Sanjoy Hazarika, well-known political commentator and author, who specialises in the north-eastern region and its neighbourhood, said strong political will, determination and vision for the future was necessary to repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. Hazarika was a member of the Justice (retd) B.P. Jeevan Reddy Committee created to review the AFSPA. “Without justice there cannot be lasting peace,” he told Frontline in an interview. Excerpts:
You were a member of the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee. What was the historical context and rationale behind the committee’s recommendation for repealing the AFSPA?
One very compelling reason was that it was a bare Act that had been drafted a long time ago. As a result, the committee said in the report that the Act had become an object of hatred and fear among the people, especially where its provisions were used widely. And we felt that the repeal was necessary not just to win the confidence of the people but also to ensure that the security forces stayed within the parameters of the law. That was a very specific thing. The government needs to listen to the voices of the people.
Let us take the latest incident that happened. There was no insurgency there. There was no warning as far as the report of the DGP [Director General of Police] and the Nagaland Commissioner is concerned. These were ordinary people, coal miners, returning home. This incident has shown how vulnerable ordinary people are And this point should not be lost along the way… the vulnerability of ordinary people returning home. Suddenly, their wives become widows. Children lose parents without warning, without notice. Parents lose their son without warning, without notice. This is unacceptable.
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The second thing is, I have been saying this for many years, that the people of Nagaland, and especially Manipur and other States like Assam, that have suffered, have been engaging with the idea of India. They have been engaging with India and other Indians almost every day over the past so many decades, especially the past two decades; they are migrating to Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Gujarat, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Rajasthan, Kerala, wherever there are job and education opportunities. They are starting businesses; their music is well known; they have opened restaurants; our cuisines are gaining popularity in the metros; in sports our people have made a tremendous mark—football, boxing and weightlifting, to name a few. So, they are becoming entrepreneurs, leaders, social activists, singers, lawyers, teachers, professors in universities, even Jawaharlal University and Delhi University. They are from Nagaland and Manipur, but I am very worried that thefissures caused by the latest killings will lead to deep hurt and anger, both are accompanying emotions. This incident may create greater distance between the rest of India and our brothers and sisters in Nagaland. That is one thing that really troubles me. More than the provisions of the Act itself is this re-distancing, which may harden positions on both sides. A lot is being said on WhatsApp groups of various retired officials and officers that the Army should not be blamed. The thing is justice should be done. That is all. Who is found guilty, that is for the courts, whether military or civil, to decide. The Supreme Court had ruled in 2016 that just because you have these powers does not mean that you have the impunity to do anything.
The Jeevan Reddy Committee had also recommended insertion of appropriate provisions in the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967? What difference does it make to the situation on the ground?
We had suggested some legal mechanisms for the Army. Because in a situation where you are being fired at, you are not going to ask questions; you are going to react in self-defence. And, we have said it very clearly that in a volatile situation, in an area of conflict, the Army needs to have a protective mechanism, a legal mechanism. Without it, it cannot operate. We said that we need to scrap the AFSPA because it had become such a symbol of hatred. If you don’t repeal it, at least amend the provisions of the AFSPA to make it more amenable to secure justice for those who feel oppressed by it or insert a few clauses into the UAPA. The UAPA, which was there in 2005, would give the Army a protective legal mechanism and also give opportunities to the public to ask questions and have their grievances redressed.
Therefore, one key mechanism aimed at building confidence among the people we had recommended was that there should be grievances cells with representatives of the Army, the police, the civil administration and civil society who could listen to the concerns of the aggrieved when a person’s close ones go missing or are detained or whisked away by security forces. This suggestion was made by the late Lt General V.K. Nayar. Gen. Nayar, who had been the Director General, Military Operations, as well as the Governor of Manipur, was a highly respected person in the north-east and was known for his frankness and tough talk . He had said very clearly that grievances cells were one way of redressing and addressing these issues. This could be a mechanism through which they [the people] could vent their grievances and the responses should come within a specific time period. It is a very good recommendation, and it still holds good.
Time and again people have said that the Act should go, but the Army should stay. Because at that point, you know, conditions were different. There was still a state of insurgency in parts of Manipur, in parts of Assam, but not so much in Nagaland. Conditions have changed dramatically, I would say only a few groups are in conflict with the nation state, and most of them are in dialogue or in discussions, or in detention, or some of them are not relevant anymore. There is another factor that we need to remember. The AFSPA was promulgated and implemented in 1958, that is, 63 years ago, five years before Nagaland became a separate State, carved out of Assam. So, the AFSPA was used actually for the Naga Hills district of Assam . Nagaland has not known a single day without AFPSA. The Nagas, who were born in 1958, have not known a single day without the AFPSA. Even with the changed conditions, they have not really had a chance to run their governments the way other governments in other parts of India have and do.
