On Thursday, Union Home Minister Amit Shah announced the scope of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act would be reduced in Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. In parts of the North East, the law was imposed as far back as 1958. It was expanded as more armed movements spread across the region.
For decades, the law has been a political flashpoint in the region, held responsible for human rights violations by security forces. It gives the military sweeping powers to search, arrest and open fire “in the line of duty”, and to do so with a high degree of protection from legal prosecution. Protests against the AFSPA spread across states of the North East once more in December, when 14 civilians were gunned down in Nagaland’s Mon district as the result of a botched up military operation.
As of now, the law will cease to be in effect in 23 districts of Assam, and 15 police stations each in Nagaland and Manipur.
It was Shah’s second big announcement this week on disputes in the North East. Earlier, he said the long-running border dispute between Assam and Meghalaya had been resolved in six places. Over the past couple of years, the BJP has also signed peace accords with various militant groups, although peace talks with Naga nationalist groups appear to have reached a deadlock.
Increasingly, the BJP has projected itself as problem solver in the North East. Here is a closer look at Shah’s claims that the party has ushered in a “lasting peace in the North East”.
After decades of stalemate, what prompted the Centre to reduce the scope of AFSPA now?
A BJP politician from Nagaland said the areas in the state where the AFSPA has been rolled back had “seen relative peace and calm” in the recent years. “The number of violent incidents in the area have been very [low] and that informed the decision,” said the politician, who is part of the state cabinet.
However, he conceded that it was not just the law and order situation that had led to the Centre’s decision. After all, the security situation has been unchanged for a while, yet the Union home ministry doggedly resisted the state government’s repeated nudges to reconsider the AFSPA in Nagaland.
The killing of 14 civilians in Mon district may have finally forced the Centre’s hand, said the Naga BJP leader. “After that, there has been a lot of hue and cry from civil society student groups for the removal of the Act,” he said.
The Centre is believed to have accepted the recommendations of a high-level committee set up in the aftermath of the Mon killings, consisting of central government officials as well as senior security officials in the North East.
However, according to the Nagaland cabinet member, the state government’s strong stance on the matter also played a part. After the Mon killings, the state assembly convened a special session where it unanimously adopted a resolution demanding the repeal of the contentious Act.
While the Nagaland government has been pushing for the removal of the AFSPA for years, the state governments of Manipur and Assam were believed to be reluctant – until now.
What stopped the Centre from removing the law from Assam, when large parts of the state have not seen major militant attacks in years?
Since 2018, the Union home ministry’s assessment has been that at least “half of Assam” didn’t need the martial law, but the state government insisted on it, said a top official who was with the ministry till recently.
“Since our assessments were different, ever since 2018, it is them [the state government] who have declared the disturbed area notification,” said the official. For the AFSPA to be imposed on a place, it has to be declared a “disturbed area”. This notification is reassessed every six months.
Said a former top Assam government official: “It was felt that the presence of the Army and United Command was necessary, that was the main reason why it was by the state government that AFSPA be continued.”
The unified command coordinates the operations of military and paramilitary forces in militancy-hit areas.
The AFSPA was in force in Assam since 1990 and was renewed 62 times by the state government. So what changed in Assam? A change in the dispensation, perhaps, say officials. Ultimately, they claim, it was a matter of political will. While the BJP has been in power in Assam since 2016, Himanta Biswa Sarma became chief minister only in 2021. Sarma, who is also the BJP’s pointman in the North East, is believed to be close to the central leadership.
“Before taking the decision, the Government of India consulted the Assam government and [took] the state government into confidence,” Sarma said. “The decision to withdraw the Act was not taken overnight and neither was it taken because of the demand by some quarters.”
Why was it up to the Centre, and not the states, to finally decide on removing AFSPA?
For the AFSPA to be imposed, an area has to be first declared as “disturbed”. When the Act was originally enacted in 1958, only the state government could declare an area disturbed. But it was amended in 1972, extending the power to the Union government.
As the rules stand now, state governments can promulgate the Act, but not rescind it on their own without the Centre’s approval. On the other hand, the state governments’ opinion can be overruled by the governor or the Centre.
In practice, this means that states can promulgate the Act – as Assam and Manipur have in recent years. But it cannot revoke it – Nagaland being a case in point.
How did state governments react to the decision to reduce the scope of AFSPA?
The BJP heads the state governments in Assam and Manipur, and is part of the ruling coalition in Nagaland, which has no opposition. All three chief ministers credited the centre for the decision.
“This is a very big, bold and courageous decision and it came with a huge risk,” Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said. “It was not an easy decision as many militant groups are still active in Manipur. In Assam, too, militant groups are active in certain pockets and the Naga-peace process has not concluded yet. Only Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah can take such a decision.”
