Times change, Routine persists

Aheli Moitra

Till a couple of years back, one could not imagine that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 could be extended without a noise. But here we are, in 2018, 60 years of army rule in Naga Land and the silence is deafening.


The Indian Union, on June 30, declared the whole of Nagaland as a ‘disturbed area’ and henceforth extended the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA), for a further period of six months. News media reported that a gazette notification said the Centre was of the “opinion” that “the area comprising whole of Nagaland is in such a disturbed condition that the use of armed forces in aid of civil power is necessary.” Routine.


This is a fair opinion to have of one’s own failures. A government that cannot provide democratic governance to citizens has to rule through military might. In this condition of perennial emergency though, democratic exercises such as elections are carried on without a sense of guilt.


In these long and arduous 60 years, AFSPA has undergone a few changes (amendments & guidelines) but it is the armed forces that have undergone a sea of change.


Take the Assam Rifles, for instance. A militia turned military police turned paramilitary force, it was formed initially to protect British tea plantations in Assam from “raids by wild and unruly tribes inhabiting the surrounding hill tracts.” The British eventually left, handing over the tools of control, production and violence to the new Indian State. Since the agency it had created was to serve their political masters ‘apolitically,’ the Assam Rifles continued on track with unquestioning loyalty. In an independent India, it had a new task, to ‘occupy areas where there was absolutely no governance.’


How it has done this for most of the past 6 decades is well known in the North East. Much of the violence through these decades was powered by the AFSPA, which is based on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance of 1942 that the British had designed to suppress the Quit India movement started by Mahatma Gandhi. What is enigmatic about the Assam Rifles is how it has used AFSPA, which gives it the license to kill anybody in the ‘disturbed areas’ on suspicion, to further Indian occupation through peaceful means.


In the past few years, this paramilitary force has set up schools, run medical camps, constructed community halls, held awareness lectures, developed sports facilities, imparted sports training, funded orphanages, given jobs, hosted parties, helped lost tourists find their way. It has exposed children in schools to arms and ammunition—machine guns, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, grenades. It has trained and recruited a whole new generation of young people in the North East for organized warfare on behalf of a constitutional democracy.


The Assam Rifles’ motto has ranged from being the ‘Sentinels of the North East’ to ‘Friends of the Hill People’ to ‘Friends of the North East.’ It came into some form of existence 183 years ago and was passed on from one political master (the British) to the other (Indians). Given this history, a rough estimate would suggest that as various political establishments negotiate settlements, the biggest winner in this war was, is, and will be, the Assam Rifles. And AFSPA.


Would Mahatma Gandhi have been pleased with this story? Should we be?


Thoughts are welcome at moitramail@yahoo.com