The stranger within my gate,

He may be true or kind

But he does not talk my talk-

I cannot feel his mind.

I see the face and the eyes and the mouth,

But not the soul behind.

                                                                  -Rudyard Kipling, The Stranger

 

 

Redefining ‘National Minority’ in India: A study in Reference to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 and the Northeastern States of Assam and Manipur

National Minority- the term itself is suggestive of the fact that it cannot be conceived outside the concept of a Nation-State. When the lucidity of the concept of Nation-State is itself in question, to what extent the term National Minority gains intelligibility is doubtful. Nevertheless, it does give a base to secure some space in the discursive arena of power and human rights for those people who are minoritized within a State and hence the aim of this paper is not to problematize the concept of National Minority but to redefine it in the context of India. The exclusivity of National Minorities in India rests in two interesting facts. First, none of the national minorities could ever escape the indisputable power of the so-called democratic State’s own military against them and second, they are not only cultural minorities; they are also political minorities in the sense that they never in the history of independent republic of India got equal and evenhanded representation. The paper focuses on Manipur and Assam, because they were (and still are) the States in which the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 gained grounds.

 

Introduction:

Victimization, turbulence and Northeastern India are almost synonymous. The colonial nightmare never left the region despite 65 years of independence of the Indian subcontinent from the British rule. Rise of insurgency and counter-insurgency campaigns led to enormous bloodshed and death and devastation of innocents. This is where one needs to question if the reduction of human lives to mere instruments and victims of hatred can ever be justified? However, history has evidently witnessed nothing but the butchering of human lives in the game of power. The stories of two North-eastern States- Assam and Manipur- also brings forth a picture that problematizes the whole ethos of power of the Indian Nation-State and how in the process of its conceptualization and consolidation, these States (among others like Jammu and Kashmir and other Northeastern States) became the  national minorities. In fact the provisions of the Constitution ensure that these States may never elevate their position from being national minorities.

Making of a National Minority: The case of Assam

Technically a national minority is one whose homeland has been incorporated into the boundaries of a larger state, through conquest, colonization, or federation. In this sense the State of Assam does become a national minority, albeit in a twisted sense, for Assam did become a part of India through colonization. History points out at two peculiar incidents when this region of the subcontinent, now known as Assam, became a pawn in the play of two ruling groups at two different points of time1, and had to pay by renouncing its sovereignty to one of these groups both the time.

A region which had immense potential of its own for creating one or a few sovereign states, unfortunately never received a chance to decide its own fate. With the signing of the Treaty of Yandabo in 1826, at the end of the Anglo-Burmese war, Burma surrendered its claim over the region, leaving it to be annexed by the British and thereby in the later period bound its fate to the other parts of the subcontinent under British dominion. With the course of time, the economic potential of the region was discovered and it was not lost to the British that the region promised more profits for them than many other regions under their control.

Lower Assam was also annexed by 1828 and the penetration of the British in the North-eastern region began rapidly. Soon, the entire Brahmaputra valley; the Cachar, Jayantia and Khasi hills; the routes to Bhutan, Tibet, China and Burma; the Lushai, Naga and Garo Hills and the adjoining areas were brought under British control. Assam became a province in 1874 under the British rule and its boundaries were constantly extended to suit the economic and political demands of the British.  In fact even a part of Bengal, Sylhet was merged with the province of Assam2

With the advent of new forces and on the face of the diminishing self-rule of the people, the social and economic conditions of the entire region saw a decline. The region was recklessly exploited. No doubt there were positive changes as well, as is always associated with the coming up of technology and missionary education. But like their effect seen in the rest of India, the effects were visible in this region as well, albeit later than the rest. With the liberal ideas and ideologies brought with them by the educated youth and with the dissemination of these, helped by the emergence of the press, the region began to see a new dawn. The dawn which promised a sense of liberation through a growing regional identity but at the same time, alluding the region had connections with a larger ‘national’ identity that was developing at that time throughout the subcontinent- the national identity of Bharat Varsa.

Assam’s sympathizing with the rest of the subcontinent under British dominion and its cooperation in the freedom struggle against the British, was entirely a political step and not based on any cultural affinity although similarities in the cultures of some of the ethnic communities of the region with the rest of Indian subcontinent cannot be entirely ruled out. And it is only very natural for such similarities to have existed owing to the migration of people across regions and assimilation of cultural traits during the course of time, over the centuries.