Manipur Chief minister N Biren Singh and Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio also expressed their gratitude to the Centre.
How does the security establishment view the BJP’s decision to reduce the scope of the AFSPA?
The Army seemed to have mixed feelings about the development. In Assam, army officials said it mattered very little. “The Army is barely involved in CI [counter-insurgency] in Assam, and truth to be told, this should have happened much before,” said a senior Guwahati-based officer.
But there appeared to be some reservations about the development in Manipur and Nagaland, given that parts of the states are “transit routes” for cross-border insurgency. Both states share a border with Myanmar.
There were also apprehensions of the local police’s ability to effectively carry out counter-insurgency operations, particularly in Nagaland. “They are not ready to take on the insurgency yet because of strong shared tribal affiliations,” said an army official.
How do human rights and civil society organisations feel about it?
Once again, mixed feelings. K Elu Ndang, general secretary of the Naga Hoho, an apex tribal body, said that it was a significant development – since the act was introduced in 1958, this was the first time that the government of India had taken up the matter seriously.
However, the Naga Hoho as well as the Naga Students’ Federation felt it should be removed from all Naga-inhabited areas in Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. For decades, Naga armed groups have fought for an ethnic homeland comprising these areas. “[The law] should not be operated in the Naga homeland,” said Naga Students’ Federation president Kegwayhun Tep.
Meanwhile, Mon district, where the December killings happened, still remains under the law. Konyak Nagas, who live in the district, were unhappy that the AFSPA had not been withdrawn completely from the region. Unless that happens, said a senior leader from the Konyak Union, “the Northeast problem will never be solved”.
An editorial in the Imphal Free Press, one of Manipur’s leading English dailies, called the move “discriminatory”. Among other reasons, because it played into the divide between the Meitei-majority Imphal Valley and the tribal-dominated Manipur hills. The Centre had earlier withdrawn the AFSPA from parts of the Greater Imphal area, it pointed out. Now, more police stations in the Greater Imphal area were free of the law while it remained in place in all the hill districts.
Both Naga and Manipuri civil society organisations said it was not enough to remove the law from certain areas, it had to be repealed altogether.
“The fact remains that Northeast India [has been] under AFSPA for the last 64 years and this has not changed even with the announcement by the home minister,” said Manipuri human rights activist Binalakshmi Nepram. “AFSPA was passed in 1958 in the halls of the Indian Parliament and it is in the halls of the Parliament that the act needs to go.This is long due.”
Babloo Loitongbam, who heads the Imphal-based Human Rights Alert, agreed with her: “Only its total repeal will qualify India as a true democracy.”
How significant are the BJP’s other measures, such as peace pacts with armed groups and the agreement on the Assam-Meghalaya border?
A former director general of police in Assam, speaking off the record, said that previous governments had also signed peace pacts with militant groups. Like them, this government risked only deferring the problem, he felt.
“Militants come overground, become ordinary law-breakers, some anti-social activities are overlooked and the former militants become affluent,” he said. “New groups spring up, use the same modus operandi, making extortion an industry. The government makes peace overtures – they, too, come overground and their anti-social activities are tolerated by government agencies. This has been a pattern.”
He also pointed to the deadlock in the peace process with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah faction), the largest Naga armed group, claiming it was running a parallel government in some areas.
“The government knows, but it feels that appeasement rather than confrontation is a more pragmatic policy,” he said. “Only people of the region can make the militants redundant by ignoring them. In Assam, ULFA [the United Liberated Front of Asom, an Assamese armed group] has become redundant because of the people’s disillusionment with them.”
Chandan Kumar Sharma, professor of sociology at Tezpur University, said both the border disputes with Meghalaya and the AFSPA were long-standing issues and the cause of much conflict in the region.
“From that point of view, I appreciate the recent initiatives,” he said. “How this facilitates more progress, which is much expected, on these issues, only time will tell.”
Will this help the BJP politically?
During the recent assembly elections in Manipur, the BJP was the only party that did not promise to repeal AFSPA in its poll manifesto. The party still won; it gained seats in the assembly and was able to form government on its own. The party appeared to have calculated that remaining silent on the AFSPA would not have great political costs.
Loitongbam said the BJP’s decision to curtail the AFSPA now came as “a bit of a surprise”. “We were asking the BJP to include AFSPA removal in their manifesto but they vehemently disagreed – now it is being removed,” he said.
According to Dilip Saikia, the BJP’s national general secretary and member of Parliament for Assam’s Mangaldoi constituency, the latest move was a result of “the nationalist policy of the BJP”. “The Congress totally neglected the northeast and kept the issues alive,” he said.
Other political observers said the BJP could now go to voters and say they had resolved long-pending issues that the Congress was afraid to touch. They point out that the AFSPA move and the border agreement would go a long way in quelling criticism from the opposition.