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Why The Idea Of AFSPA Being Extended To All Of Arunachal Is Extremely Troubling

By Bikram Bora:

Incident 1: In the 1890s, a British military expedition was sent into the Mishmi Hills (presently in Arunachal Pradesh) region, north of Assam. Allegedly, certain inhabitants from the hills had committed a murder and abduction of people from the foothills. The expedition was sent to recover the captives. Following the expedition, Henry Cotton, chief commissioner of Assam, made the following remarks assessing the operations, “It was not possible to capture the murderers, who fled into the forest-clad hills on the approach of our troops. But the captives…have been recovered, and the principal offenders have been severely punished by the occupation and destruction of their villages.” [1]

Incident 2: In November 2000, in Malom town of Manipur, unknown assailants threw a grenade at a passing convoy of a paramilitary force. No one was hurt but the paramilitary personnel started firing indiscriminately at a nearby bus stop, killing 10 innocent civilian bystanders, including a 62-year-old woman and an 18-year-old National Bravery Award Winner.

AFSPA

These two incidents are quite similar. Firstly, some unknown assailants attack the officials, then the official forces retaliate, engage in indiscriminate violence to ‘punish’ the offenders and results in victimisation of innocents. In the first instance, entire villages in which the offenders lived were burnt, disregarding that many of the villagers were in fact innocent. In the second instance, all the bystanders were shot, without any inquiry. The only visible difference between them is that they are almost a century apart, the first one occurred in a colonial state and the second one in an independent democratic republic! The question that one needs to ask here is why a democratic republic mimics the oppressive military tactics of its colonial precursor, against its own citizen? The context for such mimicry is provided by an oppressive law; the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.

AFSPA provides even a non-commissioned officer of the army to detain or kill any suspicious person with impunity or search any premises without a warrant. While the act was at first introduced to curb insurgency in the north-east region, it later became prone to gross abuse by security personnel.

AFSPA has inherited many of its traits from a colonial ordinance of 1942. That particular ordinance was reportedly brought in to suppress the Quit India Movement. Ironically, successive governments of independent India have used an act derived from that same ordinance against its own citizens, by which constitutional right to equality and right to life enjoyed by the rest of the country has been suspended in parts of north-east for a long time.

Eminent political scientist Sanjib Baruah has suggested that the use of emergency-like powers, deployment of army along with civil administration and administrative habits associated with the ‘pacification’ of the ‘frontier’ regions, was a hallmark of British policy in north-east India. This ‘distrust’, regarding the frontiers did not disappear post-independence, as often many colonial techniques and institutions proved to be quite resilient in official circles, even after 1947. In a now oft-quoted letter to Nehru, Sardar Patel once said, “All along the Himalayas in the north and north-east, we have on our side of the frontier a population ethnologically and culturally not different from Tibetans and Mongoloids… The people inhabiting these portions have no established loyalty or devotion to India…” The paranoia about the ‘loyalty’ was so much that after 1962 one politician even suggested settling of 200,000 farmers from Punjab in Arunachal Pradesh, in order to facilitate the region’s assimilation into India! [2] AFSPA’s arrival can be seen as a by-product of the continuation of such paranoia and distrust.

The government have recently planned to extend AFSPA in the province of Arunachal Pradesh, citing reasons of disturbance in the districts bordering Assam. Earlier, the act was only applicable to the three easternmost districts of the state, Tirap, Changlang and Longding, bordering Assam, Myanmar and Nagaland. These three districts are allegedly a hotbed for insurgents from Nagaland and Assam. However, the rest of the state rarely had any other insurgent or secessionist groups present; thus remaining politically one of the least volatile of the north-eastern states. Hence, anyone who is aware of the social and political matrix of north-east region will find the idea of extending AFSPA to the entire state quite troubling.