Assam started taking part in the struggle for independence from the British rule right from 1905 but its full participation began with inaugural of electoral politics under the Government of India Act, 1935. It gave its generous support in the Quit India Movement, however only to be considered as the bread between two monkeys, when the time arrived for grouping of provinces for the two emerging ‘nation-states’ of India and Pakistan.

While the grouping plans were going on under those of the Cabinet Mission Plan and the Mountbatten Plan, it seemed Assam was being literally given away to Pakistan and had it not been for the defiance of the intelligentsia of Assam and the then Congress Government under Gopinath Bordoloi, Assam would have had a different history altogether by today. With the acceptance of the Mountbatten Plan which proposed a referendum to be held in the Sylhet district for the opinion of the people to choose either country, the anti-grouping movement in Assam came to an end. As a result, a part of Assam dominated by Muslim population went to Pakistan and the rest remained with India.

The argument however is that why was the region not given any right as to not choose any of the two ‘nation-states’ and remain independent? What was this political manouevre? Goswami writes-

British authorities were now of the opinion that a united India, friendly to Britain, would be an active partner in the defence of the Commonwealth while a divided India would hamper the defence plans.”(2012: 273) Mountbatten supported the Congress stand that the princely states must not be given the option of independence. He realized that it was essential for the British to retain the goodwill of the Congress if he hoped to persuade India to remain within the commonwealth.” (2012:276)

It thus seems like the British in its wake of leaving India simply transferred its tricks and power to the Congress, their ally, but the position never changed. What the British did earlier, now the elected rulers of democratic republic of India carry forward!

The region of Assam never received due attention after being incorporated in the Indian nation-state, it just acted as the Kamdhenu Gai of Indian mythology. It gave the most precious resources to the newly independent State to flourish. However, again to be only considered as outsiders, secessionists, extremists. The first armed rebellion started in 1955 in the Tuensang and the Naga Hills. The Nagas never wanted to be a part of the Indian union. They were so much aggravated at the newly independent proclamation of Naga territory as a part of the Nation that they resorted to armed struggle. And hence the Naga inhabited areas of Assam were brought under the surveillance of the Disturbed Areas Act, 1955. And with this began the nightmare and the minoritization of the region, dousing all the ecstasy of being independent from a tyrannical rule.

Further, when a sub-nationalist and secessionist demand began to take root in the region, it was brought under the purview of the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act, 1958 (henceforth AFSPA)- an Act which is still in operation in many pockets of the entire region and the fear and wrath of which has shaped the fate of many of the households of Assam from 1958 till today.

Assam became a smaller State, separated from its sister states under the North-eastern Areas Reorganization Act, 1971. However, its problems grew larger, problems started by the historical wrongs. The first wrong done was never allowing the region to decide its own fate. The second wrong done was conceiving it as a part of Bengal. The problem of immigration which in recent times has taken grave and dangerous turns leading to pandemic of communal clashes is very much the result of politically conspired cultural rapport of the neighbouring region during colonial times and later Indira Gandhi’s sympathy for the refugees during the war between West Pakistan and East Pakistan. Further, immigration was encouraged because “once Assam became a part of British India, it came to be perceived as a part of the (pre-partition) pan-Indian economic space.” (Baruah 1999:64) The third wrong done was bringing it under the purview of the AFSPA, which only grieved the people more and aggravated the sub-nationalist approach. The fourth wrong done was creation of the State on linguistic basis because Assam does not consists of one language and it is one of the chief reasons why the many ethnic communities living within Assam felt alienated. Baruah says- “[T]he scope of the ethnic category “Assamese” can be exclusive or inclusive. It is therefore significant that none of the political or cultural organizations that were behind the Assam movement, e.g., the All Assam Students Union, Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (The Assam Organization for Peoples’ Struggle), Asom Sahitya Sabha (The Literature Society ofAssam [not Assamese Literary Society]), and the new political party, the Asom Gana Parishad (The Peoples’ Association of Assam), have the word “Assamese” or the autonym “Asamiya” attached to them. Instead they refer to the territory of Assam.” (1986:1186)

The fifth and the gravest wrong done to Assam, Manipur and the other National Minorities are the representational fallacies preserved by India’s Constitution, which would be discussed briefly later in the paper.

