The killing of civilians in a botched ambush by the armed forces in Nagaland’s Mon district on Saturday and its violent fallout have put the spotlight on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958.
The death of 15 people — six of them coal miners “mistaken” as extremists — and a soldier over 24 hours of madness also threatens to cast a shadow on the 24-year-old Naga peace process besides undoing the military-civilian ties built over the last two decades.
Viewed as a draconian law in the northeast, a region troubled by decades of extremism, the AFSPA gives the armed forces the power to maintain public order in “disturbed areas”. It gives the armed forces the authority to use force or even open fire after warning a person found to be in contravention of the law.
The AFSPA also lets the armed forces arrest a person and enter or search premises without a warrant and ban the possession of firearms if “reasonable suspicion exists”.
In the northeast, the AFSPA is in force in Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, the Tirap, Changlang and Longding districts of Arunachal Pradesh and areas falling within the jurisdiction of eight police stations of the State bordering Assam. For Jammu and Kashmir, the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act, 1990, is in force.
The Ministry of Home Affairs extended the AFSPA for the umpteenth time through a notification on June 30 by declaring Nagaland a “disturbed area” and citing “dangerous condition”.
Call for repeal not anti-national
Binalakshmi Nepram, activist and founder of Manipur Gun Survivors’ Network, said the massacre was a reminder of how the AFSPA was a blot on India’s pride as the world’s largest democracy. “The call for repealing AFSPA is not anti-national. The British left India in 1947 and colonial laws such as AFSPA must also go,” she said.
Monalisa Changkija, author and founder-editor of Dimapur-based Nagaland Page agreed. She said the Mon massacre, the kind Nagaland did not witness even during the days of conflict, would have a bearing on the peace process.
Chuba Ozukum, adviser to Naga Hoho, the apex body of all Naga tribes, said. “The AFSPA gives the armed forces the licence to kill. And when they carry out such shameful operations without keeping the local police in the loop, as has been the practice for long, it gives the message that the Centre just does not care about the peace process,” he told The Hindu .
The peace process began in August 1997 after the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, or the NSCN (I-M), declared a ceasefire. Its main rival, the NSCN (Khaplang), came on board the peace process in 2001 but walked out of the truce in March 2015.
No clarity on peace process
Several factions of the NSCN (K) joined the peace process between 2001 and 2021. There is no clarity on the peace process that culminated in the Framework Agreement the Centre had signed with the NSCN (I-M) in 2015 and the Agreed Position signed with the rival Naga National Political Groups in 2017.
After the death of its chief S.S. Khaplang, the NSCN (K) became the NSCN (K-Yung Aung) and it has along with allies such as the United National Front of Asom (Independent) had several run-ins with the armed forces since 2015. The killing of 18 Dogra Regiment soldiers in Manipur in June 2015 was one such incident.
The Army and the paramilitary Assam Rifles have been conducting operations in Nagaland primarily against the NSCN (K-YA) in Mon and southern Arunachal Pradesh bordering Myanmar where the outfit is based. The December 4 operation was apparently based on intelligence about the movement of the NSCN (K-YA) cadres in the area.
The Nagaland police filed an FIR against the soldiers of the 21 Para Regiment, an elite force of the Army, charging them with murder. Based in adjoining Assam, this force usually carries out covert operations at Oting village cleared at a very high level.
The NSCN (I-M), in a statement, said the “barbaric killing” of 15 people at Oting was a “black day” for the Nagas. The bloodbath was a “repeat of the past to suppress the legitimate Naga political movement”, it said.
“The Indian security forces will never be able to wash its hands off, smeared with the blood of innocent Nagas” notwithstanding its “nonsensical statement” linked to credible intelligence reports of movement of insurgents, the NSCN (I-M) said.
Mr. Ozukum said one least expected such an operation in the eastern part of Nagaland that has been friendlier with the Centre than the other parts of the Naga-inhabited areas. “The mindless killings have only indicated that the political negotiations [peace process] have no future. The Government of India is not conveying that it is going to accept or recognise our rights,” he said.
Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio and his Meghalaya counterpart Conrad K. Sangma — both allies of the BJP — have joined the scrap-AFSPA chorus. “Nagaland and the Naga people have always opposed the AFSPA. It should be repealed,” Mr. Rio said.