AFSPA is applicable to Jammu and Kashmir and all the north-eastern states. However, the act starts functioning only when an area of a state or the entire state is declared as ‘disturbed’. Therefore, extending it to an apparently already ‘peaceful’ state defies the conventional wisdom. “AFSPA is not necessary in Arunachal Pradesh as we have no indigenous insurgent groups,” President of All Nyishi Students Union of Arunachal Pradesh, Byabang Joram said in a statement, opposing the move by the government.

However, this move comes at a time when the new regime is getting determined to restart the building of a mega hydropower dam in the Lower Subansiri region of the state. The construction of the dam has been in a halt for last three years, due to protests by various groups in both Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. The dam, being built in a zone of very high seismic activity, will apparently bring drastic and adverse changes for the ecosystem and the subsistence of people in both the states. The changes in topography are already visible with rivers drying up and instances of sand deposition on the banks increasing.

In fact in 2006, a scientific expert committee was set up after a tripartite meet between Assam Government, NHPC and All Assam Students Union. The committee in its report stated the site of the dam as not appropriate from geological and seismological point of view. So far, the civil society groups in Assam have been successful in mobilisation of local opinion against the dam. In such a context, it is not difficult to see the official point of view which would consider any dissent against the dam as a ‘disturbance’ and would not hesitate from declaring the area as ‘disturbed’. Assam is already within the ambit of AFSPA, now the time has come when it will be extended to Arunachal Pradesh as well!

In 1997, a fact-finding team of lawyers, journalists and human-rights activists visited north-east India, and in their report Where ‘Peacekeepers’ Have Declared War, mentioned that security forces in the region over last four decades have immensely abused AFSPA. In Assam, during the 90s, dozens of civilian women were allegedly raped and even killed by men in uniform with the pretext of anti-insurgency operations. Similar stories are also abound in Nagaland and most notably in Manipur, with the rape and murder of Manorama Devi during custody remaining one of the most heinous episodes in the entire chronology of the act’s existence and abuse.

The argument that the proponents of AFSPA put forward revolves solely around discourses of anti-insurgency or Chinese claims over Arunachal, bypassing its gross misuse. But, even if one disregards the abuses of AFSPA, how is its extension in a politically stable, virtually insurgency-free state like Arunachal Pradesh justified, even hypothetically? Arunachal Pradesh is a disputed territory, but one fails to see why the army needs a draconian act against its own citizens, in order to check and prevent Chinese designs!

As someone who grew up in the north-east and have witnessed the terror regime engendered by both insurgents and security forces, I have nothing but empathy for the cause demanding AFSPA’s scrapping. In fact, AFSPA has become the chief catalyst in perpetuation of insurgency in north-east. Insurgency which has remained a hydra-headed paradox till date cannot be dealt with only by repressive military measures from above.

Sanjib Baruah has argued that many insurgent groups in north-east India are quite unexceptional in their capacity to be a threat to the government. Many of them actually thrive only by taking advantage of the loopholes in the existing laws and by making contacts with political and business circles. A more pragmatic approach will be to understand how these loopholes are being created, rather than leaving the decision-making to a draconian law whose biggest victims are the civilians. Repressive measures and intense militarisation have in fact created a trust deficit among the population of almost entire north-east, in regard to all sorts of civic and democratic institutions.

In the course of the present times in the country, one can see many bizarre attempts of ‘indigenisation’ of ideas. What one actually needs is a more prudent decolonisation of the legal framework, by scrapping an act that is a constant reminder of colonial oppressive tactics. The trope of white-men’s burdens in the hills of north-east need not and must not translate into any other forms of nationalised-indigenised burdens. Not only one needs to put a check on further attempts of extension of AFSPA, but one also needs to engage with the politics of the north-east region beyond AFSPA, by transcending paradigms solely revolving around security concerns and militaristic approaches.

References:

1: Robert Reid, History of the Frontier Areas Bordering on Assam from 1883-1941 (Delhi: Eastern Publishing House, 1983): 207
2: Sanjib Baruah, “Nationalising Space: Cosmetic Federalism and the Politics of Development,” Development and Change 34, no. 5 (November 2003): 919

 

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