The security forces have always been working under trying circumstances in the North East, but with admirable restraint
The usual suspects are out in the open again. They never go away. They just hibernate, waiting for the right time to wake up. They thrive on tragedies and disasters. And they get one in Nagaland on 4 December 2021.
So, soon after the unfortunate incident in Nagaland’s Mon district, where 19 people were killed in a case of mistaken identity by the security forces — an act for which the Government of India has expressed deep regret and the army has ordered an investigation at the highest level — the demand for the repeal of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has renewed again.
The AFSPA grants the Army “special powers” to shoot to kill, destroy property and temporarily detain suspects. Army personnel acting under the AFSPA are immune from all actions taken under other laws of the Indian Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code and civil suits unless otherwise sanctioned by the Central government.
Before even going into the details of whether the army is doing a good job or not, or whether it’s so detested as it is made out to be, the fact we civilians need to understand is that the army is called upon to control the situation, whether in the North East or Kashmir, after the civil administration fails to control the situation. According to the Constitution, the armed forces cannot be deployed against Indian citizens unless the government asks them to intervene in a situation that the government is unable to handle. In short, the army is called in only after the failure of the civil administration, thus threatening the integrity of the country.
The woolly-headed liberals need to realise that the military is designed to be tough, and not civil. And if, for some reasons, the civil administration fails to do its job, then to expect the military to perform in a civilian ecosystem is both unfair to the army, which is trained to be tough, as well as dangerous for national security. You won’t want a bleeding-heart military guarding our borders especially with neighbours like China and Pakistan waiting to pounce upon us at the first opportunity.
So, the irony is apparent: We train our soldiers to be non-civilian. And then, thanks to our abject administrative failures, we want them to behave like civilians! To the credit of our forces, they have managed to tread this fine line well. One needs to look beyond one’s preconceived ideological blinders to see how the forces have, by and large, operated in civilian areas. It may come as a surprise to many who find excuses to castigate the army, but the forces are largely respected and honoured by civilians.
I saw it firsthand as a student of an Assam Rifles school in Tuensang district of Nagaland. Son of an academician hailing from Bihar who spent over three decades in Nagaland, I would venture alone in the regimented areas and not even as an exception I found a jawan or an officer misbehaving with me or any other civilian. One of the fondest memories being in the Assam Rifles canteen where I would often go to get some stuff on discount and the person in charge would indulge me. “Kya chahiye bachche (what do you want, kid),” he would gently ask me.
They were my heroes. They will always be! More so now, when I know very well that they are the ones who cover up our failures. And they bring the situation back in control every time it seems to be too late. As for the annual home ministry report of 2019-20, the security situation in the North East has improved substantially since 2014. The last six years have seen a significant decline in insurgency incidents by 70 percent, casualties of security forces personnel by 78 percent and civilian deaths by 80 percent in the region. The year 2019 recorded the lowest insurgency incidents and casualties among civilians and security forces during the last two decades since 1997.
Thanks to the efforts of the security forces, while Tripura, Sikkim and Mizoram are completely free from insurgency, there is a marked improvement in the security situation in other states of the region. In 2019, insurgency-related violence declined by 87 percent in Meghalaya, 39 percent in Assam, 3 percent in Arunachal Pradesh and 1 percent in Manipur as compared to 2018. In 2019, Manipur remained the most violent state accounting for about 57 percent of the total incidents in the region.
As for Nagaland, there were 42 insurgency-related incidents reported in the state in 2019. NSCN-IM accounted for about 50 percent of the insurgency incidents during 2019. The number of civilians’ and security forces’ deaths has come down by 50 percent and kidnapping/abduction cases declined by 22 percent between 2018 and 2019.
AFSPA, however, does not mean that atrocities or human rights violations should be condoned. The army, to its credit, has been serious about investigating abuses. The punishments awarded by the forces are severe and exemplary, including dismissal from service and life imprisonment. In the Mon killings too, the army moved in quickly to order a high-level investigation into the dastardly incident. The government, instead of repealing the special law, must put in place a mechanism that ensures any wrongdoer is not spared. And, strengthen the civilian system so that the army, in the first place, is not given the task of maintaining law and order in a region.
Perception and reality can be far off the mark, especially in a region distant from Delhi. The perception was that Irom Sharmila, being the “beacon of hope” in Manipur, would win her Assembly seat in the 2017 polls. The reality was she received less than 100 votes. The perception is that the army indulges in human rights violations in the region. The fact says that there are numerous human rights organisations in the Northeast that act as an overground front for the insurgent groups, working overtime to implicate the forces in legal, human rights tangles. The fact is, as Jaideep Saikia wrote in an incisive article in FP, that those targeting security forces after the Mon killings must look into an incident in Manipur’s Pherzawl district on 3-4 December when the Vang Battalion of the Assam Rifles was in the process of vacating their operating base: The locals came out in large numbers to request the Assam Rifles not to move out of the area!
