Army Killings in India’s Nagaland Reignite Debate Over Controversial Law

On Dec. 4, six coal mine workers returning home from work in a pickup truck were shot and killed by Indian Army soldiers in a botched counterinsurgency operation in the Mon district of Nagaland, a state in India’s northeast. Later that day, another seven civilians and a soldier died in retaliatory clashes between locals and the army. On Dec. 5, army forces killed another civilian after protesters attacked an army camp.

Although Indian Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah said the government regretted the “unfortunate incident,” he claimed the vehicle, which the soldiers mistakenly believed was carrying suspected insurgents, was signaled to stop, and that the soldiers fired on it after it tried to flee. Locals—including one man who was also in the vehicle but survived—have denied this claim. In the days after Shah’s statement, angry protesters in Nagaland burned an effigy of Shah, demanding he apologize for his “false” and “fabricated” statements on the incident.

The Mon district tragedy has highlighted once again that, despite ideas of economic development and prospects of northeast India becoming the “gateway to the East” and a “land bridge to Southeast Asia,” the region continues to live in a constant state of militarization.

That’s due in large part to the government’s continued imposition of the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA.

AFSPA grants the Indian Army unbridled powers to maintain public order in “disturbed areas.” It is the central government that declares an area disturbed or dangerous and reviews the situation after six months. Once an area is declared disturbed, members of the Indian Army can carry out excesses without fear of legal prosecution. They have the power to search properties without a warrant, arrest people, and use deadly force if there is reasonable suspicion that a person is acting against the state.

AFSPA originated in 1942 as an ordinance during British rule in India, intended to suppress the Quit India Movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi. After India’s independence in 1947, then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru retained the provisions under the ordinance; in 1958, India’s parliament passed the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.

The act was aimed at countering the insurgency that had developed in parts of Assam and Manipur states inhabited by members of the various Naga ethnic groups native to parts of northeast India and northwest Myanmar. The Naga insurgency is rooted in a demand for an ethnic sovereign homeland for the Nagas. The Naga-inhabited areas of northeast India didn’t want to be a part of British India, and after India’s independence, the Naga National Council (NNC), led by Angami Zapu Phizo, declared independence for Nagas. This also led to the formation of underground groups including the Naga Federal Government and Naga Federal Army. To counter these groups, India’s central government sent in its army and enacted AFSPA

In 1980, Isak Chishi Swu, Thuingaleng Muivah, and S. S. Khaplang split from the NNC and formed the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) to continue the armed rebellion. In 1988, the NSCN split again into NSCN-IM, led by Swu and Muivah, and NSCN-K, led by Khaplang.

Nagaland was initially a district of Assam state; it was declared a full-fledged state in 1963. As more armed ethnic groups with the intention of establishing independent sovereign nation-states gained momentum in northeast India, the government expanded AFSPA to apply to most of the region.

In 1983, a similar law with the same name was passed in Punjab state, and in 1990 it was also applied to the Jammu and Kashmir region. While Punjab got rid of the act in 1997, it continues to be in force in Jammu and Kashmir. In recent years, the northeast Indian states of Tripura and Meghalaya also revoked the act, but it remains in effect in Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, and six districts of Arunachal Pradesh.

Successive Indian governments kept AFSPA in place in Nagaland to try to crush the Naga rebellion. Over decades, governments have also tried to engage in peace talks with the Naga armed groups, but a concrete political solution is yet to be achieved. Currently, there is a ceasefire between India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the largest Naga armed group, NSCN-IM.

Other underground Naga groups also joined the peace talks, which were supposed to conclude in 2019, but the NSCN-IM has said an accord could not happen until the government accepts the Naga people’s demand for a separate constitution and flag. The government has said it cannot grant these demands.