Making of a National Minority: The Case of Manipur

If any Indian State deserved being called a nation in its truest sense at the time of independence then it was Manipur. To borrow Renan’s words- Manipur had a soul; a spiritual principle.3 Manipur had its separate cultural spirit; a separate history prior to being a part of the Indian State. It was the first princely State, which after the independence of the Indian subcontinent from the British, in 1948 adopted a Constitution, according to the provisions of which elections were conducted based on universal adult franchise and formed a representative government, while appointing the Maharaja Bodhchandra as the constitutional head. However, the newly found contentment in the just arrangements of the State lasted for only a few days when the then Government of India merged Manipur with Indian State and brought it under the purview of its direct administration. The most tragic part is that during this period between post-independence and pre-merger, Manipur had developed to a more composite nation and was on the verge of social and economic development. But with the merger the ecstasy saw its demise.

Manipur had to become a part of India on 21st September, 1949 for ‘strategic importance’. It is believed that the Maharaja was forced to sign the Manipur Merger Agreement and the representatives of the Government of India did not feel any need to seek the opinion of the people, whose fate was in question. The territory was simply taken over, the Manipur Legislative Assembly disregarded and dissolved and the rights of the people snatched away. Manipur was not bestowed Statehood for a long time and was centrally administered.

“The irony of a state (India) which at that time aspired to be a democratic republic, but was not one yet, effectively undermining the foundations of an existing democratic state through a basically military manoeuvre, makes the case of Manipur quite exceptional.” (Akoijam 2005:485)

In the demand of Statehood the people of Manipur resorted to non-violent struggles like civil disobedience movements and Satyagraha but were given a deaf ear by the Central Government. In the meantime, however, the Nagas who had started an armed rebellion against the Indian State, were bestowed Statehood by the Central Government, so as to pacify them. Nagaland became the 16th State of India in 1963 and Manipur who had perhaps more right to Statehood, was left unnoticed.

Left with no other option but to turn violent, armed rebellion took root in Manipur. The result ended in two high-flying events- the deployment of army, to ceasefire the rebellion, under the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act, 1958 which continues to be in operation and gaining of Statehood by Manipur finally in 1972 under the North-eastern Areas (Reorganization) Act, 1971.  The rebellion however continues and it shall continue till the dispute between the Article 21 of the Indian Constitution which bestows the right to (have) life and the contradictory principle embedded in the so-called law of AFSPA that is the right to take life is not solved.

Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958: The constant reminder of otherization and minoritization

In 1942 the British created and disseminated an ordinance, the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance to curb the Quit India movement that was gaining momentum across the country. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 is an extension of this colonial ordinance. It can be conceded that the colonizers actions were quite predictable given their alien status in the subcontinent, however, the action of Indian State in implementing such an Act which gives the military personnel the unquestionable powers to interfere in internal affairs of the State and to shoot to kill, is quite beyond rationale because then the State becomes no different from the colonizers. If a Nation-State and a democracy try to thrive on such internal colonization, then the very democratic and nationalistic claim of the State becomes dubious.

A new phase began in the history of the States of Assam and Manipur since September 11th 1958, when the AFSPA was introduced. It had also been deployed in Punjab for a brief time in the 1980s and also in Jammu and Kashmir since 1990s. In 1972, the name was changed from Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act, 1958 to Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 on the face of the reorganization of States formed from the undivided Assam. Since then the whole of Northeast has been burning under this tyrannical counter-insurgency scheme.  The Act is sometimes ‘relaxed’ but no steps have ever been taken to repeal it!

It is indeed ironical that the Indian State in order to make its citizens realize that they belong to the Indian nation brings into play a practice that force the citizens to wonder if they are the citizens of that State! If the armed rebellions are a law and order situations, the best thing to do was leave it on the hands of police. But the police in India are used to handle terrorists attacks among the civilized in Mumbai; they are incapable of handling a law and order problem among the so called barbaric of the North-eastern region, so the Constitution has made provisions for their replacement by the army in the North-eastern region and in Jammu and Kashmir.

The Act acts in ‘disturbed areas’, defined in the Section 3 of the AFSPA. However the definition of a disturbed area need not be specified to the general masses since the authority lies with the Central Government and the Governor of the State to declare an area disturbed and there is no mechanism available for the people to go against it. Apparently, wherever a section of people demands and fight for justice, the area become a threat to ‘national security’ and hence declared ‘disturbed’. A disturbed area despite the subsidence of whatever disturbance it caused sometimes lives with the label for years on end.

