On December 4, 2021, in what would have been an eventful pre-Christmas reunion of coal mine labourers with their families, Assam Rifles (a paramilitary force) ambushed, and gun-fired returnees of Oting village, in Mon District of Nagaland. The incident amounted to the immediate killing of six civilians, and two critically injured. Following this, in a melee over the incident (between the villagers and the Assam Rifles), seven more villagers were killed in an indiscriminate open firing, including several injured. The next day, in response to the killing of the Nagas, the community came forth to register their protest. This ensued a series of violent confrontations, and eventually, the Assam Rifles resorted to another open firing, gunning down one more civilian.

But what gave the paramilitary force such power and audacity to commit the crime? Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958. The very first line of the act explains that it is “An Act to enable certain special powers to be conferred upon members of the armed forces in disturbed areas [in the States of [Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura.” The special powers include full impunity from “prosecution, suit or other legal proceeding” and is conferred upon “any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank,” except with the previous sanction of the Central Government. 

While the act came into effect only on the September 11, 1958, taking note of the intensifying armed rebellions, the state-level “Public Order Act ” promulgated by the Assam Government was already in force, in the Naga Hills, in 1953. Subsequently, the Assam Disturbed Areas Act of 1955 was enacted, and Assam Rifles were sent to the Naga hills to “contain” Naga insurgency. After failed attempts, The Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Ordinance 1958 was promulgated, the provisions in which were for the most part similar to the British Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance of 1942, devised to suppress 1942 Quit India Movement. All of these inform us that the mechanisms to militarise the Naga Hills were already in place much before the AFSPA was implemented. 

India had suffered a lot in the hands of British rule, but since 1947 it inherited the legacy of colonial rule and re-enacted the same towards the Nagas. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, known as the architect of modern India, is a figure which means horror to the Nagas. Nagas demand to stay as they were, as a sovereign nation, was denied by Nehru. Instead, Nehru resorted to a hard-line approach towards the Naga Hills, especially after he visited Kohima on March 30, 1953, where the Naga people stood their ground to remain independent. 

Colonial crimes and atrocities were evident against the Naga people during British rule. The post-colonial state built into these further, and intensified brutalities against the Naga people, where many instances of human rights violation took place. AFSPA survived as the vehicle for these atrocities. In the Naga Hills and the Northeast region more broadly, the implementation of AFSPA witnessed a rise in armed rebellion. In this, AFSPA, in the name of counterinsurgency, has led to the killings of many lives and traumatised the whole communities in the region.

The treatment of the Nagas as the ‘other’ stems not only from AFSPA but traces back to the mainland imagery of the hill people as ‘exotic’ and ‘wild’ other, to be tamed, controlled, and managed. It is this ‘way of seeing;’ how the mainlanders look at the communities of the region as inferior that also led to the undermining of the political issues of the Nagas, and the Northeast people. Rather, time and again, the Naga people are subject to their ‘visions,’ and state-building projects without considering the Naga people’s aspirations. We see this exacerbate further since 2014, not only from the polarising factor of the right-wing government but also from the progressive voices that the Nagas are ‘not liberals enough.’ 

Looking at the state and its apparatus, it is clear that they do not treat the Nagas as people of equals from the start. Citizenship status is out of the question. Decades of violence and inhuman treatment shape the Naga experiences with the state. It has always been the state that meted out these unpleasant experiences. However, in the present, the state is talked about as the deliverer of justice. Even when these ‘talks’ bring up the issue of AFSPA and racism, it has been overtly performative politics and flattens away with time.  

We are reminded of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protest, when many from the Northeast, including the Nagas, opposed the CAA. In their opposition to foreign entrances, the Nagas were labelled as NRC supporters (to imply anti-Human Rights) on the ground that the land belongs to all. This undermines the tumultuous history of the Nagas and their relationship with the state. While the repealing of AFSPA is necessary, it alone will not lead to peace and harmony in the Naga Hills, unless the much delayed Naga peace talk finds a solution cognisant of Naga’s identity, culture, custom, and history.

Richard Kamei and Roderick Wijunamai are lecturers at the Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan. Views expressed are personal.

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  1. Shocked and upset at this tragedy.. As a person living in Mumbai, I must say this incident is an eye opener, and I found myself in deep empathy with the affected people..
    The history and situation is complex, but the state when it uses violence must do so in a legal, moral and justifiable manner, and be accountable.
    With incidents like this – with so much suffering, it will only lead to more alienation.
    Deepest condolences and sympathy.
    I am avoiding making any other comments, as it may well be patronising to do so, without a thorough understanding.

  2. I have traveled widely in the North Eastern Indian states of Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura during 1995-1997 for official work. Apart from the official work I was lucky enough to meet local peoples in Silchar, Assam, Mizoram and Nagaland.

    I have found them cultured , educated and keen listener as I have traveled from another part of the same country. I firmly believe that old fashioned Assam Disturbed Areas Act of 1955 and Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958 needs to be abolished. In no situation can para-military enforce power upon civilians. Can we think of implementing the same in violence in New Delhi NCR??

    India is a country where still we do not have equal facilities in all states. It’s 75 years after Independence and we are still facing this in a democratic country? Why cannot we build infrastructures and eradicate inequality? If we look to the North Eastern states for the Olympic medals how much more facilities we have given them compared to the National Capital and NCR??

  3. basically, give us our own country and we will stop the violence is what you’re saying. If you people weren’t separatists, none of this would have to happen. You can fight for 1 year or you can fight for 10 years or you can fight for 100 years, India is not giving up any inch of land. When will you learn this lesson. Those who call for separatism are the ones responsible for all the deaths, both of soldiers and of civilians.

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