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FPJ Edit: Nagaland tragedy -- apologies, inquiries won’t work; first, bridge the yawning trust deficit between govt & the people

02:30 AM Dec 08, 2021 | FPJ Editorial

The tragedy in Nagaland’s Mon district, where a vehicle carrying coal miners was shot at by security forces under the impression that it was carrying insurgents, and the subsequent death of seven civilians and a jawan in the unrest that followed, points to the fragile nature of the ‘peace’ in the northeast in general and Nagaland in particular, given that the incident occurred in the midst of a ceasefire which has been accepted by all Naga separatist groups and that there is an ongoing engagement between the Centre and the dominant National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-IM) and other Naga groups to hammer out a lasting solution to the vexed Naga issue, and despite the fact that the elected civilian government in Nagaland is actually part of the ruling NDA alliance.

The Centre has been quick to try and douse the fires set off by this unfortunate incident, with Home Minister Amit Shah expressing the government’s “sincere regret”, and promising a report within a month by a special investigation team formed by the Nagaland police. The Assam Rifles, which carried out the operation, has also expressed regret and formed its own court of inquiry.

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However, these measures are unlikely to bear the desired fruit unless the yawning trust deficit between the government and the people of Nagaland is bridged. While it is clear that the incident was the outcome of a catastrophic failure of intelligence rather than a sinister crackdown on civilians, the fact that a van full of villagers was fired upon without warning points to failures of judgement by the personnel on the ground, as well as lapses in due process in the execution of the operation. The fact that there have been numerous such incidents in the past, none of which have resulted in the prosecution or punishment of errant forces, adds to the trust deficit. Justice must not only be done but seen to be done.

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At the heart of the problem is the hugely problematic Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). Originally passed in 1958 and amended in 1972 to tackle Naga insurgency, the AFSPA has been invoked by the government repeatedly in other troubled areas as well. It is currently operational in Jammu & Kashmir, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and parts of Assam as well. The Act gives sweeping powers to the Armed forces to take pre-emptive and coercive action and also provides immunity from prosecution unless first sanctioned by the Central government.

Under the AFSPA, Armed forces are authorised to shoot to kill or destroy a building on mere suspicion. Even a non-commissioned officer can arrest anyone on suspicion, or fire at anyone carrying anything which can be construed as a weapon. While there have been multiple incidents of excesses in the past as well, the fact is that till date, no member of the security forces has been punished for offences carried out under the aegis of the AFSPA – in fact, no prosecution has ever been sanctioned.

The latest incident comes at a particularly critical time, with India in a tense face-off with China across the Ladakh border. With China also laying claims to large swathes of territory in the northeast, including almost all of Arunachal Pradesh, the widespread anger among the civilian population over the deaths may provide fertile ground to foment further anti-India feelings.

Neighbouring Myanmar, with which many Naga and Manipuris have close ties and which is used as a base by many insurgent groups, has also been thrown into turmoil with the prison sentence passed on overthrown Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi. It is imperative, therefore, that the government moves quickly to defuse the situation and ensure that the ongoing peace talks are not derailed. For that to happen, there must be a thorough review of the AFSPA.

The Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission, which probed the use of the AFSPA, as well as the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) has recommended the repeal of Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958, in the past. The Supreme Court has been critical of the lack of due process ingrained within the AFSPA. It is imperative that these views are taken into consideration in a thoroughgoing review of the Act, as well as actions carried out under the aegis of the AFSPA.

At the end of the day, any separatist movement – however large or small its support base – can only be resolved through a political process. The continued use of the Armed forces – created and trained to fight the country’s enemies – against civilian populations cannot provide the foundation for any lasting solution. In the instant case, the government can rebuild lost trust with the people of Nagaland by backing up its prompt expression of regret and admission of error with at least some kind of action against the errant forces.

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