Although the Section 4 of the Act launches the powers given to the military and which are very liberal in themselves, if an army personnel acts beyond the powers ascribed to him, his action is hardly questioned, not even condemned. And hence under the Act, the army can do anything; literally anything and their acts cannot be or are not questioned. An iota of ‘suspicion’ of having committed or being about to commit and a man is killed; his relatives are grilled, beaten, raped, thrown away on the streets, houses vandalized and burnt and their fates sealed to be doomed forever.  No legal proceeding can ever be carried out against any of armies’ acts, however gross and unjust they might be. It only ascertains that the presence of this Act jeopardize the existence of humans to such an extent that they are treated as some good-for-nothing mere lifeless logs on the earth.

In fact even the motive behind the preservation of such an inhuman Act, which is, ‘national security’ sounds elusive given its presence in one of the relatively peaceful regions of the North-east, that is, Mizoram. Why ever a place like Mizoram needs such an Act is beyond the sensible capacities of one. Moreover, never in the history of the newly independent India a sincere and serious attempt had been made to discover the kind of disturbance that prevailed or prevails in the region. No doubt there had been insurgencies and some that actually needed to be controlled. But “most armed conflicts in Northeast India are not mass-based rural insurgencies that challenge state power- the focus of conventional counter-insurgency theory. Many militant groups are quite unexceptional in terms of military capacity, political constituencies, or ideological appeal…the resilience of numerous small militia points to the fundamental structural weaknesses of the Indian state that our political class seems unwilling to acknowledge. These armed groups survive by taking advantage of the imperfections in the rule of law and maintaining ties with mainstream actors in politics and business. These are not exactly characteristics traditionally associated with powerful guerilla groups.” (Baruah 2010)

AFSPA is nothing but another instrument of surveillance for the State, for disciplining and normalizing the aspirations of a section of people who have been historically wronged. It is nothing but another tactic of the government. As Foucault says-

“…with government it is a question not of imposing law on men but of disposing things: that is, of employing tactics rather than laws, and even of using laws themselves as tactics-to arrange things in such a way that, through a certain number of means, such and such ends may be achieved.” (1994: 211)

In case of India, the ‘things’ Foucault suggests are the people who are waiting for their voice to be heard.

A Flawed Federal System and Representational Fallacies

“We the people of India having solemnly resolve to constitute India into a (sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic)…” (Bakshi 2011:1) thus begins the Preamble of the Constitution of India. The word ‘federal’ is however missing among the desirable features, signifying federalism is not so much a desirable feature of the Indian State. The basic structure of the Constitution does mention something about a federal character of the Constitution, presumably in the sense that the State Governments would be gifted with some minor power over the governance and jurisdiction of their States, keeping the major share of power in the hands of the Central Government. Federalism in India is just another pacifying policy of the ruling elites to ensure that the governance does not appear autocratic and dictatorial and the State absolutist. Since the majority of the representatives of the people of India do not acknowledge that India is a multi-nation State and not a one nation State as it is being conceived, the question of equal distribution of power sounds impractical.

This inequality of power even reflects in the criteria used to constitute the House seats reserved for Member of Parliament from different states in the Lok Sabha and in the process of decision making. It is ensured that the ratio between the number of representatives and the population of the state is, so far as practicable, the same for all the states. The number of MPs from all the North-eastern states (even including Sikkim) comes to 31, lesser than even half of the representatives of Uttar Pradesh which possess 80 seats in the Lok Sabha. There are only 14 representatives from Assam and just 2 from Manipur.

India unlike the United States of America does not have a system, whereby equal number of representatives could have a say in a matter. In India majoritarian decision is the decision de facto. Kymlicka while suggesting federalism as a viable solution for the just accommodation of national minorities says that “federalism can provide extensive self-government for a national minority, guaranteeing its ability to make decisions in certain areas without being outvoted by the larger society.” (Kymlicka 1995:28) The Indian representational schemes make sure that the minorities are always outvoted by the majorities. The absence of a system like that of USA as a Constitutional Safeguard makes the situation of the people of the North-eastern states even more vulnerable.

