Emergency in the Northeast?
By Walter Fernandes
In June 1995 a day after the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the state of Emergency, Ms Nandita Haksar, the human rights lawyer was giving a lecture in Delhi on the Northeast. A prominent human rights activist who had taken an active part in the commemoration asked her “why did you take the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) to Amnesty International? That is anti-national. You should have settled it within India.” Haksar replied “How many of you have taken up AFSPA or any other issue concerning the Northeast at the national level? If you do not take it up what alternative do the people of the region have other than internationalising the issue?” To it the human rights activist replied “They are terrorists and secessionists. The region needs AFSPA to save it for India. We cannot defend them.”
Once again on 25th June this year events will be organised to commemorate the Emergency. Statements will be made about the dictatorial mindset of some politicians. But very few mainland human rights activists will remember that since 1958 the Northeast has lived under the AFSPA before which the Emergency fades into insignificance. Many of them will even add that it is required to save the Northeast for “Free India”. In their turn human rights groups in the region that reject AFSPA are disillusioned by this ostrich like outlook and ask whether the Northeast will ever be free from such repression. They point out that much of India has ignored Iron Sharmila for eleven long years but it took Anna Hazare all of three days of fast to get the Government to act on his demands. They are aware of the atrocities committed during the Emergency. They do not deny the existence of militancy in the region. They only want the State to understand its causes and deal with them and not treat the conflicts only as a law and order issue.
Whether the conflicts are for sovereignty or to protect their right to be human, their causes are economic, social, political and identity related. Because of the failure of the economic decision makers to invest in productive jobs, 25 per cent of the workforce in the region is unemployed despite a high level of education. Those who fight for their rights feel that the mainland treats the region only as a source of raw material and a captive market for finished products. The unrest results from a combination of economic neglect and cultural degradation. But Delhi has treated them only as a law and order issue and has responded with the AFSPA. The Act has been in force in the region since 1958 and in Manipur since 1980. It gives extraordinary powers to the armed forces and confers immunity on them. For example a junior commissioned officer may arrest a person on mere suspicion of planning a terrorist act. If the arrested persons die they can be declared terrorists killed while escaping. They cannot be prosecuted for it. People have expressed their disillusionment with AFSPA in ways such as the “naked demonstration” of women in front of the Assam Rifles camp in Imphal after Manorama Devi was found dead the day after her arrest in 2004.
Persons who oppose AFSPA do not deny that the militants too commit atrocities. So they oppose repression by the security forces as well as violence by the militants particularly the use of child soldiers, extortion and killings. But they add that the State as a legally constituted body has greater responsibility than the underground does to protect these rights. However, violations by the State have increased. Women denounce repression more than men do because they have suffered the most during the years of armed struggle. Rape is a weapon used by the security forces. The underground often pitches their tent in a village and asks the villagers to feed them. The woman of the house has to part with the supplies she had stored to feed the family during the year. These abuses cannot be stopped by AFSPA.
At its enactment in 1958 AFSPA was presented as a response to insurgency. At that time Nagaland alone had an underground force. The Mizo resistance came much later. Today, Mizoram has enjoyed peace for 25 years but the number of militant outfits has multiplied in the remaining Sates. There are at least three Naga outfits. Assam has the ULFA and groups representing the Bodo, Dimasa, Karbi, Adivasi and others. Against two militant groups in 1980 Manipur today has nearly 30 outfits. Tripura has three groups and Meghalaya has four. One does not always know their origin. Some analysts say that a few groups have an ideology, that some others were set up by the intelligence agencies and that many extortionist groups use the underground façade for their own benefit.
Whatever their origin, their growing numbers show that the AFSPA is not the answer to the problems of the region. One can solve its problems only by tackling the social, economic and cultural issues and by respecting diversity. Since because of their ethnic difference mainland India tends to view them as a problem they feel insecure. The North Easterners living outside the region experience distrust and feel that they are treated not as Indians but as “Chinkies” and that their culture is not considered Indian since it is different from the dominant Gangetic valley culture. In reality their Mongoloid identity can be an asset. They can be a gateway to Southeast Asia and China. But much of mainland India seems to view their “Chinky” features as a threat and wonder whether they are allies of the Chinese and of other “enemies”. Many in the region believe that the Centre views the diversity of the Northeast only as a problem and gives it a law and order interpretation.
AFSPA signifies this distrust that is visible also in the behaviour of the security forces. For example, more than once I have had the experience of the security forces stopping the bus I was travelling at the Nagaland border and making a body and luggage search of all the Nagas. But the non-Nagas were not examined. The security forces thus treat them as foreigners in their own land. They then blame them for considering themselves non-Indians and justify AFSPA on that count. One has to accept the fact that all such events have created an environment of distrust between the region and the mainland India.
AFSPA cannot remove such distrust. The security forces claim that if it is repealed they will have to leave the region. That is not true. Its repeal will only prevent them from enjoying immunity for the atrocities they commit. They will be held accountable for them. To remove this distrust the Centre has to initiate some confidence-building measures. What better measure can one have than repealing this anti-human Act?