Why Every Naga Needs to Know About AFSPA

AFSPA was passed by Independent India to suppress the freedom movement of the Naga people. The Naga National Council (NNC), in 1951, had conducted a plebiscite in which 99 percent of the Naga people voted for a “Free Sovereign Naga Nation.” Thereafter they boycotted the first General Election 1952 and later extended the boycott to the government schools and officials. 

Majority of the Naga’s population may know AFSPA but not in detail. To begin with, this is a law that has not solved any problem from its inception till today. It is a law which people hates but dearly used by the Government of India probably with hidden agenda. Therefore, every Naga needs to know about AFSPA, the reason of its imposition, and why we need to collectively fight for repealing this outdated law in modern,democratic, and civilised world.  

WHAT IS AFSPA?​ AFSPA is the abbreviated form of Armed Special (Special Powers) Act, 1958. This Act gives sweeping powers to the armed forces to maintain law and order in a few selected states of India. It is a legal mechanism to have the Indian Army operates not against external aggression, as is the normal duty of any army in the world, but in situations of civil insurrection. Applicable to the Seven Northeast states and Jammu and Kashmir, this Act becomes operational if any of these states or regions within the state has been declared as “Disturbed.”

HOW IT ORIGINATED? India inherited AFSPA from the colonial British Ordinance 1942.  On August 15, 1942, the Viceroy Lord Linlithgow declared emergency all over British India and promulgated the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance, 1942, conferring vaguely defined special powers to the armed forces to arrest and use force (even kill) civilians on mere suspicion. After India’s Independence, the Parliament modified the Ordinance in 1958 and thus born AFSPA. It was made even harsher and more deceptive than the Ordinance. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance was promulgated all over British India but AFSPA was confined to the ethnically distinct North East region and Kashmir. Thus, AFSPA is a racial and region specific law. 

WHAT ARE THE SALIENT FEATURES OF AFSPA? According to the AFSPA 1958, in an area that is proclaimed as “disturbed”, an officer of the armed forces has the power to (i), after giving such due warning, fire upon or use other kinds of force even if it causes death, against the person who is acting against law or order in the disturbed area for the maintenance of public order, (ii) destroy any arms dump, hide-outs, prepared or fortified position or shelter or training camp from which armed attacks are made by the armed volunteers, (iii), arrest without a warrant, (iv) to enter and search any premise in order to make such arrests, (v) stop and search any vehicle or vessel reasonably suspected to be carrying such person or weapons, (vi) any person arrested and taken into custody under this Act shall be made present over to the officer in charge of the nearest police station with least possible delay, (vii) army officers have legal immunity for their actions. There can be no prosecution, suit or any other legal proceeding against anyone acting under that law.

IS AFSPA DIRECTLY CONNECTED TO NAGA’S FREEDOM MOVEMENT? Yes, it is. AFSPA was passed by Independent India to suppress the freedom movement of the Naga people. The Naga National Council (NNC), in 1951, had conducted a plebiscite in which 99 percent of the Naga people voted for a “Free Sovereign Naga Nation.” Thereafter they boycotted the first General Election 1952 and later extended the boycott to the government schools and officials. In 1953, the Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru and the Prime Minister of Burma U Nu visited Kohima. When the administration did not allow NNC to submit memorandum to the Prime Ministers, the around fifteen thousand Naga assembled walked out of the Public meeting place. Nehru who had faced a humiliating experience, immediately issued arrest warrant against NNC leaders after his return to New Delhi. The Assam Maintenance of Public Order Act of 1953 was promulgated in the Naga Hills District and declared as “disturbed.” Following this order, the Assam Police and paramilitary forces began to arrest and torture many people at random forcing many Naga leaders to go underground and take up arms to defend themselves. The situation becomes worsen when the Assam Disturbed Areas Act of 1955 was made harsher under the name the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act, 1958 on 11 September 1958. With this development, hundreds of Indian armies were sent to Naga inhabited areas. The rest is history. 

IS ASSAM RIFLES FORMED BECAUSE OF THE NAGAS? Yes, it is. The creation of Assam Rifles goes back to the time of British rule to deal with the tribesmen (the Nagas). It all started as a civil militia by the British in Assam. The formation of civil militia (paramilitary force) was necessitated by the growing interest of British businesses in the region, in tea first, and soon, coal, timber and other forest produces, and much later, oil. The Nagas made difficult for the British commercial forces to enter their land and rampantly exploit their natural resources. They occasionally invaded the plains that greatly affected the smooth functioning of trade of the British. Thus, this civil militia underwent several transformations until it developed into full fledged Assam Rifles. Its motto is “Friends of the Hills People”. Thisdeceptive expression is intentionally used by the British to fool and control the tribesmen.  

