Towards the end of 2021, the Centre and the state governments extended the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) for another six months in Nagaland and one year in Manipur, a routine move that has sparked many criticisms. The states are still mourning the killing of 14 civilians in a botched army operation. The Naga Students Federation (NSF) and the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA) – a civil society organisation that has led the protests against AFSPA for decades – have called it an insensitive move at a critical period.
With government apathy being obvious, it is the peace-loving citizens who need to show resistance through peaceful means. Citizens in many parts of the world have been able to reverse exploitative laws on the basis of mass resistance movements and there is no doubt that North-East too can do the same.
To understand the importance of resistance movements, we can refer to the mechanism of power that operates in any modern governance. The French philosopher Michel Foucault posits that power transitioned from a very deductive form to a positive one starting the seventeenth century. It transitioned from the juridico-discursive deductive form that decides the right to life/death, taxes and privileges to biopower that seeks to optimize life through various governmental interventions. However, Foucault is quick to caution that the biopower which took concrete form in the nineteenth century did not replace the deductive form of power, rather it worked in tandem through the various technologies of power.
Of late, the state of Manipur has publicized its exercise of biopower through its vested interest in development projects that take into account health, housing, skills, infrastructure and urban development, that aim to optimize life. Concurrent to these governmental inventions is the extension of Disturbed Area Act that automatically entrench the Armed Forces Special Power Act deeper in the state. This sovereign power which decides life and death now manifests as power that safeguard the population which is the subject of governance. Now exceptional power is not uncommon to statecraft but the repeated extension of disturbed areas act is against the grain as it introduces a permanent state of exception that can turn into carnage in a blink of an eye.
This extension came across like a walking contradiction on the part of the Manipur BJP government that has flirted with the idea of repealing AFSPA following the Oting firing at Mon, Nagaland. Now this issue of repealing AFSPA has become key in the poll bound state of Manipur, with the Congress party committed to repeal the act in its first cabinet meeting , should they come into power. Here we must be quick to note that the Congress in its three terms from 2002-17 never really made such a commitment, rather on the flipside it broke the spirit of the iron lady Irom Sharmila who was on a hunger strike to repeal this act. In this conundrum, the power to shape our lives and society lies not with us, but with those who already decided for us before we could.
Such forms of governmentality only produce docile subjects and not citizens with rights. However, integral to power is resistance, which Foucault argues is a constituent part of power. Here resistance should be understood as not wanting to be governed “like that, by these people and at that price”. Resistance is the demonstration for an alternate form of government or new constellation of power that is more desirable. We have seen a few instances of such resistance. One, the flash naked protest by Meitei women at Kangla Fort occupied by the armed forces. Two, the hunger protest by Irom Sharmila to repeal AFSPA. Such acts of resistance induce a new subjectivity in the people which is that of defiant individuals who refuse to be governed like the way they have been. But these resistances have dusked in the past and Manipur seems to have embraced the abnormal as the normal which is always looming at the back.
So is resistance in this instance futile? I guess not, seeing the performance of citizenship rights in Nagaland. On January 10, the Nagas started a two-day walkathon from Dimapur to Kohima, the capital of Nagaland, to protest against the extension of AFSPA and to repeal it. It is in such a form that we can now expect certain agonism to alter the way of governance. Such resistance invokes citizenship rights: freedom of assembly, freedom of association and freedom of speech which give visibility and legitimacy to resistance. It also produces new subjectivity of that of a new and daring kind.
This walkathon has the potential to churn a revolution, should more waves of protest swarm in and question the very legitimacy of this exceptional law that is permanently entrenched in governance. For exceptional law should be imposed only in exceptional cases, as was the case of the ancient Rome law Iustitium which was imposed during a sovereign's death, interregnum and foreign invasion. For cynics, insurgency is still a threat, but since the local state governments claim the rule of law as the order, a military law should be withdrawn and stop the walking contradiction.
About the author: Boniface G Kamei belongs to the Rongmei Naga tribe of Manipur, India. He is currently a research scholar at the University of Hyderabad.