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IDSA COMMENT

Extension of the Disturbed Areas Act in Nagaland

July 25, 2016

Through a Union Home Ministry Notification of June 30, 2016, the Government of India has extended the coverage of the Disturbed Areas Act (DAA) to the entire State of Nagaland by six more months until December 31 this year, within the enabling provisions of Section 3 of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The areas, which today constitute Nagaland State, have effectively been under the purview of AFSPA since May 1958.

AFSPA and the consequent DAA provisions have continued to remain promulgated in Nagaland State even after the last substantive ceasefire agreement between the Union Government and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Issac-Muivah) (NSCN-IM) went into effect on August 1, 1997. The other major insurgent group – National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Khaplang) (NSCN–K) – was brought within the fold of a ceasefire accord in 2001. However, if the incident ofJune 4, 2015 – resulting in a major ambush on the Army in Chandel district of Manipur on May 27, 2015 – is any indicator, the NSCN (K) has been re-grouping, bolstering its combat potential with illicit arms supplies including through indirect channelling of some contents from China, and continues to operate from Myanmar towards maintaining its insurrectionist activities in Nagaland. The NSCN(K) was keen to nullify the ceasefire and, in fact, unilaterally abrogated the ceasefire on March 27, 2015. In this backdrop, and keeping in view the recent Framework Naga Peace Accord concluded by the Union Government with NSCN(IM) on August 3 last year (though a comprehensive agreement is yet to be consummated), the latest decision concerning the extension of the DAA needs a critical appraisal.

Former Union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai had observed in November 2012 (in an IDSA compendium on the AFSPA) that a State like Nagaland continues to be designated as disturbed despite the fact that hostilities have remained suspended (at that time) for more than a decade and no security personnel killed during that period. He thereby implied that though the State has remained largely peaceful (with the ceasefire with the major insurgent groups holding and elected civil administrations in place in the State), AFSPA and the DAA have not been critically reviewed.

In contrast, in Tripura, the Left-Front Communist Party-controlled State Government has withdrawn AFSPA from the entire State which was once bedevilled by serious home-grown, but externally supported, insurgent outfits. There is however, a difference in the political and administrative situation prevailing in the two States. While in Tripura there has been stable governments with effective grass-root public delivery systems in place as well as substantive functional autonomy in the spheres of governance affecting the State’s tribal people, the situation in Nagaland is different in various aspects. Nagaland, at present, is in an obfuscated political milieu despite the Accord of August 2015. A series of defections (from Congress – the main Opposition Party – as well as from the BJP) to the ruling Naga Peoples’ Front (NPF) has taken place in the Nagaland State Assembly over the past one and a half years. The Congress Party, a major player in Nagaland politics since the creation of the State, appears to be virtually eclipsed for the present. Factionalism prevails within the NPF. The present lone Lok Sabha member of Nagaland and former three-time Chief Minister has been expelled from the NPF. Further, the State administration is facing administrative and financial constraints and is, above all, unable to politically steer the State and reinforce the Union Government’s efforts to assimilate and unify the various insurgent groups as well as civil society organizations towards a consummation of the peace process. Notwithstanding the political hiatus, the security situation in the State is broadly under control.

In the above-mentioned environment, while a complete roll-back of AFSPA and restriction in the ambit of DAA may not have been warranted, a selective application of these statutory provisions would have been more purposeful. Application of the provisions to, say, the eastern districts of Nagaland, districts or select areas bordering Arunachal Pradesh and the Myanmar frontier, would have sent an appropriate message to shore up public confidence for an overall settlement of the Naga issue, and against those harbouring inimical intentions vis-à-vis the Union Government’s peace initiative. It is undeniable that AFSPA and DAA still create a certain unfavourable impact on the North-Easterners’ psyche, particularly in States and regions affected by disturbances of various types and insurgency. It is time for the Central authorities to decisively push the political process for a Naga settlement as far and extensively as possible, instead of depending on traditional institutions and local government leaders.

Prima facie, the continuation of AFSPA and DAA in Nagaland may imply the inadequacy or ineffectiveness of normal institutions of civil and police administration as well as of the deployed Central forces like Assam Rifles, Central Reserve Police Force and the Army. Despite the internal political fluidity and, to an extent, uncertain political environment in the State, the overall conditions may not be deemed so fragile or beyond the control of the central and state machinery without the above-referred statutory provisions. Viewed from such a perspective, perhaps, a more nuanced approach on the extension of the DAA may have been more appropriate.

Furthermore, with a newly-elected Myanmar Government led by Htin Kyaw of the National League for Democracy in power since March 2016, and in the context of a political accommodation being attempted in that country with various ethnic groups (an Accord has already been reached between the Myanmar Government and seven insurgent groups operating near the Thailand border and in western areas adjacent to India), there is scope to work with a friendly government at Nay Pyi Taw to goad the Myanmarese Nagas and the NSCN(K) (its leader, Khaplang, is a citizen of Myanmar) to restrict their political activities within that country. The Union Government may therefore use the instrumentality of AFSPA and DAA to create a security overhang in the Nagaland and Manipur districts in or near the areas of NSCN(K) influence, thus containing the latter’s activities from the security angle. Such an approach would have been more politically appropriate and likely to lead to better outcomes.

The author is a retired IDAS officer, who has served as Adviser to the North Eastern Council and was till recently a senior Additional Chief Secretary-level Adviser of the Government of Nagaland.

The views expressed are the author`s own.