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Home / Opinion / The need to withdraw Afspa from Manipur

Manipur, an important border state with Myanmar, heads towards state assembly elections in February 2017. Of all the state-level elections in 2017—Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Manipur, Uttarakhand, Goa, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh—this could be one of the most important. India recast its Look East policy, which originated during the P.V. Narasimha Rao regime in the early 1990s, as the Act East policy in November 2014. But if the economic and infrastructure development that the policy calls for is to take place, one of the most vexatious issues concerning both the state as well as the Central governments must first be addressed—the continuation of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (Afspa) in Manipur.

Afspa was imposed in Manipur in 1980 as it had been declared a “disturbed area". In a landmark judgement in July 2016, the Supreme Court severely criticized Afspa as “symbolizing a failure of the civil administration and the armed forces". The court was hearing a petition filed by hundreds of families against alleged fake encounters by the army and police forces over the last 20 years. The plea called for a probe by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) into the encounters.

Manipur has been beset by insurgency ever since it was formed in 1949. The fault lines that existed during colonial administration by the British got accentuated post-independence. At one time, there were more than 30 rebel groups, chief among them being the Nagas. It is a well-known fact that several rebel groups have their bases in neighbouring Myanmar.

Manipur was engulfed in an orgy of violence in the 1990s because of the ethnic militias and severe infighting between Naga groups. The main source of funds for rebels is extortion and the illegal taxes they collect from national highways 39 and 53. The rebel groups have also been actively involved in drug trafficking, which fuels their insurgency. Before arguing for the withdrawal of Afspa, it is pertinent to know how insurgency was controlled in Tripura, which repealed Afspa in 2015.

The Tripura administration under chief minister Manik Sarkar did a remarkable job of getting on top of insurgency and, as a result, the state recorded an over 84% voter turnout in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. It was a combination predominantly of political will and use of security forces to bring peace.

Mizoram is another example. There, the greatest success lay in the central leadership under Rajiv Gandhi offering to make Laldenga the chief minister. Involvement of insurgent leaders in electoral politics can be an effective way to deal with insurgency. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, the number of civilian deaths in Manipur has shown a continuous decline since 2007 and was the lowest in 2016. Increasing border trade through the Moreh smart city project and other initiatives to increase trade cannot take place under the perpetual shadow of guns.

The most important question that the policymaker should ask is—what do the people want? Aren’t they sick and tired of the Afspa and the endless cycle of violence that has taken charge of their lives? In all probability, the answer would be a resounding yes.

A political solution is the only way out of the present quagmire. According to a retired senior police officer involved in the thick of counter-insurgency operations, “Afspa is like having a shield for security apparatus when it is no longer required." After a certain amount of time, there is no correlation to controlling violence with Afspa.

On its part, the current state government under chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh has done everything to displease and isolate the Nagas. With a notification regarding the creation of seven new districts on 9 December, the state government has been accused of playing to the gallery with elections in sight.

The Naga groups too haven’t acquitted themselves with any credit. The blockade by the United Naga Council (UNC), which began on 1 November 2016, still continues with the prices of daily essentials skyrocketing. Reportedly, a litre of petrol sells at an average of Rs300 and a domestic gas cylinder costs about Rs2,500. This blockade was against the move to create new districts. Latest reports indicate that the Centre has rushed about 4,000 paramilitary troops to clear the highway blockade.

Any policy decision needs to have an incentive structure for the political class. What could be the incentive to have a road map to repeal Afspa? None whatsoever, as far as the reading of the current situation is concerned. Moreover, the understanding between Nagas and the Central government as per the August 2015 accord would make a Meitei politician wary of supporting a repeal of Afspa. Pradip Phanjoubam, one of the best informed writers on North-East issues, contends that in Manipur, everyone will have to agree to a shared homeland if the crisis is to be solved. Any move for the withdrawal of Afspa before elections could be construed as political suicide by the ruling dispensation in the state.

Considering all the above factors, one thing is certain—India’s Act East policy will gain traction only if there is a committed road map for withdrawing Afspa. The task of the army is to combat external aggression, not policing and internal security within the country. It is high time that both the Centre and state governments actively worked towards the withdrawal of Afspa without narrow political gains in mind.

Guru Aiyar is a research fellow with the Takshashila Institution in the geostrategy programme.

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