Ever since I first heard of the killing of civilians by armed forces in Nagaland’s Mon district on Saturday, I have been trying my best to avoid the news. Whenever I see AFSPA-related news on my feed, I scroll quickly not to register any information. It has been my way of coping with my AFSPA-induced PTSD over the years.
In my state of Manipur, AFSPA has been in force for at least four decades now. As a child growing up in the 1990s, most of my childhood memories were mired with AFSPA-related news and incidents=. The Army and Assam Rifles would often conduct ‘combing operations’ looking for insurgents. They would enter households without any warrant, brutalize and arrest whoever they wanted, even sexually violate the women, without any repercussions. Nobody dared venture out after sunset fearing arrests. Having guests overnight was a strict no because if there’s an extra headcount during a combing operation, it meant serious trouble.
One particular incident that has been etched on my memory was from when I was 5 or 6 years old. It was a cold winter night, and we had gone to bed early. The whole village was pitch-dark as electricity was still a luxury. I remember being woken by my mom from my deep sleep with the words, “the army is here”, and I sensed fear in the atmosphere. Ever since I began understanding words, I had heard of such occurrences, but this was the first time that my young mind could recall experiencing. The men of the household were all taken outside whereas the women stayed indoors huddled together. In hushed voices, my aunts and mom whispered to each other to put on as many layers of clothing as possible to protect ourselves from the wandering hands of the paramilitary forces if they frisk the women. For the next half an hour or hour, I don’t remember how much exactly, we all remained in fear – fear of what was happening to the men outside, whether they were being beaten up or taken away to another place, and fear for our own safety from both sexual and physical violence. Later on, we learned that some of the men were stomped hard by the infamous ‘army boots’. The whole village went through the same ordeal on that dead of the night. Thankfully, nobody was killed or taken away. Or maybe the adults decided to keep some details from us – the children.
Reading the newspapers as young children meant we were exposed to news about arrests and encounters from a tender age of 7-8 years old – an age when my peers in the rest of India played with Barbies and watched cartoons. I grew up hearing the elders talk about young men, brutalized by the armed forces, leaving homes in acts of rebellion to join the insurgency movements. I grew up watching mothers weep tears of agony and grief as they lose their sons and daughters to the insurgency movement or the bullets of the armed forces.
Most middle-class families were sending their children away from Manipur to other states, even if it was beyond their financial means to safeguard them. It was the only way they could protect them from police brutality, sexual violence, and also to avoid the risk of losing their hot-blooded sons and daughters to the insurgent movement. Another added factor was the umpteenth number of curfews and general strikes that disrupted the normal way of life, especially education. We had less than 100 working days a year. I was seven when my parents sent both my elder siblings – a brother who was entering college and a sister who just hit puberty – to Delhi for their college and school education respectively. At age 12, I also packed and left home. When I first landed in this city, it was a huge culture shock to see shops open after dark, people stepping out even in the night, or even having overnight guests. While Delhi meant freedom in one sense, it also victimized me with its racism. But that’s another story.
You can go away as far as possible, but you can’t escape AFSPA-related news from back home. A couple of months after I landed in Delhi, the news of Thangjam Manorama Devi’s brutal rape and murder hit the headlines. Her bullet-ridden body was found hours after her arrest, near her house with multiple gunshot wounds in her genitalia. Demanding justice, a group of women protested naked with a banner that read, “Indian Army, Rape Us”. The powerful image was all over the national media. Unfortunately, there still was no justice. Irom Sharmila fasted for 16 long years against AFSPA after 10 civilians were killed at a bus stop. She ultimately gave up, finding no justice. The horrors of AFSPA aren’t new.
The recent horrific killings in Nagaland is tragic and seeing mass condemnation. Indeed, there is no room for such a draconian law in our democracy. It is against basic human rights. But the demands for repeal of AFSPA should be from all the states where it is currently enforced. In Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Assam, Jammu & Kashmir, and Arunachal Pradesh, countless lives have been lost over decades, and a generation of young women and men live with PTSD. It is time for us to collectively demand that this inhumane law goes away, once and for all. We cannot afford to lose any more lives to bullets or a generation to the trauma inflicted by it.
Angellica Aribam is a political activist working on issues of race, gender, and democratisation of politics. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.