By Beni Sumer Yanthan
Your blood has drenched this earth
And soaked up our sins,
Your silent screams now hang above
This parched town
Where the mist gathers at dusk
To pay homage to your last moments.
Your body became the battlefield
Of a republic at war with itself,
Your song is now a bloodied dirge.
Know, in you passing, you have kindled
The fire in our revolutions,
Know, you have shaken
The poetry out of the mountains,
Know, into this night we go,
Smelling of coal and dust and blood
And splintered stories –
Into this new world with you.
On December 4, 2021, 14 civilians of Oting village in Mon district of Nagaland were “mistakenly” killed by armed forces led by the 21 Para Special Forces of the Indian army. This incident is not an isolated occurrence that has happened for the first time in history. Consequently, tensions are running high in the mountainous highlands of Nagaland, and the rising chorus of #RepealAFSPA is reverberating on social media.
While admitting it was an “unfortunate incident”, Home Minister Amit Shah gave a detailed report as to what happened on that fateful evening. The government has also constituted a high-level Special Investigation Team to look into the matter and prepare a report in one month. In a post-truth world, where truth is an inconvenience, and there is a rush to construct the “truth” to suit ideological frameworks, fabricated testimonies and fake news have become par for the course.
In this light, it is important to revisit and understand the historical evolution of AFSPA — Armed Forces Special Powers Act — and the implications it has had on the historical, political, cultural, psychological and economic reality of the Naga people, as it has effectively carved a destructive lineage birthing carnage after carnage since its inception in the 1950s.
The history of AFSPA goes back to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance of 1942 during the Quit India movement. It crystallised into Armed Forces Special Powers Act on September 11, 1958. When the Act first came into being in 1958, AFSPA was enforced in all the North East States, but it was removed from Tripura in 2015, Meghalaya in 2018 and partially from Arunachal Pradesh in 2019. The Act empowers the Indian Armed Forces with special ability to open fire, shoot at any building on the mere suspicion that it is storing arms and ammunition, enter and search without a warrant, and arrest any person who has committed a cognizable offence or against whom a reasonable suspicion exists that s/he has committed or is about to commit a cognizable offence in the “disturbed areas” of our country, with full immunity from any prosecution. The label of “disturbed area” is accorded by the government to a specific region or place if it is of the opinion that it is so and that the use of armed forces in aid of the civil power is necessary. As of 2021, AFSPA is active in the States of Jammu & Kashmir, Nagaland, Assam, and parts of Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh.
The Oting massacre of December 4th and 5th has once again exposed the vulnerable state of people who inhabit the 'Disturbed Areas'
During the 1950s, there was a revolution simmering in Nagaland and general discontent with the existing reality that left the Naga Tribal leaders feeling shortchanged. In 1951, the erstwhile Naga National Council (NNC) had undertaken a plebiscite where 99% of the Naga people had voted for “Free Sovereign Naga Nation”. With this unanimous decision, the NNC did not participate in the first general elections of 1952. The then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited Kohima in 1953 but since the NNC (now known as NSCN — National Socialist Council of Nagaland) was not allowed to hand over their memorandum to the Prime Minister, the Naga contingent walked out of the meeting. This was perhaps the first time that the Naga hills were labelled as “disturbed”. This epithet had grave repercussions in Naga society because it alienated the administration from the Naga public and the political freedom movement came to be viewed as an insurgency, and with this, the foundations of militarisation of North East India began. The Shillong Accord of 1975, Naga Peace Accord 2015, are just some of the agreements between both parties.
Today, there are a number of factions that have emerged as offshoots of the NSCN, with especially two major factions — namely the NSCN (K), which is led by SS Khaplang, and the NSCN (IM) currently led by Thuingaleng Muivah. The split of NSCN into these two factions took place in 1988. The first ceasefire agreement between an NSCN group with the government of India took place in 1997 — between NSCN (IM) and the government of India, and in 1998 with the NSCN (K). In 2007, the NSCN–U (Unification), which was an attempt at unifying the IM and K factions, was formed. There are also other factions such as NSCN-R (Reformation) and NSCN(K) — Niki Group, which have all signed ceasefire agreements with the government of India.