​In Independent India, the Assam Rifles continues to be a paramilitary unit. Its soldiers are its own cadres, but its majority officers are from the Indian Army on deputation. Their main function under independent India is to fight against the indigenous people who are fighting for their right to determination. They gather intelligence to keep the civilian population under check which formed part of controlling these insurgency-prone areas.  

IS IMPOSITION OF AFSPA HELPING IN CONTAINING THE INSURGENCY MOVEMENT?  The answer is a big fat NO. If the main aim of AFSPA is to control the growth of insurgency movement in the region, it has defeated its own purpose. When AFSPA was imposed in Manipur for the first time, there were only two insurgent groups actively operating in Manipur. After more than three decades of imposition of AFSPA, today there are nearly 50 insurgent groups in the state. In Nagaland too, we see the growing number of NPGs from just one at the beginning to nearly 10 groups under AFSPA. While the top leaders are being protected and escorted by Indian armed forces today, the cadres, innocentcivilians, right activists and women continue to bear the brunt of AFSPA. 

WHAT ARE THE EXPERIENCES OF PEOPLE UNDER AFSPA? Under AFSPA, the Indian armed forces are violating almost every aspect of fundamental rights of the civilians provided by the Constitution of India. Recurrent acts of ruthless atrocities, fake encounters, midnight knocks, forced disappearances, torture, rapes, destruction of properties and life takes place. Curfew imposed. Properties confiscated. Vehicles and travellers frisked. Houses burnt down. Livelihoods destroyed. Villager grouped together. Collective fines were imposed on entire villages and leaders were arrested and jailed. Sacred places were desacralised. In this situation,  people often respond with violent means. Hence, AFSPA fuels vicious cycle of conflict and violence in the region. 

HOW DO PEOPLE DESCRIBE ABOUT AFSPA? Former MP, Mr. Laishram Achaw Singh, said, ‘This is a black law. This piece of legislation violates democratic measure and also a reactionary one.’ Justice W. A. Shishak, said that ‘it is not fair that India use the law that was used by the British against its own citizens.’ Others said that AFSPA is a draconian law, an inhuman law, a racial law and a region specific law.  When an area is declared ‘disturbed’ and AFSPA imposed, the right to freedom of life and livelihood, the freedom of expression and the right to equality before the law is taken away. The State’s administration is also completely paralysed. 

WHY IS AFSPA STILL IMPOSED? The first reason could bethat the Government of India needs to station large number of military personnel in this strategic region to protect her security from external threat. The second reason could be that India’s push for international trade along with megadevelopmental projects (Act East Policy) requires large number of armed forces to control the indigenous people whose life and livelihoods will be directly affected and might rise in protest. The third reason could be that some army officers wanted to earn medals and also get promotion in the name of counter insurgency operation. A deeper analysis shows that this law, that is supposedly made to maintain law and order is, in fact, operating in the opposite way. 

CONCLUDING REMARK: Even after the celebration of 75thAnniversary of Independence, India continues to seek help from this outdated post-independent British inhuman law. There can’t be a greater lie for India than claiming to be practicing democratic principles but employing AFSPA to control its citizens with iron hand. In this land of Mahatma Gandhi, Indian leadership should be ashamed of continuously using AFSPA as a means of addressing the unfulfilled aspiration of the indigenous tribal people. Several decades have passed but still then they lack creative thinking inbringing out new mechanism to deal with the Naga’s problem. Indian leadership are yet to shed off its old self, grow into maturity and have the guts to repeal AFSPA. In the mean time, the Naga public should not sleep peacefully under this black law. We should wake up and extend our full support to those who are fighting for repeal of AFSPA from our land. Political talk needs conducive atmosphere, not a warlike situation, to reach a long lasting and honourable settlement. The solution that comes only through democratic process and peaceful means will pay dividend to both the Indians and the Nagas. This will usher in peace and progress in the entire north-eastern region. 

Kuknalim!

Z. K. Pahrii Pou. The author can be reached at zkpahr@gmail.com

Also read: Nehruvian approach to the Nagas and Northeast India

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