What according to you is standing in the way of repealing the AFSPA?
I think it needs strong political will, determination and vision for the future to do that. The United Progressive Alliance government was not capable of doing that. I hope that some government, either the current one or a future one, will do it. I am not so sanguine that it will be revoked, although it should be. But I believe that the critical reasons for the Act not being repealed is that there were recommendations from the Ministry of Defence and the Army that they could not function in an insurgency situation without this law. It would be fighting with one arm tied behind the back. But to that I say: internal political and security conditions in Nagaland have completely changed.
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The Jeevan Reddy Committee report included a separate note by you in which you suggested that the dependence of States on the Army must be reduced to the minimum and that the armed forces should be deployed only as a last resort. Do you think that the prevailing insurgency situation in the north-eastern region can be tackled by the local police and does not require deployment of the armed forces?
There were years when not a single Indian soldier fell in combat or violence in Nagaland after the ceasefire, which began in 1997. So, the conditions have changed. And the committee was told, this is on record, that the Nagaland government was very clear that it can handle the situation with its own forces. It does not need the AFSPA. In fact, Nagaland has got a strong State Act, the Nagaland Security Regulations Act, under which the State can actually seize property, evict people from their own property and, like the powers under the AFSPA, use force “for the causing of death” upon suspicion.
The Centre continues to declare the State as a disturbed area when the State does not want it to be declared so. Now, it is possible for a State to say we do not want to be declared a disturbed area, we are not disturbed, just as Tripura did some years ago, under the previous government of Manik Sarkar, because it had defeated insurgency.
In the case of Nagaland, the insurgents are not defeated, they are in negotiations, which is the right and honourable thing to be done. So that is basically where things stand. The Army must be the last resort in insurgency conditions not the first, the AFSPA puts that burden on them and that is not right. There comes a time when their job is done, overall peace is restored, dialogue is on, the mandate is handed over to civilian forces.
The UAPA bars any suit, prosecution or other legal proceedings against any serving or retired member of the armed forces or paramilitary forces carrying out operation under it. When it provides the same impunity to armed forces as in the AFSPA, do you fear that human rights violations in the north-east will continue even after the scrapping of the AFSPA?
We recommended, in good faith, the repeal of the AFSPA to ensure that nobody was above the law. And those who suffered as a result would have the protection and access to justice. The fact of the matter is that in 58 years of Nagaland’s existence, and even before the State was created, the AFSPA was in force. You had one law that was beyond the control and reach of the State government to counter. It could not handle issues if people suffered, even if its own officers suffered, at the hands of the security forces; it could not give them justice or access to justice. Because, the human rights law in India, Article 19, says that if there is an incident of such case, where the Army is involved, the Army’s legal procedure takes precedence over civilian courts. So, that is in the law itself. But there is another thing I want to tell you.
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Nagaland does not have a State Human Rights Commission. It is the State which has been longest under AFSPA, 63 years. But it does not have a State Human Rights Commission. This is a terrible gap that must be remedied. What kind of effective role such a commission will play may not be clear now. But such commissions are spaces for ordinary citizens to seek remedy from abuse and harm they may have suffered at the hands of government officials—it is for everybody. So, one of the first things that the State government must do is set up the State Human Rights Commission in Nagaland. The National Human Rights Commission should give them all help and expertise in doing so. There is a State Women Commission in Nagaland, but no State Human Rights Commission.
What, according to you, is the pragmatic approach to end armed conflicts in the north-eastern region?
The pragmatic approach is to keep the dialogue going, keep the conversations going. It is an amazing feat both for the government of India and the Naga groups that they have continued talks for 25 years. Some may see this to be frustrating, a terrible delay. I do too. But I say it is better than fighting each other, killing each other. So everyone, the stakeholders, civil society groups, who have played a huge role in keeping the process going and the peace alive, and the media, must pull together, be more responsible. They must work to ensure that the dialogue is transparent, proper, and comes to a conclusion. And the swift trial of those involved in the recent Mon killings and justice seen to be done to those families who have suffered is going to be pivotal. Without justice there cannot be lasting peace.