Why does Nagaland need AFSPA?
If AFSPA is removed, it will enable insurgent groups in Nagaland to re-arm and overwhelm the state’s security apparatus
Last year on December 30, the Centre extended AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) in Nagaland for a further six months. This, even while a committee composed by the Centre, headed by a secretary, tasked to examine the possibility of withdrawing the act has begun its assessment. The Nagaland assembly had passed a resolution to withdraw the act after the encounter at Mon which left at least 15 civilians and one army personal dead as also many army personnel injured.
High level inquiries into the incident composed by the army and state authorities are assessing what led to the deaths. Civilians have shared their statements with the army inquiry, while the state inquiry has interacted with army personnel involved in the encounter. This is possibly the first time that both sides are sharing information to ensure that a correct unbiased assessment is made, and a true picture emerges. The army has already offered its regrets over the killings and announced it would share its findings with the public.
The extension of AFSPA was criticized my multiple Naga bodies. The Global Naga Forum criticizing the extension commented, “The leaders of state governments in the region, including Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Manipur have appealed for the removal of AFSPA. The people and civil society of the region have long wanted AFSPA to be repealed.”
The Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party along with several tribal bodies and Non-Government Organizations had also protested the extension. There have been organized marches and protests in different parts of the state demanding its repeal.
The critics of AFSPA claim the act is being misused by security forces. However, it is only after state and central police forces have failed in managing the internal security environment, the army is brought in.
The army would prefer being in barracks handling external security, enabling internal security forces to handle the situation, rather than being embroiled in the same. State governments have demanded repealing of AFSPA without creating capabilities for their own forces to control the situation.
Interestingly, AFSPA was first enacted for the Naga Hills in 1958 enabling deployment of the army. It was success achieved by the army which led to the start of peace talks between different Naga groups and the government.
Talks have been in progress, in some form, for over two decades. If talks have to move forward, it can only happen from a position of strength. No government has ever succeeded in discussions from a position of weakness. Simultaneously, there is no doubt that mutual trust and acceptable demands are essential for talks to succeed.
A major breakthrough in talks between the Centre and Naga groups came through in 2015 when a framework agreement was inked aimed at finding a lasting solution to the Naga insurgency. Since then, there has been little move forward.
The interlocutor who inked the agreement on behalf of the Indian government was RN Ravi. Talks stalled in early 2020 when the main group, NSCN (IM) refused to hold any further dialogue with RN Ravi, post comments made by him as the Governor of Nagaland.
Prior to the Mon incident, discussions on Naga autonomy, under the 2015 framework had commenced between the new interlocutor, AK Mishra, and select Naga insurgent groups alongside Naga National Political Groups.
The demand for greater Nagalim to include Naga dominant areas of Assam, Manipur, Arunachal and Myanmar had already been rejected by the Indian government. The Indian government was also unwilling to consider the demand for a separate flag and constitution, as it was against democratic norms. This was being construed by Naga representatives as impacting ‘Naga pride’.
Another reason for stumbling in talks was constricting the illegal tax collections of the NSCN (IM), as part of the 2015 agreement. A dwindling cash supply began to impact NSCN (IM) leadership, and they began invoking the aspect of Naga Pride.
Requests by elders, church and other civil groups for continuing talks have had little impact on the NSCN (IM). China was also pushing groups to back away. Development had opened employment avenues reducing youth joining NSCN ranks, which further hurt their prestige.
Evidently, there is a breakdown in trust on all sides. Many blamed the government, but the fact is that the NSCN (IM) popularity and control was waning, which was unacceptable to them, compelling them to raise demands unacceptable to the Indian government.
Simultaneously, there was competition emerging for NSCN (IM) from other groups including the NSCN (K) and its faction NSCN (YA), which are far more violent, well-armed and remain outside the framework of dialogue. Incidentally, the ambush laid by the Special Forces at Mon was targeting the NSCN (YA) group, which was expected to transit through the area.
These groups have been against the ceasefire and talks. The government believes that if AFSPA is removed, it will enable these groups to re-arm, reorient and overwhelm the security apparatus of the state. This would result in stalling of talks and pushing back the success achieved.
The scenario is compounded by insecurity in Myanmar. The Myanmar army or the Tatmadaw is currently focussing on the anti-national movement, post the military takeover. Anti-India terrorist groups located across the border are witnessing greater freedom. Since the border is open and porous these groups have the ability to hit and run, as the recent attack which claimed the life of Col Viplav Tripathi.
Instability on borders with China implies that it would attempt to influence groups operating in the Northeast to add to insecurity in the region. With removal of AFSPA, even the Assam Rifles, which is the net security provider in the region will be compelled to take permission for every operation which it launches, adding to time delays and early warning to insurgent groups. With the ongoing agitation on the Mon incident, the Assam Rifles has already curtailed its operations in the district. In case the state police forces remain weak, the situation would reverse to that of 1958, which the nation does not desire.
The slowing down of talks due to breaking of trust and unacceptable demands is pushing the region once again into violence. Unless influential groups in the region including the Church push insurgent groups to resume dialogue with the intention of finding a lasting solution, peace will elude. AFSPA is being exploited to provide insurgent groups the upper hand in discussions, something no government in Delhi can accept. Simultaneously, to build trust with the local populace the army must share its findings of the investigation into the Mon incident.
***The writer is a security and strategic affairs expert; views expressed are his personal