On 4 December 2021, the Indian Army’s 21 Para Special Forces opened fire on a civilian truck, carrying mostly coal miners, in Nagaland’s Mon district. The security forces killed fourteen civilians, claiming they had acted on a tip-off on the movement of insurgents. The death of the miners led to violent clashes between the locals and military troops, further slaying seven civilians and a soldier.
The Army and the Ministry of Home Affairs [MHA] profoundly regretted the incident as a case of “mistaken identity and “intelligence failure“. In the aftermath of the Mon incident, the MHA set up a seven-member panel to review the Armed Forces Special Powers Act [AFSPA] in Nagaland. The panel was supposed to submit its report by 9 February, which was extended to 26 March.
However, counterintuitively, the MHA also declared Nagaland as a ‘disturbed area’ and extended AFSPA in the state by six months.
AFSPA in Nagaland
The AFSPA was introduced to control the volatile situation in the region. However, the AFSPA has become a model for human rights violations over the years. There is a general lack of data around such violations in the public domain. Nevertheless, the grievances emanating from the presence of AFSPA are evident from the incongruence in available data.
In 2015, civilians and insurgent deaths data according to South Asian Terrorism Portal [SATP] are 14 and 24. The data presented in the Rajya Sabha show civilian and insurgent deaths at 9 and 29. The inconsistencies in data, or lack thereof, generally indicate lack of transparency and accountability on part of government agencies towards human rights violations. According to the National Human Rights Commission, in 2015, the pendency of cases on custodial deaths stood at 12.
Amidst the pre-existing anger towards AFSPA and the impunity given to security forces under the Act, the violence in the Mon district has worsened the current situation towards a peace process in the state. In 2021, the Nagaland Assembly had demanded the repeal of AFSPA along with an apology from the government authorities.
Removal of AFSPA: A view from other states
The demand for greater autonomy and sovereignty, along with the recourse to armed rebellion is a common feature of insurgencies in the northeastern states. Hence, to assess the feasibility of revoking AFSPA from Nagaland, we look at other northeastern states, particularly Mizoram where the AFSPA was revoked.
Previously, the government had revoked AFSPA from Mizoram in 1986, Meghalaya in 2018, and parts of Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura in 2015. In all of the states, the government had seemingly successfully weakened the respective insurgent groups before repealing the AFSPA.
In Mizoram, this weakening was done through a structured and sustained response over time with both military offensives and political engagement. The next subsection takes a deeper look into the state’s response towards the Mizo insurgency.
Mizoram Conflict: Origin and State Response
The insurgency in Mizoram started with the setting up of the Mizo National Front [MNF] in 1961 by Pu Laldenga. The insurgent group demanded a separate statehood for the Mizos and an independent Mizoram.
As discussed below, the insurgency appears to be a reaction to a chain of events, starting from a famine that hit Mizoram in 1959. Inadequate relief response by the Assam government led to resentment among the Mizo people.
Since separatist tendencies had already existed, the inadequate state response only increased the feeling further. In March 1966, the Mizo Hills were declared as a disturbed area under the ‘Assam Disturbed Areas Act’, thereby bringing the AFSPA into effect. Soon, the Indian Air Force [IAF] flew over Aizawl, among other areas, with gunfire and bombs to curb the insurgency. These attacks inflicted heavy casualties, both civil and insurgent, and destroyed large parts of the city.
In 1967, a plan called ‘grouping of villages’ was introduced to curb the MNF controlled interior villages in Mizoram. These villages were categorised as ‘protected and progressive villages’ [PPVs] by the Central government. However, the PPVs can be viewed as nothing less than concentration camps.
The villages, grouped presumably to safeguard the villagers from the MNF, cut the insurgents’ food and money supply. A significant impact of these groupings was the dislocation of the people from their original villages where jhum or shifting cultivation was the primary source of livelihood and food security. The villagers subsequently started jhum cultivation in the PPVs. However, the scarcity of land led to a crippling food shortage (ibid).
Subsequently, the first round of discussions for a peace settlement began between the MNF and the GoI in 1976. The MNF and the GoI de-escalated violence in the region through meetings and greater transparency in goals and objectives.
The MNF agreed to suspend its violent activities, and the GoI decided to stop its military operations in the region. Since MNF was the dominant insurgent party in the region, it was easier to bring a peace settlement and resolve the conflict.
AFSPA in Mizoram: Lessons for Nagaland from Mizoram
The Church played an essential role in determining the grievances of the Mizos who had suffered abuse due to AFSPA. In 1972, Mizoram was initially converted to a Union Territory through negotiations.
The Mizoram People’s Conference [MPF] was elected for a full term in 1979. In light of a stable political environment conducive for peace talks, the Indian National Congress returned to power with the support of the MPF.
On 30 June 1986, the Mizo Peace Accord was signed, which granted statehood to Mizoram, on February 20, 1987 as per the Statehood Act of 1986. In 1986, the GoI officially repealed AFSPA from the state.
The peace talks in Mizoram were achievable only with a marked decline in the insurgency. The decline in insurgency was a result of punitive action using the armed forces and village groupings. Both had drastic consequences for civilians in the region. Simultaneously, the GoI relied on political engagement with the Mizo insurgents.
This engagement included the preservation of Mizo customary laws and de-radicalisation efforts by the Church. A marked decline in violence could also be seen in neighbouring states like Tripura, Meghalaya, and Arunachal Pradesh where AFSPA has been repealed in recent years.
In Nagaland, casualty figures for civilians and insurgents were relatively higher during 2009-2014. Primary reasons for this include intra-militant killings, extortions, and law and order problems. However, a significant decline in the last 2-3 years can be seen. Three killings were recorded in Nagaland in 2018-2019 and two in 2020-2021.
The possibility of revoking AFSPA from Nagaland rests on the government’s review panel providing a roadmap for the peace process. This would require an inquiry into the AFSPA and the grievances related to it among the Naga people.
The key problem, however, is the lack of data and transparency around rights violations. Amidst all this, the Mon incident has the potential to be a hindrance as it has only heightened mistrust and grievances.
A significant issue in the Naga conflict has been the presence of different factions, all fighting for Greater Nagalim. The government, over the years, has failed to bring all stakeholders to the negotiation table. This has created multiple sources of grievance and weakened the peace process. Amidst this situation, the recent killings in Mon and the extension of the AFSPA could resuscitate the Nagas vs India narrative (us vs them).
However, after analysing patterns from other states like Mizoram, one can say that the conditions in Nagaland are ripe for revoking the AFSPA. Low insurgency rate and an ongoing peace process are two conditions that make the revocation of the law more feasible.
The way forward should include resolution of grievances, confidence-building, and a time-bound plan for the completion of the peace process, with an approach that would benefit both parties.