The security forces have always been working under trying circumstances, but with admirable restraint. BB Kumar, in his book Naga Identity, mentions how in the 1950s, the charges of the army’s “atrocities” were highly exaggerated, so much so that Keneth Kerhuo, the then Field Director of the Angami Baptist Mission, said: “Owing to the violent activities of the Naga Home Guards, most of the Churches stopped functioning in Naga Hills sometime ago. The villages were so terror-stricken that they could not even enter their own homes… Thanks to the Army, confidence has returned to the villages, and the peaceful Nagas are able to look after their affairs unafraid.”
A group of prominent Nagas, including JB Jasokie, Keneth Kerhuo, Ruzhukhrie Sekhose, Khiya, Luci Dino, Dzobvunno and Kerino Zinyu were quite shocked to hear that the Nagas “in their zeal to vilify officers and men of the armed forces, speak lightheartedly of Naga women-folk and even describe their own daughters, sisters and wives as harlots and prostitutes”. They went to the extent of saying that “no armed force in the world could have behaved better than the Indian armed forces have done in Naga Hills”.
Last but not the least, the North East problem is a Nehruvian gift, though unlike Kashmir and China/Tibet blunders, it is not much talked about. The problem found its origins in, first, Nehruvian excitement, and then indifference. Two anecdotes would set the tone.
One, Nehru gifted the statehood to Nagas way too easily and early. Even literally he didn’t wait for the interim period of three years to end. The dialogue between P Shilu Ao, the then chief executive councillor, and prime minister Nehru on the subject of ending the interim period is interesting. It goes as follows:
Nehru: The interim period is for three years?
Shilu Ao: Your gesture to end it much before the time will be well received.
Nehru: But the violence continues and the hostiles are intractable.
Shilu Ao: Leave it to us to deal with our own kith and kin. I will request you to inaugurate the state.
Nehru: I shall send our philosopher-statesman (President S Radhakrishnan) to inaugurate the state. He is a holy soul. His blessing shall bring peace and amity.
Nagas got the state on a platter. And within two years, in 1965, a section of Nagas started demanding a Sikkim-like status for the state! So much for Shilu Ao’s promise to deal with his own kith and kin! And, worse, it set a wrong precedent in the region: That the Centre can be blackmailed; that violence pays. Also, it provoked other regions to seek statehoods, as in the case with Mizoram.
The second anecdote is equally interesting. Ramachandra Guha, in his book Savaging the Civilised, gives another facet of Nehru: This time, his indifference for the Nagas! Guha recounts a story of Nehru’s visit to Nagaland. It so happened that Nehru reached the public meeting late, by which time the crowd had started dispersing. “His daughter Indira Gandhi, speaking unwittingly into the live microphone, said agitatedly, ‘Papa, wo jaa rahe hain’ (father, they are all going). Nehru replied, gravely, ‘Haan beti, mein dekh raha hoon’ (yes, daughter, I can see them go),” writes Guha. Nehru, being an egotistical person, never visited Nagaland again!
Nehru and his ideological followers erred on one more count: To see the North East as the “other”. To perceive the region not as an extension of Indian civilisational history. The fact is the region, since time immemorial, was never on the sidelines of Indian history — culturally, socially, and even politically — till it started getting detached after a series of Muslim invasions, and finally, the British colonial mischief completely shut the doors of the North East on the rest of Indians. Far from what eminent sociologist MN Srinivas would want us to believe with his Sanskritisation theory, it was the other way round: The region witnessed de-Sanskritisation of culture.
Nehru, unfortunately, further pushed the de-Sanskritisation of the region by perpetuating the British policy on the Northeast, inherently believing that these people were “outsiders”. This explains his post-Independence policy of the North East’s “splendid isolation”, which in a way turned the entire region into a sort of a “human sanctuary”. This policy not just kept the people backwards, aloof, and isolated, but also with a passage of time, pushed them away from the national mainstream.
Noted socialist Ram Manohar Lohia warned about the consequences of this isolationist policy. “The hill tribes kept in isolation and without contact with the rest of India, except through government servants and contractors, became ripe for foreign plucking. It was precisely such isolation which finished up Tibet…,” he said, adding: “If India does not modernise her frontiersmen and hill tribes, China will soon enough do so in a barbarous way.” Indeed a prescient statement just three years before the disastrous India-China war!
The Modi government, in the past seven years, has made significant amends to scrap the Nehruvian idea of “splendid isolation” for the Northeast. One can gauge the change from the fact that during his first term, Prime Minister Modi undertook more than 30 visits to the region. And within 100 days of Modi 2.0, no less than 200 Northeast-related projects worth Rs 3,000 crore were announced.
The North East is no longer a periphery. But the challenge still remains. For, the vested elements who want the region on the edge, so that the Centre keeps pushing unaccounted money, are still there—muted but very much in existence. They remain in hibernation till a tragedy strikes. And with the Mon killings, they are wide awake again. Ready to hit India and its interest. The armed forces and the AFSPA are just an excuse.
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