There exists a torturous leaf in the forests of Nagaland. It causes an unbearable itch, and people who come in contact with it scratch so hard, they have even been known to tear their skin out. At the height of the militarisation of Naga areas in the North East, the Indian army would pick up suspects and rub these leaves all over the suspect’s body.

This was besides the other regular torture methods – piercing needles between the nails and the skin, sodomy, hanging people upside down for hours, burying them alive, forcing birthing in the open, electrocuting genitalia, rubbing Naga chilli on genitalia, or sustained beating till organs got damaged. The army would routinely use these methods on people who faced no charges but against whom there was merely the hint of suspicion.

Despite being intense storytellers, the Naga people will rarely tell you these tales, of what their lives were like under the gruesome Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which gives the military immunity from prosecution in conflict-hit areas. Few will talk about how the Act was used by the Indian army to torture in the name of counterinsurgency, how they reserved the right to kill on suspicion, how it was impossible to get justice because the deliverers of justice backed AFSPA.

Escaping responsibility

The mob that lynched a man in Dimapur on March 5 did so based on suspicion too. Its members believed that they were meting out justice the way it is dispensed in this region, that there would be no consequences if the cause was justified. They went about their horrendous act because they had internalised the culture of impunity that has existed in the region since AFSPA came to the North East 57 years ago.

The mob had internalised the notion hat no matter how intense the abuse, no responsibility would be fixed for it.

Today, AFSPA may be taking lives more quietly, but its effects still echo all around. The culture of impunity the Act brought has seeped into the social fabric, with the region emulating the AFSPA form of injustice. Communities that thrived alongside each other for decades have learned to use violence against each other.

In December 2013, a mob numbering a few hundred and belonging to the Karbi tribe attacked a Rengma Naga village in Karbi Anglong in Assam. A total of six Rengma people were killed, including four women – one’s intestines were pulled out and another was burnt to cinders. The mob, led by armed men, cut down all orange and betel nut trees in the village since these are the source of livelihood of the Rengma Nagas of Assam. A shelter protecting children of the village during the attack was bombed. All households were burnt down.

Till date, the Rengma people who fled their villages find themselves displaced. They still live without roads and power. The government of Assam provided ex gratia compensation to the families of the victims and washed its hands of the matter. The Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council cared even less. The few mainstream news media outlets that covered the incident lost interest quickly (since, you know, this happens all the time). No judicial inquiries were set up.

Legacy of the Act

Impunity reigned large and still does. Communities are still pitted against each other.

AFSPA has not only put the whole region in a state of exception in terms of fundamental rights, but also made its people think of themselves as exceptional – no matter where they are in India, they will not get justice.

A new generation of Naga people has grown up without the tortures of AFSPA (due to a long-standing ceasefire) but its brutality has clearly taken a toll on them too. The model of impunity – or killing on suspicion – is emulated by all. A number of Naga youth called this Naga customary law. This is anything but customary law, which is based on cooperation and goodwill, corresponding punishments with established guilt. No, this is AFSPA.

Many of those who participated in the public lynching on March 5, as well as those who came to watch it with their children, believed the lynching to be the justice of the kind that had been meted out to the region through the years. This is the legacy of AFSPA.