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Posted at: Nov 6, 2018, 12:37 AM; last updated: Nov 6, 2018, 12:37 AM (IST)

Killings return in Assam, so does AFSPA tussle

Sanjoy Hazarika

Sanjoy Hazarika
NRC, an exercise that is wholly civil in nature in the exercise of people's rights and political processes, now has the Army looming over the landscape. This is an inappropriate and wholly avoidable situation. The Army should not be even seen to be involved in such a situation.
Killings return in Assam, so does AFSPA tussle
LONG WAIT: Decision on withdrawing AFSPA will be taken after the NRC exercise.

Sanjoy Hazarika
International Director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

The calculated murders of five Bengali Hindus in Upper Assam by a group of armed men chillingly expose the hollowness of the 'all is normal' charade in Assam and that the conditions are under control.  They are not — that is why a few weeks ago, the state government took the unprecedented step of declaring the entire state as a disturbed area under the Disturbed Areas Act (DAA) which would enable the government to use the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and call out troops as required. 

Disturbed area tag

It is not that Assam wasn't under the DAA earlier. It was. But it was then being administered by the Central Government.

In an ambitious, fluent effort to tackle its long-sullied image over the use and abuse of AFSPA in the North-East where calls for the law's repeal resonate often, the Central Government has cautiously, but steadily, transferred the responsibility of declaring a state or part of it as disturbed to the states themselves. Earlier, it was the Ministry of Home Affairs that decided on extensions of the DAA, often over-ruling the opposition of the state governments.

But this time, Assam chose to place the whole state under the ambit of the DAA, despite requests by Central officials to limit the law's use to three or four districts in Upper Assam where the pro-independence faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) still operates.

The reason for the government' position was simple: AFSPA was in place not to tackle possible attacks by armed groups but to head off any trouble that could erupt during or after the massive, confusing and tense National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise.  There has been no violence so far with regard to the NRC and the deadline for applications for the inclusion of names has been extended to allay widely expressed apprehensions about fraud, prejudice and targeting of minorities, especially Bengali Muslims and Hindus.

A senior official has been quoted as saying that "the situation is peaceful at the moment but we will not take a decision on withdrawing AFSPA until the NRC exercise is over." 

But what is worrying is the unquestioning willingness of the state government to keep the armed forces in readiness to deal with a totally unpredictable but potential breakdown of law and order. AFSPA, first used in the Naga hills in 1958, was specifically designed, bald and bad though its six sections are, to prevent internal disturbances and tackle national security threats, such as armed insurrection.  

In the process, an exercise that is wholly civil in nature in the exercise of people's rights and political processes now has the Army looming over the landscape.  This is an inappropriate, to put it mildly, and wholly avoidable situation. The Army should not be even seen to be involved in such a situation.

Assam has seen extremist-related violence for nearly 30 years. Yet, official figures from the Ministry of Home Affairs show that violence levels have fallen to their lowest in over 20 years. This indeed makes a good case for the withdrawal of the Disturbed Areas tag from the whole state, but for a cluster of affected districts in its north-east.  This would send a clear signal to the public in Assam and in the rest of the country that the state government is confident and capable of handling issues.  Anyway, the Army and paramilitary forces are on call, should the need arise.

Fear of ULFA

The question that is worrying officials and government leaders is the capacity of the Paresh Baruah-led ULFA and its ability to strike, especially should the Centre go ahead with its plan to push through the Citizenship Amendment Bill. The killings were a clear signal of the armed group's opposition to the Bill which seeks to confer citizenship on Hindus and other religious groups, barring Muslims, who have come illegally into Assam and other parts of India. It also comes as murmurs abound of a possible settlement in 2019 with the pro-talks group of ULFA led by Arabindo Rajkhowa, Paresh Baruah's one-time chairman and now political foe.

New security challenge & NRC

The new security challenge posed by the killings of innocent people creates fresh stress in the state over the nationality question, especially in the light of the complex NRC. Today, there is growing public distress, anger and frustration over changing parameters over the rules, mandated by the Supreme Court and the state government.

Indeed, the latest round of applications, petitions and requests from those who want to enter the NRC's holy grail have created new and fundamental challenges — of human rights, administrative capacity, political transparency, media prejudice as well as what some regard as judicial over-reach. 

The NRC is a process which has taken years to develop and is aimed at finalising identities of Indians and excluding bidhekhis or foreign nationals, as Bangladeshis are commonly called. This issue has troubled Assam and the North-East for four decades. 

In the main Brahmaputra valley, there is a consistent demand that all who came illegally must be denied citizenship, no matter what their religious creed.  In the Barak valley, which is Bengali-dominated, the call has been to allow substantial numbers of Bengali Hindus to gain citizenship. 

All this is now mixed up in a simmering cauldron, with occasional outbursts as the brutal killings in Tinsukia district show. Contrary to the image that has been long sought to be cultivated of a land at peace and a valley where diverse communities lived in amity, the calm of the state has often been disrupted by bursts of extreme rage in which different communities have turned on each other, at times abetted by armed groups.

Cycles of relative calm are disrupted by acute violence, resulting in extensive damage to lives and property, before falling into a lull. The pattern repeats itself, with ordinary people in affected villages and districts constantly living on the edge. 

(Views are personal)


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