Tushar A Gandhi
December 10, 2021
“Democracy of my conception is wholly inconsistent with the use of physical force for enforcing its will.”
– MK Gandhi, The Diary of Mahadev Desai
Unfortunately, an increasing number of democracies, or those that claim to be democracies, use armed forces against their own citizens to enforce their will. India, the world’s most populous democracy, has been doing this to quell dissent internally for a while. This is a shame for a nation that till recently proclaimed to the world how it had fought and gained independence using the unique weapon of non-violence. I say ‘till recently’ because ‘New India’ is ashamed of its freedom movement and has discarded non-violence.
Since Independence, India has become addicted to utilising its army to quell dissent of every kind and to subjugate and crush citizens fighting for a separate identity or for their democratic rights. This practice has created many shameful episodes.
Recently, on December 4, 2021, one occurred in Nagaland. A special forces unit of the Army, was conducting an ‘operation’ against ‘separatist militants’. They intercepted a vehicle and killed six occupants that they thought were terrorists. They turned out to be civilians – mine workers returning home after work. It is alleged that the soldiers then tried to cover up the encounter.
When news of the killings became known, there was grief and anger and, in the violence that ensued, one soldier and seven civilians were killed – a grave tragedy caused by a shameful error and compounded by official apathy.
The Union Home Minister expressed regret and, predictably, the Government of India formed a special investigation team to probe the incident. But at the root of this tragedy is an act of Parliament, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act or AFSPA, as it is better known.
North-East has suffered intensely
Nagaland has had a long running movement, termed as separatist by India but many in Nagaland consider it their freedom movement. Almost the entire North-East since pre-British times was home to several tribes. The tribes governed territories and lived in that manner for centuries. When the British annexed territories to create their colony, they left the tribes alone but these territories were loosely considered to be part of British India. When India became independent, these territories were assumed to be part of India. However, many of the tribes even now refuse to accept this and have been fighting for autonomy or freedom ever since.
The Naga tribal areas were initially considered to be part of Assam, but the Naga people never accepted it.
To quell the unrest that followed, Parliament passed an act in 1958 giving special powers to armed forces to act against citizens. It was specifically applied to what was then called the Naga Hills. There has been much debate about AFSPA and Indians are aware of its Draconian nature. What is most undemocratic is that it gives the armed forces immunity from civilian prosecution and the laws of the land.
The Disturbed Areas Act, another law enacted by the Parliament, under which AFSPA is imposed, has to be renewed every three months and so it implies that AFSPA also must be withdrawn after three months or renewed. In the North-East, it has been in force since 1958 and is today in force in Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and three districts of Arunachal Pradesh – Changlang, Longding and Tirap. In 1990, AFSPA was imposed in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, too, where it is still in force. In 1983, AFSPA was imposed in Punjab and Chandigarh too but was withdrawn in 1990.
Irom Sharmila went on a hunger strike to protest against AFSPA. She was arrested but continued the strike for 16 long years, a prolonged protest during which she refused nourishment and was force fed. For those who have forgotten, her protest was triggered by a similar massacre of civilians by Indian armed forcesin Malom Makha Leikai near Imphal’s Tulihal Airport in November 2000. The 10 civilian deaths sparked mass protests in Manipur and all over the North-East.
There have been many accusations of rape and torture against the armed forces in the North-East, but they have been shielded from prosecution by AFSPA. On July 15, 2004, 12 Manipuri women stripped naked in front of the headquarters of the Assam Rifles regiment to protest against the murder of Manorama Thangjam, who they alleged was repeatedly raped before she was killed by soldiers. The organisation Mothers of Manipur continues to protest against AFSPA and the authoritarian actions of the armed forces.
Strike it down
The recent killings in Nagaland have reignited the protest against the prolonged imposition of AFSPA and North-Eastern chief ministers have called for its repeal. Many human rights activists have echoed the demand. It must go. India carries on much of the colonial legacy – the sedition law, contempt of court – all of which have no place in a mature democracy.
It is ironic that democratic India has chosen to use its military to subjugate its own people. In colonial times, India and Indians paid a terrible price because of the brutal actions of the colonial armies. After the of 1857 Mutiny, the army of the British East India Company unleashed a reign of terror. When the British Crown took over, it continued this practice. The most vicious and brutal examples were in their oppression of Punjab. Martial law was imposed to quell civil disobedience and Indians were subjected to unimaginable brutality.
The colonial administration even promulgated an order that, in a particular lane in Amritsar, Indians must crawl on their bellies. To impose it, they positioned armed police at both ends of the lane. Indians entering that lane were forced to crawl on their bellies and a policeman would walk alongside to push them down by standing on their backs if they dared to rise. Indians were not even allowed to lift their heads. Those who disobeyed were stripped, flogged or even shot as per the whim of the policemen. Men, women and children, no one was spared.
British barbarity plumbed a new low in Amritsar on April 13, 1919. Citizens gathered at Jallianwala Bagh in central Amritsar to protest peacefully against the Rowlatt Act and the brutal martial law. The Lieutenant Governor of Punjab Michael Francis O’Dwyer wanted to teach them a lesson, so he authorised General Reginald Dyer with absolute power to do what it took to maintain order. Dyer marched to the ground, sealed off the sole exit and ordered his men to shoot to kill. Officially, 379 people were killed and 1,200 injured but many have claimed that over 1,000 died and the injured were never accurately counted.
After an outcry, the colonial administration appointed an inquiry commission but it was an eye wash – both O’Dwyer and Dyer were feted as heroes in England. The British government has never apologised to India for its brutality but it was an alien power that had enslaved us and did not consider us human.
Unfortunately, governments of ‘democratic’ India have applied similar policies to subjugate its own citizens. AFSPA is only one example of it.
What happened in Nagaland and what has been happening in the North-East for long and in Kashmir and it can happen anywhere in India. The army, which is supposed to safeguard our territorial integrity and citizens, must not become our oppressors. It is no longer enough to scrap AFSPA; the time has come for a Constitutional amendment that prevents armed forces from action internally.
The armed forces are needed to provide relief during disasters, but they must be prohibited from armed action internally. That is not their job. Internal deployment also reduces their ability to act effectively against external aggression. We see it happening in Kashmir and in the North-East too.
AFSPA, therefore, is not only a threat to citizens but is also detrimental to the armed forces.
Tushar Gandhi, great grandson of the Mahatma, is an activist, author and president of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation. Reach him here: email@example.com.