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AFSPA: Looking Beyond the Oting Incident

Col (Dr) D.P.K. Pillay is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • February 03, 2022

    A recent military operation, involving one of the most elite and battle-hardened units of the Indian Army, led to the killing of coal mine workers in Oting in Mon District of Nagaland in December 2021.  This incident led to a spiralling of violence that led to more deaths, and anger and distrust among the local population, furthering the divide with the security forces operating in the region. This once again brought into crosshairs the Armed Forces [Special Powers] Act (AFSPA), 1958 and its continued applicability stretching over decades in several states of the Northeast.

    The AFSPA is a successor albeit with cosmetic changes to the Armed Forces [Special Powers] Ordinance of 1942, which was enacted by the British to quell the Quit India Movement. Independent India promulgated the AFSPA in September 1958 to quell the disturbance in north-eastern states.1

    The Oting incident has disturbed the equilibrium of fragile peace in a region beset by violence for several decades. Unfortunately, the politics that follows such incidents loses sight of what made the army’s presence there necessary in the first place. Most insurgencies are born primarily due to genuine grievances that follow the flawed development framework applied to areas, often accompanied by poor or corrupt governance and administration. Insurgent leaders step in when the state fails; though they cannot replace the state, they often function in lieu of legitimate power through fear and coercion. Even when the insurgent forces have lost their appeal and legitimacy, having no real vision and purpose, beset by internal power struggles, they continue to pose threat to peace, because the state fails to address the governance deficits. Very often, the state takes the easier recourse of adopting a law-and-order approach to addressing the insurgencies. They declare an area as ‘disturbed’, thereby enhancing military and paramilitary presence, and in doing so further antagonise the local population, already caught between the combined and competing might of state and non-state forces. The unreasonably prolonged deployment of the army and the enforcement of the AFSPA has not resulted in the resolution of insurgencies in the Northeast. It only shows the continued failure of the political process in the affected states. 

    Employing the army in counter-insurgency operations is different from conventional military operations as the former involves a change in thinking, where preserving civilian life and infrastructure is considered more important than preserving the security forces and their resources.  The key point here is that all citizens of the country are equal before the law and that in no way one innocent human life can be considered less precious than that of a soldier.

    To begin with, the type of weapons that can be used in war cannot be used in counter-insurgency operations. There has to be a greater reliance on non-lethal arms and other methods that can temporarily disable or incapacitate the potential opponents rather than killing them. In counter-insurgency operations, it is believed that one innocent civilian’s death creates 10 new insurgents. The insurgent leaders lose no chance to demonise the security forces and establish their role and legitimacy in the fight against perceived ‘oppression’. In a counter-insurgency, the psy-ops and social media also play a great role in wearing out the opposing forces and discrediting their ideology.  It should also be understood that there is a lot of relentless, long-term stress faced both by the armed forces and by the civilians in a counter-insurgency environment. These operations often take place in a territory that is alien to the soldiers and their presence could be portrayed as an intrusion.

    The prolonged application of AFSPA by the Government has not helped in building the democratic narrative in the affected region in the long run. Continuing with this act with cosmetic changes does not augur well for the truly democratic credentials of the country where every human life counts. In situations where employment of armed forces become imperative, there is a need to integrate the civilian and military forces towards the objective of restoring the primacy of rule of law. The end state of any well-meaning counter-insurgency campaign should boil down to establishing the legitimacy and authority of the government, whereby the affected population is convinced that its interests are better served by working with the government and within the existing system. The aim should be to facilitate the earliest return to a political process, with de-escalation holding out greater value than the continuation of the conflict.

    To accomplish this, the state should exhaust all non-military options before requesting for the deployment of the armed forces. Importantly, such armed interventions must also have an end state―in the form of sunset clauses, which demand regular reviews and an appraisal of the deployment. It is therefore important that while the armed forces are deployed, all possible channels of communication with the affected population, the ones actually suffering because of heightened security measures, are kept open. There also has to be a mechanism whereby the local authorities are able to respond to genuine hardships and grievances of the affected population. Unfortunately, more often than not, the local administration goes into hibernation once the armed forces have been deployed, abdicating their primary responsibility towards the civilian population. Keeping the affected population out of the calculus would only be counter-productive. To make the continued deployment of the army more effective and legitimate at the local level, it must be carried out in consultation with the local authorities to the extent possible, instead of making it appear like a central government agenda.  The insurgents depend on the local support for their sustenance, and without it, they are like fish out of water. Making the local population aware of the need for induction of the armed forces and making local authorities responsible and accountable would be the true test of democracy.

    When mistakes happen, it is important to fix responsibility. There has to be a lesson learning centre so that past mistakes are not repeated and successes can be replicated. Making the armed forces villain in the narrative would be akin to what Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea did at the crucifixion of Christ.  As the Governor of Judea, he had the power to restore order and punish wrongdoers. Instead of taking the recourse to law, he did a symbolic act of washing his hands claiming no personal responsibility, thereby shifting the entire blame for the crucifixion of Jesus to the Jews. Those responsible for addressing the grievances of the affected population should refrain from doing that. Instead, the focus of debate and discussion should shift from merely treating the side-effects of an attempted cure to finding what caused the disease in the first place. It might offer solutions to the entire problem.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the MP-IDSA or of the Government of India.