Amnesty International classified the Operation Bluebird of 1987 as “A case study of torture and extrajudicial executions in Manipur”. In this case, the Assam Rifles carried out a counter-insurgency operation after nine Indian security personnel were killed by the NSCN in Oinam village, Manipur. There were reports of death, torture and starvation, including rape and sexual abuse of several women, torture of around 300 men, burning of over 100 homes, destruction of property – churches, schools —, looting and forced labour.
The 1994 Mokokchung incident is another sordid consequence of AFSPA. In the afternoon of December 27th, gunfire heard from Mokokchung town (in Nagaland) led to confusion and chaos. This gunfire exchange between the NSCN and the 16 Maratha Light Infantry destroyed over 80 shops, burnt down 48 houses and scores of vehicles. The Indian military killed 7 civilians, besides burning alive 5 civilians, including a child. Many cases of rape were reported too.
These instances provide only a glimpse of the AFSPA culture. Collective fear, dread and anxiety pervade daily lives. Over the many decades, children have witnessed their parents grieving the loss of loved ones brutally killed. Fathers have had to bury their sons, and have seen their wives sexually abused by the Indian armed forces. There are many who remain hostile due to the long heritage of violence and conflict that they have inherited. Especially among the older generation, the memories of army brutality are a part of their tangible history. Growing up in a militarised society has normalised violence as part of everyday happenstance.
The fact that AFSPA is still an active Act in 2021 in a comparatively peaceful Nagaland is testimony to the fact that there has been a systemic failure in understanding the ground reality of the Nagas
There are also numerous other instances of counter-insurgency operations that have gone wrong as a result of human error, and several more narratives of everyday violence experienced by civilians who die undocumented deaths. In this fight for normalcy, law and order, the human body has become the most expensive collateral.
The fact that AFSPA is still an active Act in 2021 in a comparatively peaceful Nagaland is testimony to the fact that there has been a systemic failure in understanding the ground reality of the Nagas. Even statistically speaking, crime wise, Nagaland recorded one of the least number of crimes in the country. As per crime statistics from January to October 2020, the State registered 844 cases encompassing various heads such as rape, murder and extortion, while under customary, local and special laws, there were 392 cases. The decline may be partly due to lockdown but even in 2019, only 1,169 crime cases were registered and 658 cases under local laws.
The continued conflict between the NSCN groups and the Indian Army has also had a negative effect on development. The “Disturbed Areas” in general, and the ones at the periphery such as Mon, are massively underdeveloped and even getting to these areas by vehicle takes double the time as the road infrastructure is dismal. Because of this lack of basic infrastructure, any advanced sort of development is also hindered. Procuring newspapers, magazines, books, postal, and transport of goods, etc, are always delayed, which has, in turn, had a ripple effect on the local economy.
Moreover, the impact of AFSPA on the psychology of the Naga people is deep. It is a natural reaction of a people who have grown accustomed to this familiar dread and anxiety all their lives. There are many who remain hostile due to the long heritage of violence and conflict. For some, this is the only reality that they have known all their lives. A perpetual dread of the “Other” — who is an unnegotiable entity. AFSPA has effectively widened the gap between the people and the Centre, sowing seeds of mistrust and creating an environment and culture where the perpetrators of these grave crimes are not held accountable for their actions.
The demand for the repeal of AFSPA is now louder and stronger than it has ever been, and there is a hope that systemic changes will be done in a few months.
It is important that #RepealAFSPA be not read as antagonism and hatred towards army personnel, but instead towards all that they have, over the years, come to symbolise — ruthless, demonic aggression — through the immunity accorded to them even for their wrongs by the draconian Act
The Oting massacre of December 4 and 5 has once again, exposed the vulnerable state of people who inhabit the “Disturbed Areas”. People here have been, in both literal and metaphorical ways, made “disturbed” as they have internalised decades and decades of injustice for the wrongs they have experienced. This is the fate of people inhabiting the periphery of the national imagination, people who have since long felt isolated from the narrative of justice. What has happened in Oting must never happen again.
(The author, a poet, is Assistant Professor in Nagaland University)
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