What happened in the Mon District of Nagaland on December 4th has once again brought the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) 1958 back to the centerstage. On that day, the 21 Para Special forces of the Indian Army open fired at a truck carrying civilians killing 6 men who were returning from work. The ensuing violence resulted in a total death of 14 civilians.
The incident sparked massive outpourings of anger and grief in the North-East. Protest demonstrations were held in Manipur and Nagaland, where thousands of people demanded that AFSPA be repealed. With the killing of civilians in Nagaland, the civilian casualties in the insurgency-hit North East states has reached a three year high.
AFSPA is seen as a draconian law as it allows for armed forces to be conferred with 'special powers', in any region designated as a 'disturbed area'. AFSPA provides unlimited powers to security forces to shoot at sight, arrest anybody without a warrant, and carry out searches without a warrant. According to many critics, AFSPA allows for blatant misuse of power as the Army faces no consequences for their actions even when it kills people in AFSPA governed areas.
The United Nation, the Human Rights Watch, and The South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre, have all sought a repeal of the Act. The UN considers the AFSPA to be a "tool of state abuse, oppression and discrimination".
As outrage against the brutality in Nagaland builds momentum, it is important to know that the repeal of AFSPA is possible and that it has happened in the past. States such as Punjab, Tripura, and Meghalaya, were originally under AFSPA but all states repealed the Act in the past few years. It was first repealed in Punjab, then in Tripura in 2015, and finally in Meghalaya in 2018.
The case study of Tripura shows that public appeasement and overall development of the state can contribute to the ceasefire between the Army and the militants.
AFSPA was first enforced in Tripura on 16 February, 1997 when terrorism was at its peak in the state. There were two major separatist groups in the region– the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF). The two outfits came up with a secessionist agenda, disputed the merger of the kingdom of Tripura with the Indian Union, demanded sovereignty for Tripura, deportation of “illegal migrants,” the implementation of the Tripura merger agreement and the restoration of land to the tribal people under the Tripura Land Reform Act, 1960.
According to an article in The Hindu, the militancy was countered through a sustained effort by the state government which invested in confidence building between the state and the militant groups. Rehabilitation packages were offered to militants who wanted to return to civilian life.
Some of the reasons behind insurgency in the state was a sense of alienation that the indigenous people felt from the rest of the country. More importantly, Tripura faced a lot of immigration from Bangladesh during and after India’s Independence. The tribals were pushed to the hills, and the politics and administration in the State was dominated by the Bengali speaking locals and migrants. The local indigenous population became a minority due to the huge demographic shift. Insurgency started as a protest movement against this phenomenon.
The government reached out to the indigenous people through a movement to deliver better health care, rural connectivity, drinking water supply, employment and income accretion. Socio-economic advancement and a change in the quality of life were ushered in. The outcomes were active community participation in the development process and in the fight against insurgency, the militants' return to the mainstream and consequential retreat from insurgency.
If the removal of AFSPA is possible in the above states, it is possible in the rest of the North-East too.
This article is created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.