Nagaland killings are unfortunate, but security forces are agents of peace in North East

The usual suspects are out in the open again. They never go away. They just hibernate, waiting for the right time to wake up. They thrive on tragedies and disasters. And they get one in Nagaland on 4 December 2021.

So, soon after the unfortunate incident in Nagaland’s Mon district, where 19 people were killed in a case of mistaken identity by the security forces — an act for which the Government of India has expressed deep regret and the army has ordered an investigation at the highest level — the demand for the repeal of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has renewed again.

The AFSPA grants the Army “special powers” to shoot to kill, destroy property and temporarily detain suspects. Army personnel acting under the AFSPA are immune from all actions taken under other laws of the Indian Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code and civil suits unless otherwise sanctioned by the Central government.

Before even going into the details of whether the army is doing a good job or not, or whether it’s so detested as it is made out to be, the fact we civilians need to understand is that the army is called upon to control the situation, whether in the North East or Kashmir, after the civil administration fails to control the situation. According to the Constitution, the armed forces cannot be deployed against Indian citizens unless the government asks them to intervene in a situation that the government is unable to handle. In short, the army is called in only after the failure of the civil administration, thus threatening the integrity of the country.

The woolly-headed liberals need to realise that the military is designed to be tough, and not civil. And if, for some reasons, the civil administration fails to do its job, then to expect the military to perform in a civilian ecosystem is both unfair to the army, which is trained to be tough, as well as dangerous for national security. You won’t want a bleeding-heart military guarding our borders especially with neighbours like China and Pakistan waiting to pounce upon us at the first opportunity.

So, the irony is apparent: We train our soldiers to be non-civilian. And then, thanks to our abject administrative failures, we want them to behave like civilians! To the credit of our forces, they have managed to tread this fine line well. One needs to look beyond one’s preconceived ideological blinders to see how the forces have, by and large, operated in civilian areas. It may come as a surprise to many who find excuses to castigate the army, but the forces are largely respected and honoured by civilians.

I saw it firsthand as a student of an Assam Rifles school in Tuensang district of Nagaland. Son of an academician hailing from Bihar who spent over three decades in Nagaland, I would venture alone in the regimented areas and not even as an exception I found a jawan or an officer misbehaving with me or any other civilian. One of the fondest memories being in the Assam Rifles canteen where I would often go to get some stuff on discount and the person in charge would indulge me. “Kya chahiye bachche (what do you want, kid),” he would gently ask me.

They were my heroes. They will always be! More so now, when I know very well that they are the ones who cover up our failures. And they bring the situation back in control every time it seems to be too late. As for the annual home ministry report of 2019-20, the security situation in the North East has improved substantially since 2014. The last six years have seen a significant decline in insurgency incidents by 70 percent, casualties of security forces personnel by 78 percent and civilian deaths by 80 percent in the region. The year 2019 recorded the lowest insurgency incidents and casualties among civilians and security forces during the last two decades since 1997.

Thanks to the efforts of the security forces, while Tripura, Sikkim and Mizoram are completely free from insurgency, there is a marked improvement in the security situation in other states of the region. In 2019, insurgency-related violence declined by 87 percent in Meghalaya, 39 percent in Assam, 3 percent in Arunachal Pradesh and 1 percent in Manipur as compared to 2018. In 2019, Manipur remained the most violent state accounting for about 57 percent of the total incidents in the region.

As for Nagaland, there were 42 insurgency-related incidents reported in the state in 2019. NSCN-IM accounted for about 50 percent of the insurgency incidents during 2019. The number of civilians’ and security forces’ deaths has come down by 50 percent and kidnapping/abduction cases declined by 22 percent between 2018 and 2019.

AFSPA, however, does not mean that atrocities or human rights violations should be condoned. The army, to its credit, has been serious about investigating abuses. The punishments awarded by the forces are severe and exemplary, including dismissal from service and life imprisonment. In the Mon killings too, the army moved in quickly to order a high-level investigation into the dastardly incident. The government, instead of repealing the special law, must put in place a mechanism that ensures any wrongdoer is not spared. And, strengthen the civilian system so that the army, in the first place, is not given the task of maintaining law and order in a region.

Perception and reality can be far off the mark, especially in a region distant from Delhi. The perception was that Irom Sharmila, being the “beacon of hope” in Manipur, would win her Assembly seat in the 2017 polls. The reality was she received less than 100 votes. The perception is that the army indulges in human rights violations in the region. The fact says that there are numerous human rights organisations in the Northeast that act as an overground front for the insurgent groups, working overtime to implicate the forces in legal, human rights tangles. The fact is, as Jaideep Saikia wrote in an incisive article in Firstpost, that those targeting security forces after the Mon killings must look into an incident in Manipur’s Pherzawl district on 3-4 December when the Vang Battalion of the Assam Rifles was in the process of vacating their operating base: The locals came out in large numbers to request the Assam Rifles not to move out of the area!

The security forces have always been working under trying circumstances, but with admirable restraint. BB Kumar, in his book Naga Identity, mentions how in the 1950s, the charges of the army’s “atrocities” were highly exaggerated, so much so that Keneth Kerhuo, the then Field Director of the Angami Baptist Mission, said: “Owing to the violent activities of the Naga Home Guards, most of the Churches stopped functioning in Naga Hills some time ago. The villages were so terror-stricken that they could not even enter their own homes… Thanks to the Army, confidence has returned to the villages, and the peaceful Nagas are able to look after their affairs unafraid.”

A group of prominent Nagas, including JB Jasokie, Keneth Kerhuo, Ruzhukhrie Sekhose, Khiya, Luci Dino, Dzobvunno, and Kerino Zinyu were quite shocked to hear that the Nagas “in their zeal to vilify officers and men of the armed forces, speak lightheartedly of Naga women-folk and even describe their own daughters, sisters, and wives as harlots and prostitutes”. They went to the extent of saying that “no armed force in the world could have behaved better than the Indian armed forces have done in Naga Hills”.

Last but not the least, the North East problem is a Nehruvian gift, though, unlike Kashmir and China/Tibet blunders, it is not much talked about. The problem found its origins in, first, Nehruvian excitement, and then indifference. Two anecdotes would set the tone.

One, Nehru gifted the statehood to Nagas way too easily and early. Even literally he didn’t wait for the interim period of three years to end. The dialogue between P Shilu Ao, the then chief executive councillor, and prime minister Nehru on the subject of ending the interim period is interesting.

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