The Naga Scholars’ Association organized a virtual panel discussion on the theme “Repeal APFSA: Perspective from Northeast India and Beyond” on 11th December 2021. The session was chaired by Professor Paul Pimomo, Emeritus Professor, Washington University. The distinguished panelists included Professor Sanjoy Hazarika, academician, journalist, author and International Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI); Binalakshmi Nepram, Founder-Director of Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network & Global Alliance; Babloo Loitongbam, Executive Director, Human Rights Alert; Rev. Dr. Ellen Konyak Jamir, Associate Professor, Oriental Theological Seminary, Nagaland and Member of the Forum for Naga Reconciliation.
The panel discussion commenced with two- minutes of silent prayer in memory and honour of the deceased and the injured victims in the Oting and Tiru incidents, and for peace in many conflict areas in the Northeast and beyond.
Rev. Dr. Jamir in her brief description of the Oting atrocity from the grassroot reality, recalled the incident as “reliving past traumas” for the Nagas. Since it had occurred within the geopolitical grand narrative of Nagalim, it garnered international attention and solidarity; however, she expressed grave concern about the possibility of turning ordinary grief into complicated grief in the aftermath of such traumatic events. This concern was stated in view of Nagaland as a state, which is ill-equipped to provide emotional and mental care to a large number of individuals. The tendency of the traumatized Nagas to turn to conventional or harmful coping mechanisms is real and challenging. She stated that it is a pivotal time in Naga history to call for unity to pursue peace and justice.
Professor Hazarika expressed being appalled that Nagaland still does not have a State Human Rights Commission, taking cognizance that the Act was implemented five years before it was even recognised as a state; therefore, the need for the State Government to set up the Commission is crucial. An urgent demand to move forward from intellectual discourse to resolving the tragedies of cruel acts under the draconian law, and to hold the government accountable for its inaction are the needs of the hour, he remarked.
Loitongbam commented that every crisis has two sides: catastrophe and opportunity. In this light, a hopeful perspective was drawn that as traumatic a disaster as the Oting massacre is, an intellectual engagement, on the other hand, can provide an opportunity to communicate where many groups had been suffering in isolation. He pointed out that this incident is “not an isolated incident” but a recurring incident taking place in the Northeast. He made a strong suggestion of forging an alliance amongst the Northeastern region who have shared experiences of living under AFSPA for half a century, and for devising a strategy to repeal the law.
Cautioning that peace is in jeopardy if Northeast India does not wake up to fight against the racialization of Indian politics, Nepram, in her opening remark, made three poignant statements: firstly, she asserted that “Our demand for repeal of AFSPA is not an emotional issue, but it is an issue which concerns the process of incomplete decolonization.” Secondly, the killing at Oting brought back memories of other massacres that had occurred in different sections of the region. She pointed out that the Nagas had suffered the most as a result of martial law. She stated that AFSPA is a ‘technology of killing’ in which the people of Northeast India are used as a location for colonial sites in order to extract all of their mineral resources, but the people remain as unwanted habitants. India’s statement to the United Nations, claiming that it has no domestic wars, contradicted its own report. Thirdly, she further questioned why, if the Act is carried out under the auspices of law and order, the army is allowed to operate within civilian spaces.The repeal of the AFSPA is critical since the Northeast is one of the most militarized regions in the world. She urged the people to elect leaders who have the courage to speak up for their people.
The discussion further addressed the questions on what is insidious in the text of the Law, and how the Indian Judicial system itself has dealt with the Law. Loitongbam stated that despite the Nagaland Cabinet’s decision to remove the status of the state as ‘disturbed area’, the Central Government continues to maintain the status quo that the State is in disturbed condition, and thus the necessity to use armed forces in aid of the civil power. In regard to the judicial response on the constitutionality of AFSPA, he pointed out that regardless of the appeal made in 1997 in the Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights wherein, the petitioners demanded the Supreme Court to outline the objective criteria for defining a ‘disturbed area’, however, it turned a deaf ear to this petition. In the light of the ongoing process to the demand to revoke AFSPA, the Oting incident has highlighted the need to prosecute the soldiers responsible for the killing of the civilians under the Indian law system.
Contextualizing AFSPA from the historical perspective, Professor Hazarika, gave a brief overview of the act on how it was introduced during a tumultuous period following partition, and compounded by the involvement of China and Pakistan. He highlighted that the Naga hills movement led by Phizo, the NNC, and the Federal Government, had demanded separation as “a way of asking India to honour the Naga-Akbar Hydari Accord.” The Act, as argued by a member from Manipur, is a “lawless law” that will never bring peace and justice to the hills or anywhere else in Nagaland. Professor Hazarika viewed that one must consider and revisit the law’s current relevance since the condition today is one of peace, negotiation, and discussion. However, he observed that incidents like the one in Oting could widen the gap between the Northeast people and stifle conversation.
Nepram drew attention to the significance of political securitization of the Northeast region and how it has often been termed as anti-national. By reaffirming the United Nation charter, she asserted, “When there is power and wrongful power…if our stomachs are kicked, if our dignities are hurt, there will be resistance.” She emphasized the need to unite and fight against the repeal of the draconian law at various levels: locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. A positive outcome will be the greatest “confidence building measure” while a contrary result would put the unity and peace process of the Northeast along with the rest of the nation in jeopardy.
Loitongbam encouraged the participants to keep the dialogue and engagement with the cause alive as the Government of India (GOI) will act only when the political imperatives are clear. It is thus a decisive time for civil societies, scholars, activists and every thinking population to act and demand for the removal of AFSPA. He noted, “People are fighting not to defeat the Indian armies, but to fight back because they are hurt. They are fighting naked injustice.” Highlighting the post Supreme Court intervention on fake encounter cases in Manipur, Loitongbam reflected on how killing had stopped from 500 per year to zero. “Violence on one side escalates on the others too”, he argued. The central wisdom that the GOI should learn is that “National Security should emanate from people’s security”, and the real security of the nation comes only when its people feel secured and protected, he remarked.
The panel reiterated on how AFSPA stood as a class apart from other similar repressive laws in the country, as Navnathan Pillai called it, “law in a wartime era”. It was distinctively presented as legislation for a racially and ethnically separate set of people for sixty three years in the so-called “biggest democracy” of the world, whereby it blatantly permitted the people to be slain without any judicial report; and, it has not brought home any solution by its implementation, Loitongbam reflected. Rev. Dr. Jamir emphasized on the state’s relative tranquility during the last few years, and how the attempt to put things right has been interrupted by this ill-fated incident. As a symbolic tribute to the fourteen murdered civilians, she read out their names to the audience: Langwang, Thapwang, C. Shomwang, W. Hokup, Khawang, Yinjong, Langton, Ngampho, Thakwang, Manpeih, Phoakam, Bipul Konwer and Pongche.
Urging the Northeast people to be united and to begin an informed conversation across the board on the pressing issue at hand, Professor Pimomo, ended the panel discussion with thought provoking questions, “What do we do in going forward to repeal the AFSPA; What are the modes of oppositions and resistance in terms of political as strategizing it as the people’s movement?”
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