The Government of India extended the declaration on Disturbed Area provisions in Nagaland till the end of June 2018 under Section 3 of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) 1958. The raison d’être for the extension, as per the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) notification of December 30,2017 is that the whole of the state of Nagaland is in such a disturbed and dangerous condition that the use of armed forces in aid of the civil power is necessary.
Such a declaration designating areas as disturbed remains operative in a few other places in the North-Eastern region. However, a similar declaration and the imposition of AFSPA had been totally withdrawn from Tripura, which was earlier affected by insurgency. Interestingly, Nagaland has had its insurgency situation broadly under control for a number of years stretching back to the previous decade. Further, the extension of the Disturbed Area provisions in Nagaland is all the more surprising because a framework agreement for reconciliation between the Government of India and main insurgent group – the Nationalist Council of Nagalim (Issac-Muivah) (NSCN-IM) was concluded on August 3, 2015. Efforts are under way to include other Naga insurgent groups in the framework, and a ceasefire between the government and the insurgents, negotiated in 1997, has been holding even after the (NSCN-Khaplang) group decided in March 2015 not to be bound by the ceasefire agreement.
The moot point is whether continuance of the Disturbed Area provisions would facilitate progress towards a consummation of the framework agreement of 2015. The existing internal law and order situation in Nagaland as well as the broader security milieu within the state and its periphery has been largely peaceful in recent times. The only manifest deterioration in the law and order situation in Nagaland was the public upsurge in Kohima and Dimapur in February 2016. The violence then was against the introduction of reserved seats for women in local bodies below the provincial level without the concurrence of traditional ethnic institutions. This decision of the state government was in contravention of Article 371 of the Constitution. However, this short-term disturbance was contained by the state government both through the employment of the state and central police forces as well as by engaging in dialogue with civil society groups. Notwithstanding the historical backdrop of militancy in the state, there is no reason to construe that without the legal cover afforded by the Disturbed Areas Act, normal public security, functioning of state institutions and integrity and unity of the state of Nagaland and India would be undermined. Isolated incidents and movements of insurgents can be obviated through the oversight provided by the ceasefire monitoring committees in place and the disposition of the state`s police forces, central police units, and the Army in and around Nagaland. The overall situation may not be susceptible to deterioration beyond acceptable levels without the Disturbed Area notification and the concomitant application of the AFSPA. In fact, a former Union Home Secretary, while appraising the need for continuance of the AFSPA (which require the Disturbed Area cover to be operative) had opined that law and order-related casualties are perceptibly on the decline and are also lesser in Nagaland than in a place like Delhi.
There are probably institutional hurdles in the way of withdrawing the Disturbed Areas notification with respect to Nagaland. In all probability, the higher defence services headquarters and the Ministry of Defence as well as agencies like the Intelligence Bureau would have advocated for continuance of the provisions. The government would have taken their views into account and chose the option of maintaining the status quo. However, it is not clear whether the central political leadership attempted to take a progressive and long-term view, which envisages an early culmination of the Naga reconciliation process with the insurgents divested of their arms and eventually absorbed into the governance structures of the state. In such a framework, the Disturbed Area notification and AFSPA should not have primacy. The continued designation of the entire state as a Disturbed Area may not be deemed conducive for public morale and will not engender a confidence-building environment towards achieving a satisfactory outcome to the 2015 ad-hoc framework agreement.
The central government’s decision also denotes lack of confidence in the state government machinery for ensuring security. Such lacunas cannot be overcome by the statutory cover of the notification under reference. Moreover, this could also be indicative of the central government`s apprehension to the effect that the state government`s security apparatus, even in concert with supportive central resources, may not be able to ensure optimum security in the state, with a likely negative fallout on the Naga reconciliation process and possibility of a final peace agreement. Such an apprehension however cannot be considered well-founded. In this backdrop, it may be worthwhile for the MHA to consider placing the state under President`s rule after the tenure of the state legislative assembly expires in February 2018, especially given demands for deferment of elements including from the incumbent chief minister. . In this evolving scenario, the declaration of the state as a Disturbed Area is neither a judicious instrument nor a protective cover to ensure security and build public morale.
In the North-Eastern public psyche, notifications on Disturbed Areas and AFSPA have been generally viewed as odious, undemocratic and coercive. It is noteworthy that such statutes or notifications have not been promulgated in left-wing extremism affected states like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. With the promotion of developmental efforts by successive central governments during the past two decades, and the special initiatives taken by the present central government as part of its `Act East` drive, it may be appropriate to modify the above-cited statutory declaration apropos Nagaland, if not withdraw it altogether. It will be a curious incongruity to work towards a trans-Asian highway intended to bring about intermingling of cultures, promotion of trade and comprehensive welfare of the people who inhabit the region even as it traverses a `disturbed area` like Nagaland. While Disturbed Area provisions – and also the AFSPA – may only be enabling instruments of last resort for ensuring the maintenance of minimum security thresholds within Nagaland, their utility may only have limited efficacy. Furthermore, the disparity in the approach of the Union government vis-à-vis different states may not engender confidence among the people of Nagaland in the Indian governance process. The declaration of the Disturbed Area provision is fundamentally at odds with the mutually accommodative integration endeavour of the Nagas with the Indian Union as envisioned in the 2015 framework agreement.
The author is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior appointments with Government of India and a State Government. The views expressed are the author`s own.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.