Another faction, NSCN-K, has also signed a ceasefire with the Indian government, but a sub-group of this faction (led by Khaplang’s nephew Yung Aung and believed to be operating largely in Myanmar) has no such agreement. The Indian Army has claimed it was targeting the Yung Aung faction of the NSCN-K in the disastrous Dec. 4 counterinsurgency operation, “based on credible intelligence.”

The December civilian killings led NSCN factions to issue strong statements against the army’s actions and could hinder the ongoing peace talks. They’ve also revived debate around the repeal of AFSPA.

Human rights activists say there is no need for a draconian law like AFSPA to address the security situation in Nagaland. “Getting the military involved in these kinds of matters will bring the military a bad name; reserve it for real national security issues,” said Manipur-based lawyer and human rights activist Babloo Loitongbam.

The insurgent groups are known to create chaos in the region, including through alleged extortion and illegal tax collection (though the groups dispute these allegations). But Loitongbam pointed out that these incidents happen in cities such as Mumbai as well, but the military doesn’t go there to solve such issues. “It’s the work of police and smart intelligence,” he said, adding that deploying the army is a crude way to deal with law and order situations.

Theyie Keditsu, a feminist poet based in Nagaland’s capital Kohima, takes a similar view. “If there is unrest, the army can come and they can still protect its citizens and work for their safety,” she said. “But why do you need to have this extra law that gives license to peace soldiers to carry out operations with impunity?”

Keditsu added that having a law like AFSPA is “counterintuitive” to India’s reputation. “It’s not just a Nagaland thing—wherever AFSPA has been applied, it goes against India’s democratic spirit, and it also goes against basic human rights guarantees,” she said.

India’s northeast has seen numerous protests against AFSPA. One of the longest has been that of Manipur activist Irom Sharmila, who created visibility both nationally and internationally for the law’s repeal. Sharmila went on a hunger strike following the 2000 killing of 10 civilians by the Assam Rifles—the Indian Army’s oldest paramilitary force—at Malom village. After declaring her strike, Sharmila was force-fed through a nasal tube for 16 years; she ended her fast in 2016. After, she announced she would contest the state elections in Manipur to continue her fight for the removal of AFSPA. However, Sharmila went on to lose the 2017 election by a big margin.

A massive civil disobedience movement also emerged in response to the rape and murder of a 32-year-old woman named Thangjam Manorama by the Assam Rifles on July 11, 2004. Five days after Manorama’s killing, 12 middle-aged women protested naked in front of the army headquarters at the Kangla Fort in Imphal, Manipur’s capital.

According to Loitongbam, what to do about AFSPA was “very much” an item on the previous Indian National Congress government’s agenda. In November 2004, partly in response to the Kangla Fort protests and the international attention they, and Sharmila’s hunger strike, garnered, India’s then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for the law to be repealed and replaced with a more humane one. He established a committee led by retired Indian Supreme Court Justice B. P. Jeevan Reddy to examine AFSPA’s operation; in 2005, the committee issued a report recommending the law be repealed.

“But right after the BJP came in, these discussions were erased and it was losing its steam in the public discourse,” Loitongbam said. And indeed, in 2015, the Home Ministry under the BJP government officially rejected the 2005 report’s recommendations.

But the recent incident in Nagaland has prompted most key political parties in northeast India to demand AFSPA’s repeal. The BJP government’s coalition partner chief ministers in Meghalaya and Nagaland have made the same demand, as has the Nagaland Cabinet. However, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not yet said anything publicly in response to the December Mon district killings.

Where does this leave the Mon tragedy, then? Bano Haralu, a journalist from Nagaland, pointed out that all the people who died in the incident were between the ages of 25 and 37 and had not seen the kind of unrest previous generations in the region had to face. But, she said, this younger generation won’t forget and forgive the killings.

“The strategy that the government is going to use to respond to the outrage across the state is going to be very crucial,” Haralu said. “It will mean the beginning of a new relationship, or it will be the end.”

Sanskrita Bharadwaj is an independent journalist from Assam, India.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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