 

Population is not some abstract non-political term bereft of culture. A smaller population of a state does not mean that the injustice and problems they face are smaller and negligible as well. The gravity of a problem cannot be weighed on the basis of the number of people facing the problem. But it seems in India, this is the approach in practice.

This is one of the main reasons why, despite numerous efforts, an Act like AFSPA continues to exist and negate the existence of flesh and blood human beings and why, a woman’s  fight against injustice is treated allegedly an attempted suicide.  Neither Irom Sharmila’s fast-unto-death against AFSPA has received the support she deserves from the masses nor is her non-violent approach towards seeking justice given the consideration she deserves from the government. What else would anyone expect when the victims of AFSPA are minorities in the Parliament too?

Conclusion:

A perpetual politics of misrecognition have been played in the North-eastern region of India right from colonial times to the post-colonial times. Initially through the production of labels like ‘tribes’ and ‘savages’ and later through ‘disturbed areas’, ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists’. The popular mentality in India, despite all the education and progressive thought do not look upon tribes as civilized, as the word t-r-i-b-e is essentially signified of being barbaric. First the terms are set in motion and then the traits built; first the institutions are set in motion and then the problems created. According to Chatterjee consolidation of the power of the national state meant the marking of a new set of differences within the post-colonial society. (1994: 26) It is by veiling the real troubles; the historical wrongs done to the people and by portraying everyone living in a disturbed area as potential enemies of the country that the Indian state justifies the implementation of an Act like AFSPA.

Not giving due recognition to a people is not a solution of making peace with the people. It is this misrecognition itself which has forced the people and is still forcing them to consider themselves as outsiders and others; which minoritizes them. The argument is not about allowing the right to self-determination, which do have some unwelcome repercussions as well or about using force to curb violent insurgencies, because a State must use force to ensure public order. The argument that this paper aims to forward is about the legitimation crisis of the force being used; about why civilians of the same country; living, practicing and working under the shelter of the same Constitution are subjected to different treatment? Why the state of exception never sees an end?

A country where laws could be made and implemented based on whims and fancies of a few powerful, managing dissents and affirming a successful nation-building is not difficult.  But when “the vulgar display of the State’s armed capacity can become a normal part of the governance, coexisting with elections and other rituals of democracy” (Baruah 1999: Preface) it also implies that what appears on the surface is not always the reality. India it seems is still trying to curb out a nation out of many nations- a task almost next to impossible. The result is that a section of people are being treated as completely deprived of rights. Let alone, the right to speech and self-expression, not even the right to life is acknowledged.

The basic problem rests, as often have been discussed and debated, in the deliberate attempt of a few powerful in trying to craft a nation that never existed, in which the nationalistic imagination had been and is still being forced upon some sections of people. Rejai and Enloe argues that in “the most underdeveloped and newly independent countries- authority and sovereignty have run ahead of self-conscious national identity and cultural integration- so they…have produced State-Nations.” (1969:140).  It thus seems that the imagination of a State precedes the imagination of a nation and all this imagination takes root in the minds of a few powerful. And in a modern State these imaginations are infiltrated in the minds of the common masses through the invisible infrastructural power of the State. Wherever there is a resistance, a ‘national minority’ is created and is made sure that they do not form any threat to ‘national security’. In the vicious circle of this ‘national’ are entrapped the poor innocent people who unaware of the politics around them keep wondering what went wrong.

Times have changed. The emergence of a consumer culture and a successful homogenization have obscured and weakened the voices which once upon a time formed a threat to the perceived ‘national security’. The character of problems has changed. The secessionist approach of Manipur and Assam has been replaced by a graver anxiety concerning the presence of AFSPA; in fact the problems facing Assam today are that of ethnic clashes and communal riots, not the wave of a sub-nationalist movement anymore. The players have changed. New acknowledgements and compromises are in order but not at the expense of the right to life. It is time when, as Aloysius says- “The element of break with the past…needs to be recognized.” (1997: 228)

 

 

 

Notes:

  1. The first time between Burmese kingdom and the British; the second time between India and Pakistan.
  2. When talking of Assam as a region in the first part, I am referring to the whole of undivided Assam and not the post 1972 State of Assam.
  3. It is rephrased from Renan’s phrase ‘A Nation is a soul; a spiritual principle’ cited in his essay ‘What is a Nation’.

 

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