Violations of Human Rights under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act

Violations of Human Rights under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act

By Saurav Raj

(Graduate of Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi – Batch 2018-21)

The existence of Northeast India as a peripheral region is often ignored and forgotten by the rest of “mainland” India. It is a region often mired in mystery and exoticism. Nagaland and its neighboring states in Northeast India have borne witness to the worst periods of strife and bloodshed in the post-independence period after the Phizo-led armed rebel groups unsuccessfully declared independence and fought guerrilla wars against the Indian armed forces. In retaliation, the Indian government at the center sent thousands of troops to the state of Nagaland and other Naga-inhabited areas in the neighboring states of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, and even Burma. The Armed Forces Special Powers (Assam and Manipur) Act, 1958 was instituted by the Central government to give the armed forces “special powers” to aid their military operations and control the spread and influence of armed groups. Popularly known as AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act), the Act gives armed forces the power to arrest without any warrant, shoot to kill, and even provides legal immunity from any misuse of power. Understandably so, these powers have been widely misused and have led to multiple instances of innocent people being murdered, with the most recent case being the December Oting Incident in Mon District, Nagaland. This incident burst forth the rage and frustration of the people who had been facing similar incidents in the past for generations and had decided to erupt in anti-AFSPA protests. Tons of women and children have been harassed, tortured, raped, and maimed by the armed forces in the name of anti-terrorist operations and yet, policy-makers at the center are hell-bent on considering them “collateral damage”. In this essay, the brutal human rights violations of people living in Northeastern India, especially cases involving women and children, will be highlighted. Furthermore, the gendered body politics of the violation of women’s bodies in marginalized regions will be analyzed, wherein the peace-keeping contributions and the activities of women’s associations active in Nagaland will be pointed out.

Nagaland, a land-locked state of Northeast India, has had a tumultuous history in its roughly six decades of existence as a state. After being granted statehood in 1963 to quell the rising Naga insurgent movement, it has undergone periods of armed resistance against intruding British colonial officials. The worst period was after the year 1947 when the lives of civilians were disrupted by a vicious cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency operations. The entire atmosphere was shrouded in suspicion and fear as the armed forces could arrest, torture, and murder anyone or even an entire village merely based on suspicions that they could be “rebels” or aiding the “rebels”. Communities that had been living in harmony and peace since ages ago had their lives turned upside down such that their age-old traditions and customs had been razed to the ground, first by colonial officials and missionaries and later, by the post-colonial Indian State.

The fact that AFSPA constantly looms over people’s lives, aspirations, and the polity and economy of Nagaland, often means that the economic development and mental well-being of its citizens are relegated to the backstage. Many leaders of trade unions in Nagaland have complained about how local entrepreneurs and businesses struggle to scale up their business due to physical and verbal threats and extortion demands from the scores of warring armed groups and armed forces.

The armed forces constantly operate with the assumption that any Naga could be a potential member of the “Underground”. Therefore, the movement of many Naga villagers from their villages to urban centers like Kohima and Dimapur is severely limited as they understandably want to avoid any problems with the army, which could label them as “terrorists”. The public education system is in shambles and therefore, for parents to ensure that their children receive proper education, they have to shell out hefty fees for education at private schools. Moreover, the drop-out rates in schools are high, with many young people resorting to crime and the rebel movement to make quick money from extortion. The academic performance of many young kids has consequently taken a severe hit.

The Mokokchung Town Incident in 1994 was a horrific incident in which the town was engulfed in riots and looting during the festive season. Survivors still recall the gut-wrenching sight of people, including babies, trapped in burning buildings and getting roasted alive. A total of 16 or 17 women were raped at gunpoint by the armed forces. The number is probably higher but, due to the stigma of rape in patriarchal societies, many women are extremely reluctant to come forth with their complaints. The Red Cross Society visited the town and the survivors to get first-hand accounts of the horror that engulfed their town in 1994. Out of a total of 115 interviewed eyewitnesses, 81 of them reported symptoms that hinted at Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. 83% of them had distressing nightmares of the tragedy and 95% of them showed symptoms of breathlessness and palpitations when exposed to external or internal triggers. A boy, as young as 9 years old, reported being triggered by the sight of men in army uniform marching in the town and requested for them to stop their marching.

Another tragic incident at Yankeli Village, Wokha District, Nagaland, took place in 1971 when four young girls were raped in a Church. One pregnant woman, who was the wife of the village pastor, suffered a miscarriage after she was brutally beaten on her abdomen by one of the jawans. Out of the four girls, the youngest one, Thengtena, was just 11 when she was raped in the church and had been mentally challenged since her childhood. Unfortunately, she died shortly after the horrific experience. Two of the girls also settled down in different villages and have not returned to Yankeli for decades. The church, where the gangrape took place, has been abandoned and was in ruins when a team of Naga researchers from WISCOMP visited the village to record oral testimonies so that these injustices could be known by the world. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly condemned the draconian AFSPA, a progeny of British colonial laws and called for its removal due to numerous instances of violations of human rights. Uncountable petitions and lawsuits have been filed in the courts, which have prompted some reviews of the law, and yet they have yielded no tangible results for the Naga populace.

As many men either joined the rebel movement or were imprisoned, women and children were often left to fend for their own. Many women and children suffered the worst as they bore witness to their men dying and vanishing due to arbitrary arrests, alcoholism, drug abuse, etc. It is standard practice in academia to conveniently forget the tumultuous lived experiences of women while engaging in discourse about militarization and AFSPA. Helene Cixous, a French literary critic, once said in the context of writing women’s history, “we insinuate ourselves into the text, as it were.” Therefore, it is important to highlight how Naga women’s bodies became the sites of the aggressive Indian state via its armed forces as well as the sites of community honor predicated by the norms of Naga patriarchal society. The treatment of shame and stigma that Naga women face from both the hegemonic powers of patriarchy is a double injustice where they are trapped in between, getting respite from none. Scholars and writers from Nagaland like Easterine Kire, Temsula Ao, Dolly Kikon, and many more have written beautiful prose, churned from the collective experiences of their people and tried to undo the erasure of their voices, their pent-up frustration, and rage, and forced the Indian “mainland” to rethink their stances on AFSPA. Literature is indeed a powerful weapon for those who have experienced the worst of injustices.

However, the status of the Naga women is not that of passive silence and muted anger. Many groups of Naga women have formed local self-help groups and most importantly, a pan-Naga body called the Naga Mothers’ Association abbreviated as NMA. These groups have acted as peace-bringers by negotiating with the warring armed groups and the Indian government to sit down and have talks and discussions for peace instead of resorting to arms and guns. They plead for a safe future for their sons, daughters, and husbands, and have also successfully campaigned for women’s reservations in local political bodies and municipal entities. They have also launched initiatives against alcohol consumption and rampant drug abuse in their society. However, even the little power they get owes itself to the social performance of motherhood they have to act out. This kind of phenomenon is termed Political Motherhood, where women have to perform their roles as mothers even to get entry into the “masculine” world of politics and decision-making. It limits and robs as much as it gives and enables.

To date, the Naga peace talks continue and are yet to see the light of day. Any peaceful settlement is still a far-fetched dream as there are many stakeholders with diverse and sometimes opposing interests in mind. What ails the Naga peace process is that the NSCN, the inheritor of the Naga National Council (NNC) has split off into many groups with irreconcilable differences. The two main groups are the NSCN-IM and NSCN-K with numerous other groups. The Naga public is overwhelmed with the inheritance of such a tragic collective memory that still haunts them to this day. Justice is yet to arrive for these people, for whom AFSPA has completely eroded their chances of any legal respite.

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