of Social and Political Sciences (Melbourne University), suggests that “The shock and condemnation are meaningless unless the draconian AFSPA (1958) is repealed.” She further adds that, “Many extrajudicial killings were forgotten in the past. This one will be no different. Eventually, those who continue to remember the 13 coal miners will be perceived as inconvenient commentators.” This article was coincidently followed by the announcement of the Chief Minister of Nagaland, Neiphiu Rio, who informs that his government has asked “the Centre to remove the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, from Nagaland.” The chief minister also said that the Centre will provide financial compensation of eleven lakhs – and another five lakhs by the state to the kin of the deceased.
While such a public announcement sounds promising, the cry for justice of the Nagas in Oting should go together with the warning sounded by Kikon. In the past, there have been those who fought for justice for their near and dear ones. However, at the personal or community level, the closest they could reach was financial compensation or forcing the hands of the armed forces to admit their wrongdoing. At the policy level, the furthest they could reach is the formation of committees to reform AFSPA. On more than one occasion, human rights organisations, both national and international (e.g., NPMHR), have approached the Indian government to repeal AFSPA, and in response, several committees have been formed-constituted to review the Act. On the surface, the government has agreed to do the same, but without outcome. To this day (i.e., to my knowledge), no individual or human rights organization has been able to make headway which would force the hands of policy makers (i.e., the government) to repeal AFSPA. They seem to have hit the wall. However, all hope is not lost. We now have a reference where a group of farmers forced the current government to repeal three farm laws.
The barbaric act of the armed forces in Oting is inviting an outcry for justice and demand to repeal AFSPA. By and large, the common people are now also aware of the need to repeal AFSPA in Northeast India. At a crucial time like this, what is needed is a clear direction. How do we claim justice for our near and dear ones? It needs to be strategic. While sharing or tweeting on social media platforms are helpful, it can only take you so far. While candlelight service or mass rally is heart-warming and comforting, such conventional approaches are short term in nature. While the words of the chief minister and politicians seem promising, we still need to make sure that promises are kept (there is also a matter of trust issues). Like the farmers raising their voice against unjust voices and acting on it, there is a need for the common people, especially the Nagas to raise their voice against militarization and AFSPA.
For the present tangible situation of ours, we need to deal with the question of how to repeal AFSPA. There is a need for us to come together and ask: How do we repeal AFSPA from Northeast India?
If we don’t want anyone to experience the horror of AFSPA again, we need to think long term. In the past, when people write or talk like I am doing, they have had visits from the intelligence department or the army themselves, assuming that they are sympathisers of our very own armed forces. However, I want to assert that not all socio-political issues can be addressed by taking up arms.
In our case, as a minority group, there is a need to sensationalise the barbaric incident at Oting (since the majority population would not listen) and contemplate on the incident (and such similar incidents) to consider future course of action in order to successfully repeal AFSPA from the Northeast region. What we need, both at the conceptual and practical level, is an institution of think tank(s) that focuses on the concern of Northeast India, especially the policy of AFSPA. While there are think tanks in Northeast India (e.g., C-NES), their impact is either limited or their focus seems to be something/somewhere else.
At the conceptual level, it may mean decolonizing the Acts and its constituting policy. It has been six decades since AFSPA was implemented; it came with a lot of thinking that is colonial in nature and dominant in persecution. If that is the case, we need hours of study, research, and consultation to deconstruct AFSPA and construct policy and strategy to repeal AFSPA from the Northeast region. At the practical level (and to begin with), it may mean instituting a think tank focused on repealing AFSPA. It can be a state funded or like-minded funded institute that conducts research and advocates policy and strategy which considers the common good of the people. We also need such a think tank to start a people’s movement (click the link for one such movement, change.org). As suggested, the farmer’s protest as a movement can be a point of reference where Nagas take a long haul to repeal AFSPA.
For example, a certain think tank called the Rights and Risks Analysis Group suggests an “immediate arrest” of the armed forces who killed the coal miners in Oting. They are of the view that “Insurgents travelling in a pick-up truck is unheard of and it is nothing but plain massacre of the civilians. Since the FIR (police report) names the accused for the mass murder of the civilians, the law must take its own course and the accused ought to be handed over to the police for the offence of murder.” They also add that “Justice must be established through a fast-track trial.” The assumption of this think tank comes with the understanding that the arrest of the perpetrators will ease the civil unrest and also provide an immediate solution to the current socio-political turmoil.
Though such suggestions are helpful, we need to think bigger and think long term. What we need is an insider think tank that comprises various intellectuals (interdisciplinary) based in Northeast India and focused on repealing AFSPA from Northeast India.
The above suggestion is urgent for Nagas (or Nagas inhabited areas) as AFSPA is in effect till December 31, 2021. As the wise God-man said, as we deal with the world and the things of the world, we should be “shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” There is an urgent need to come together and put our minds and resources. While it would have been ideal to get support from the neighbouring states (since that is not happening), Nagas should step up to start a people’s movement with a long term solution in mind.
Dr. Taimaya Ragui is an independent research scholar based in Bangalore, Karnataka.