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The Land of the Lawless:

Beneath the Blanket of Armed Conflicts in the Northeast

by Rutu Patel

The “Northeast” as addressed by its western counterparts, stands as an exceptional case against the efforts made by the post-colonial masters of India to build a multi-cultural, multi-religious and a multi-lingual democratic society. India’s tumultuous relations with this region has taken numerous faces in the form of laws, regional militias, ethnic and cultural oppression and insurgencies. The government often shelves this discussion by labeling it as a purely “insurgency issue”, whereas in efforts to uncover the substantive reasons to this deep-rooted problem; I present a set of arguments that lays bare the duplicity and vested interests of the Central government behind the deliberately manufactured façade of “insurgent conflicts”. Specifically, I examine this through the Armed forces Special powers act, 1958; a law that enables the Central government to institutionalize counter-insurgency operations into formal and informal structures of governance also called counter-insurgent constitutionalism in these democracy-deficit regions of northeast India. To support my argument, I use Giorgio Agamben’s ideas of “Sovereign power and Law in the State of Exception”. Positioning AFSPA at the nexus of governmental framework, pierces through the dogmas of sovereignty, federal governance, and penetration of these ideologies into laws and policy frameworks that invariably affect the lives of indigenous people living in those regions. 

Security dilemma – Converting an Imperial frontier into a national space

The region today known as Arunachal Pradesh was once a part of British Imperial India’s “frontier system” (Barua 2020). It was a part of Assam and borders with present day Tibet and Myanmar. After independence, due to strategic importance, this region fell under the direct authority of the Central government, represented by the Governor of Assam and remained separated from the elected state government. Manipur and Tripura became union territories in 1955 and Assam was divided into five states, namely- Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram (Baruah 2003). The unrest began in Nagaland, in opposition to succumb their territory in the hands of Indian and Burmese rule soon after the British colonial administration ended. By 1950s, the movement spiraled into an armed conflict between regional militias and armed forces. To gain control over this condition, Armed Forces Special Powers Act was introduced in 1958, by the Central Government, which marked the beginning of a vicious cycle of seeking freedom through violent means aggravated by the tyranny of armed forces, which in turn explains the need for a brutal law like AFSPA. 

The war of 1962 between India and China brought in significant reasons of anxiety for Indian officials as it exposed India’s weaknesses not only in North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), but also across Assam. Furthermore, alongside the Naga movement growing strong, there were also rumblings of trouble in other areas of the region, and some rebel groups were suspected of collaborating with India’s external foes. This fear of “internal’ and ‘external’ enemies, further fueled by cultural divide with rest of the country, posed a major threat in terms of national security to the Indian government. In this context, a new Indian strategy evolved, aiming to expand state institutions all the way to border zones, thus nationalizing this frontier space (Baruah 2003). Hence, the Northeast was broken down into seven fractions, each equipped with the formal institutional framework of Indian state governments but only in a cosmetic sense. The Central government wields significant powers; from planning and financing all major projects in the region and even to label it as “disturbed areas” according to their whims. 

Cosmetic Federalism – the parent of AFSPA

These “Special category states” have no direct sources of tax, revenues or other foreign or local income. They remain highly dependent on the Central government for financial assistance, which is given to them on a subsidized basis. Such dependence gives the Central government unprecedented power over the region and at the same time it means that major projects and decisions are taken in New Delhi (Ibid), which is far away from Northeast with minimal representation of the indigenous people. The Central government constituted an institution that operates in the northeast called – North Eastern Council (NEC), to promote security and national development. This institution consisted of governors of all states, appointed by the central government and wielded major power, which elsewhere are only constitutional heads of state governments. However, the NEC could not remain separated from the states’ democratic politics perpetually, and as that gap closed upon, the NEC’s security role weakened. The members of NEC were in constant dilemma of support from local leaders for wider appeal and power versus the home ministry and its orders and propaganda. Amidst all this, NEC drifted from its purpose and the security weakened. Interestingly, the security duty was not devolved to state governments, rather it was transferred to the Home Ministry in New Delhi.  The formulation of AFSPA, 1958 portrays this gap between the moral connection of the Indian government and the northeast. The hegemony of a rather democratic government over only specific or special regions or in the case of northeast – “disturbed areas” shows potential deformation in the ideologies of democracy.

