nagas: still in the boundary trap
As Manipur goes to the polls, the Naga dream remains fragmented on frontiers not of their making
The dialectical tension between doubt and certainty has come to dominate any democratic process and it would be fair to say that democracy continuously swings between these two characters. Every democracy goes through this tension and it is only quite natural that one seeks certainty even when plagued by doubts and apprehensions. The breaking point, however, is when any democratic process is overwhelmingly burdened by this tension; it is likely to fail in securing a dignified outcome.
This ironic twist is embedded in the present Assembly elections in Manipur. On the one hand, the electoral process is apparently projected as the formative factor that will culminate towards certainty. While, on the other, the issues of election have evidently proven that the existing tension between doubt and certainty has already attained an impasse, wherein democracy itself is being negotiated for temporary electoral gains. These contradicting factors have come to symbolise the tragedy of electoral politics in most of the Northeast.
Two key dilemmas have dominated the skyline during this Manipur election. One is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the other is the question of State territorial integrity. While the AFSPA is considered to be a unifying issue across political lines, the one on territorial integrity is perceived to be a dividing factor between clearly defined political communities. Considering that both these issues are, in effect, fundamentally related to the question of human dignity and the right to life, it demands critical reasoning and inquiry into how they may have become casualty to electoral sloganeering.
A political territorial space represents more than just the boundary of a (un)recognised sovereign State; it embraces the soul and aspiration of a people’s national identity to determine its own future
Forty-nine years ago, the government of India enacted the AFSPA as a measure to empower its armed forces in their undeclared war to militarily quell the Naga aspiration for freedom. In 1972 (the year Naga affairs was transferred from the Ministry of External Affairs to Home Ministry), it became operational in the entire Northeast. The AFSPA is actually a legacy of the British colonial legislation, the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance (1942), to suppress the ‘Quit India Movement.’
This same legislation was then rechristened by the Indian Parliament in response to the Naga question. Several Members of Parliament opposed the act on the ground that it would lead to violations of Fundamental Rights and that it would circumvent the Constitution by effectively imposing an Emergency, without actually declaring one. However, after discussions of three hours in the Lok Sabha and four hours in the Rajya Sabha, the Parliament approved and passed the AFSPA with retrospective effect from May 22, 1958.
The AFSPA is a short legislation with clear and definite points. In fact the points are so unambiguous, that there is little room for misinterpretation. Among other powers, the AFSPA clearly provides legal immunity and empowers a non-commissioned officer of the Indian armed forces to shoot to kill on mere suspicion. Over the last 49 years, the AFSPA has been the cause of overwhelming effect on human life.
In 1997, the Supreme Court of India heard a 1982 Public Interest Litigation filed by the Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights and the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, challenging the constitutional validity of the AFSPA. After a 15-year wait, a five-judge bench headed by the then Chief Justice of India, Justice JS Verma, declared its judgement, upholding the validity of the Act, with some recommendations, which however did not in any way alter the original intent of the Act.
Notwithstanding that diverse groups of people have adequately articulated for the complete repeal of the AFSPA to Justice (Retd) BP Jeevan Reddy Committee on the grounds that it is anti-people, discriminatory and one that violates the very basic fundamentals of the right to life, there has been an acute absence of government responsiveness to indicate that it has the political will to repeal the Act.
During the last four decades, there has been no genuine step towards repealing the AFSPA and therefore the recent public declarations by various political leaders to consider amending the AFSPA to make it more ‘humane’ raise more doubts than certainty. One cannot help but feel that the AFSPA has become another political slogan with electoral underpinnings.
The second dilemma around State territorial area is a matter of attitude, perception and self-definition, with political implications. Hence, it is worthwhile and pragmatic to locate it within the broader context of a people’s aspiration, rather than entrenching it further into polarised electoral positions that run along defined political communities.
A political territorial space represents more than just the boundary of a (un)recognised sovereign State; it embraces the soul and aspiration of a people’s national identity to determine its own future; develop its rich culture; exercise ownership over its resources; and to govern its human affairs. A people’s self-definition is critical to their humanity.
Boundaries in reality are not the same as what one see on a map; they shift, change, overlap and make necessary adjustments. They are in constant transformation because they manifest the dynamism of ever-changing power relations. However, rigid and imposed boundaries have been the cause of many conflicts because they have been blind and ignorant to the realities of the people.
It is here that the states and the government have time and again regimented within their parochial fold the power to monopolise the organising of territorial space. Subsequently, in the presence of contradicting interests where people resist State-imposed boundaries, the State with utmost guile manipulates State-people conflict into a matter of people-people conflict. The art of imposing new State identities and artificial boundaries has been the focal point of statecraft.
The organic people-land relationship has and continues to define the dialectical parameters of what constitutes the Naga understanding of their dignified existence. The Naga experience, however, is riddled with instances where their contiguous land has been fragmented with State boundaries which are not of their making. The most well-known example is the one of Lungwa village, which is divided into two by the Indo-Myanmar international border. Similarly, Nagas and their land are also in the states neighbouring the state of Nagaland.
The dialogue between India and the Nagas over this question of territory has been one between two monologues. For instance, in 1947, Naga National Council secretary T. Sakhrie requested Sir Akbar Hydari that the territories inhabited by the Nagas be united at once. He demanded that the “old boundary be restored”. Today, almost 60 years later, the same question of Naga territories is once more a decisive factor that will determine the outcome of Indo-Naga relations.
The Naga desire to unify into one political territorial entity has been obstructed in the name of territorial integrity. The rationale of State territorial integrity is however not an end in itself. The ultimate purpose of State territorial integrity is to safeguard the interests of people in a given territory and is meaningful only so long as it continues to fulfill that purpose. No State can therefore claim to safeguard the interests of people when the people have themselves not expressed their consent and will to be part of it.
Human security precedes territorial security. Judge Hardy Dillard in the International Court of Justice case on Western Sahara declared, “It is for the people to determine the destiny of the territory and not the territory the destiny of the people.” In the end, it should be people who should determine the destiny of the territory. It is only democratic that the Nagas in Manipur decide whether the rationale of State territorial integrity is applicable or not in this case.
Nonetheless, resolving issues of boundaries means addressing perceptions of boundaries and it may very well begin by perceiving them as soft, flexible and mobile rather than immobile and rigid lines. Boundaries can be friendly, supportive and flexible; not just obstacles. Shifting positions from limited perceptions of shared boundaries can open up possibilities for dialogue and mutual understanding between communities; providing a more sustained solution of a shared humanity.
Therefore, constructing State territorial integrity as an electoral issue reveals the underpinning intention of the Indian government to fracture a shared humanity in the Northeast. Fundamentally, it has de facto demonstrated that its position to issues of self-definition and political rights in the Northeast remains unchanged, despite its expressed willingness to engage in peace talks. Surely the overbearing tension between doubt and certainty is suffocating and anti-life!
Longchari is managing director of The Morung Express