In the North East of India, the army can open fire on a gathering of five or more people if they feel the need, and can do so without fear of prosecution.
The extraordinary powers are the result of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA). Initially justified as a temporary means to contain an insurgency in the Naga hills of Assam, the act later extended to other areas of the North East. It gives special powers, liberties and impunity to Indian armed forces posted to ‘disturbed areas’. Arrest and search warrants are not required for any operation; army officers can fire upon and use lethal force on an unlawful assembly of five or more people or for the illegal possession of firearms; and no army personnel are prosecuted, unless sanctioned by the Indian Government. It gives the armed forces powers to arrest on insubstantial pretexts, conduct warrantless searches and shoot to kill without the fear of being held accountable.
Since it came into force, disturbing reports have emerged from the region. Soldiers allegedly raped and murdered Thangjam Manorama Devi during interrogation by paramilitary group the Assam Rifles; women were raped during ‘Operation Birdie’ in 1997-98; the Assam Rifles used women as human shields; a 13-year-old girl was gang-raped by five soldiers; and 14 women were raped in 1988. Moreover, AFSPA has caused human rights violations including enforced disappearances, faking an encounter with a criminal, and extrajudicial killings.
The social anthropologist Dolly Kikon writes that the AFSPA has transformed the North East into an area occupied by people viewed as ‘suspicious’ and ‘dangerous’ by the military.
But who the ‘real’ and ‘alleged’ perpetrators of violence under AFSPA are is less clear.
In the state of Manipur, the Manipur Commando takes the most active role in operations. In the 1980s, a small force of commandos was set up from the armed wing of the Manipur Police to strengthen counter-insurgency operations. They were given special training in weaponry, strategies, unarmed combat, cordon, search, and so on, and were also given special financial assistance by the State Government.
Human rights activists have catalogued a strong correlation between extrajudicial killings and commando activity. Their allegations were strengthened by a confession made by T. Herojit Singh, head constable of the Manipur Commandos in January 2016. He confirmed the fake encounters and extrajudicial killings and writing false reports to cover them up. He said they were carried out on the direct orders of the superior officers, contradicting the official line from the Indian Army and the Manipur Police that all the encounters were in self-defence.
Many of the perpetrators were never brought to justice and some of them have received promotions or gallantry medals and recognition of their dedication as police officers. According to researcher Jyoti Belur, “it is not what actually takes place in an encounter situation but rather how it is represented on paper that is important, because all inquiries or the court is going to examine the paperwork done by the police as documentary evidence.”
The violence has inspired activism, particularly from women, in the North East. Collectives include women-led associations like the Meira Paibis, Extrajudicial Execution Victim Families’ Association (EEVFAM) and Women Guns Survivors Network Manipur (MWGSN), and individual activists including famed hunger-striker Irom Sharmila.
They highlight the dangers of the AFSPA to a democratic society, critiquing it as being draconian, inhuman, unconstitutional and irrelevant.
The Meira Paibis received international recognition when twelve members stripped naked outside the gates of Assam Rifles headquarters in 2004. The outcome of the protest was that the Rifles vacated their headquarters and AFSPA was withdrawn from seven local government jurisdictions. Similarly, the EEVFAM, in cooperation with Human Rights Alert and the Human Rights Law Network, was instrumental in filing a petition in 2012 to the supreme court sparking an investigation of 1,528 extra-judicial killings in Manipur.
Despite a 2016 Supreme Court judgement that said the Indian Army and paramilitary personnel may not use excessive or retaliatory force even in zones that come under AFSPA, the struggle continues. AFSPA is still understood to be operative in many districts of Manipur. Extrajudicial killings continue. For example Mangboilal Lhouvum, a low-wage earner and father of four, was shot in the abdomen and abandoned on the roadside on the night of 4 June 2021. Before succumbing to his injury, in a video that has gone viral, he testified to being shot at the command of a major in the Assam Rifles in Manipur.
In February of 2022, EEVFAM and Human Rights Alert released a joint statement condemning the Manipur Government for not fulfilling its promise to investigate and punish perpetrators of extrajudicial killing despite highlighting the issue during election campaigns. The statement said, “in the last five years of its rule, the state government did not initiate a single criminal investigation into these cases.”
In April 2022, the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs suspended AFSPA in seven districts of another state, Nagaland; six more districts of Manipur; and 23 districts entirely and one district partially in Assam. In Manipur, the Act remains intact in the hill districts. The Indian Government’s strategy towards the plea for repeal of AFSPA seems to be to respond in bits or parts but without actually doing away with it.
The way AFSPA is applied illustrates how certain spaces and populations become marginalised through the administration of the state. Selectively reducing AFSPA from the valley districts while retaining them in the hills might add fuel to the already contentious political relationship between the hill tribes and the Meitei community who are more populous in the valley regions.
Under the present dispensation, violence perpetrated by insurgents is curbed by another form of violence — similar in form and content but legitimised by the state. It highlights the need to reinstate and restore faith in the democratic process of the state. If the partial removal of AFSPA was deemed possible in some regions, due to “improved security situation”, a similar assessment may be possible in the near future that will result in a complete removal of the Act.