 AFSPA can be seen as a tool of the Indian Government to maintain direct control over culturally and ethnically different regions. This is seen as a total opposite of what Antonio Gramsci proposed in his theory of “ideological hegemony”. Ideological hegemony can be defined as “The idea of unequal relationship between the haves and the have nots, the dominating class and the subaltern lot” (Sharma 2021), twisted into a version of hegemony with consent of the subjugated classes to exploit and control in a more subtle way without their knowledge. The dispensation of a cruel law like AFSPA to curb insurgencies furthers the gap between the people of Northeast who already feel isolated from the country and are devoid of feeling of nationalism. It is not a subtle way of exerting power and seeping into the ideologies of the citizens, rather this law of brutally killing the citizens on the basis of suspicion encourages citizens to continue the insurgencies giving rise to more problems.  

Sovereignty of the Law – Homo Sacer

As Giorgio Agamben explains, the sovereign power establishes itself through the production of a political order operating outside the juridical order, although at the same time belonging to it because of the power rests on the sovereign to decide whether to suspend the constitution in a disturbed area completely. In the case of AFSPA, the sovereign i.e., the central government decides to suspend the constitutional rights of the citizens for almost 60 years after India proudly declared itself a democratic country. This explains the imperative of colonizing “life itself” (Humphreys 2006) and the process of slowly diminishing meaningful political action (ibid). Due to the uneven power distribution and demand for permanent independence, Naga groups formed their militia groups causing some disturbances and civilian killings. In Assam, due to large-scale migration from Bangladesh people of the Bodo tribes formed Bodo Liberation Tigers Force and fought for the autonomy over Bodoland. These regional militias caused disruption of normative life in the north-east.  Using the Naga and the Bodo insurgencies in its advantage to declare the area as a state of exception, the central government has successfully built a narrative of “insurgent conflicts” rather than “armed conflicts”, hence justifying the need for AFSPA. Insurgent conflicts caused by ethnic militias are often portrayed as extremists or terrorist acts by the mainstream media. Whereas the in a polarized regional disorder, ethnic militias are seen to provide security to their own region against armed rival militia or Indian security forces. The proliferation of regional militias exponentially is evidence that they serve crucial purposes that the Central government fails to fulfill. The role of the security provider strengthened after the implementation of AFSPA. Conflicts between armed forces and ethnic militias rose rapidly, several ceasefires killed civilians. The state declared north-east as a state of exception due to “insurgent conflicts” to access exceptional powers over this region. In the state of exception, the one in power has “the force of law” because he has the power to decide when is the state of exception applicable. Hence, a juridical order is still maintained even when the law itself remains largely suspended. The preservation of this juridical order takes pace when the Central authority exercises “constituent power” (ibid). In essence it means that no law or constitution is applicable other than the decision of the sovereign itself. This condition of suspending the rule of law in the region and giving birth to a new law makes AFSPA a lawless law. This is a deformation of democracy and as observed by many political philosophers like Charles Tilly and J. L Comaroff, democratic rule has brought in a wave of lawless laws into existence due to imbalance of power in some regions. 

This is linked to another principle that Agamben talks about, which is bare life or “Homo sacer”. Homo means person and sacer means sacred. Homo Sacer is a form of ancient roman law, referring to a person who can be killed anytime by anybody, but cannot be given as a ritualistic offering to the gods. In the state of exception, which is AFSPA, in my case; the life of the citizens of the northeast is reduced to a bare life, invaluable or cheap to the country. The army personnel have the license to kill any citizen on the mere basis of suspicion, on top of that they have the immunity from any juridical procedure or investigations for their actions. 

Concluding thoughts 

The AFSPA legislation, which has a colonial history and exploits the military to cultivate docile citizen-subjects, aids in the suppression of sub-nationalist ambitions and manifestations. It shows the Indian state’s sovereign right to terrorize people, make life and death decisions, and classify rebels as antinational or terrorists. Repression has proven to be ineffective and counterproductive. AFSPA legitimizes “inequality,” and there is no legal recourse for army actions. Interestingly it can also be called as the “legal” becomes “lethal”. It is clear that government uses extra judicial power to make a framework of government institutions to wield power over regions of dispute not to settle them peacefully but to aggravate them by laws like AFSPA and reducing the lives of the citizens to mere biological importance; whereas they guaranteed right to life in the constitution of India. This leaves the deformations of a democracy bare in front of the people to witness the dance of death within the valleys of northeast and Kashmir. 

Rutu Patel is a second-year masters student studying Public Policy and Governance from Jindal School of Governance and Policy. 

Photo courtesy – Atowar Rahman

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