Nationalist Ideology, Militarization And Human Rights In North-East

The deployment of armed forces in the region, the oppressive laws which legitimized it, the judicial scrutiny of such laws and the ways media represents the people’s movements in this part of India are shaped by the dominant nationalist ideology, which always treat the ethnic minorities with ‘˜suspicion’. Movements for self-determination are seen as foreign inspired, anti-national, terrorist and disruptive.

The intervention by the armed forces in Northeast India is long standing, and the facts are fairly well known. These will not be the focus of this paper. Instead, this paper will seek to raise, in a very preliminary form, some basic issues that arise from the militarization of the Northeast. The history of human rights violations in this region will not be the focus of enquiry, though the interaction between militarization and human rights violations will be examined. But, certain ideological, political and legal issues, which may also be of relevance to other countries in South Asia, will be sought to be raised.

India and Ethnic Minorities

The dominant nationalist ideology does not accept the concept of ‘˜ethnic minority’ as relevant for India. Attempts to use this term in the Indian context have always been officially rebuffed. It has repeatedly been argued that in India, there are linguistic and religious minorities, but no ethnic minorities. Partly as a reaction to British imperialist propaganda, the dominant nationalist discourse is also profoundly homogenizing. Though cultural variations are recognized, and within limits celebrated, there is a notion of a ‘˜composite culture’ incorporating strands from all India’s diverse cultures. Instead of recognizing the existence of a multiplicity of cultures, a composite culture, which implies a process of homogenization, is theorized. But, within this composite whole there is a privileging of the elite Hindu tradition.

To cite just one instance of this cultural elitism, we can look at the Constitutional basis of India’s linguistic policy. Though a number of regional languages have been listed in the Eighth Schedule, and Article 350A guarantees adequate facilities for instruction in the mother tongue for linguistic minorities, Article 351 stipulates that the Union ‘˜promote the spread of the Hindi language’¦as a medium of expression for all the elements of the composite culture’¦by drawing, wherever necessary or desirable, for its vocabulary, primarily on Sanskrit and secondarily on other languages.’ Thus Sanskrit, an ancient language, which was traditionally restricted to a tiny Brahminical elite, is privileged as the primary source for the medium of expression of the composite culture.

Minority cultural assertions are like minority political assertions therefore subordinated to elitist, upper caste/class ideologies. Such instances could be multiplied and discussed at much greater length, but this is not the focus of this paper. Here we would seek to indicate that these ideological features shape the Indian state’s response to movements for autonomy or self-determination. The use of the armed forces in the Northeast and the dominant national media’s response to popular assertions which are perceived as threatening India’s integrity are shaped by this same nationalist ideology. There is, therefore, a cultural and ideological basis to Indian militarism, which makes the phenomenon so pervasive and resilient.

Draconian Laws and The Judiciary

The legitimation of various repressive laws and their judicial sanction are based on similar ideological patterns. Movements for self-determination are seen as foreign inspired. Anti-state movements are defined as anti-national, terrorist and disruptive. Thus a statist understanding of national interest governs the judicial scrutiny of such laws. The judicial judgments on such draconian laws invoked the alleged threats to sovereignty and national security, which was evidently accepted as widespread. Thus, for instance, the areas notified under the erstwhile TADA as terrorist affected were expanded from the original four states and two Union Territories to cover almost all the states in the country.

The major Act that governs military action in the Northeast is the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (as amended in 1972) which confers special powers upon members of the Armed Forces in the disturbed areas in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. The Act gives no definition of ‘˜disturbed area’. The declaration of any area as ‘˜disturbed’ under Section 3 of the Act is the prerogative of the Governor of the state, or the Administrator of the Union Territory, or the Central Government. The State legislature has absolutely no jurisdiction, though under the Indian Constitution (Entry 1, List 2 Seventh Schedule), ‘˜public order’ is a State subject.

Under Section 4 (a) of the Act, any Armed Forces officer, warrant officer, non-commission officer or any person of equivalent rank may ‘˜if he is of the opinion that it is necessary to do so for maintenance of public order, after giving such due warning as he may consider necessary, fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death ‘¦’ of persons not only disobeying any law, but even those disobeying orders prohibiting the assembly of five or more persons or carrying of weapons or ‘˜of things capable of being used as weapons.’ This gives very wide discretion to even junior officer, as the necessity to use force including lethal means is left to their ‘˜opinion’ as is the nature of the ‘˜due warning’. Further, ‘˜things capable of being used as weapons’ can include objects like stones, bricks, etc. Moreover, five people can assemble for innocuous purposes like a religious ceremony, family gathering or visit to an ailing relative.

Similarly, Section 4 (b) of the Act allows such military personnel to destroy any shelter from which, in his opinion, armed attacks ‘˜are likely to be made’ or which has been utilized as a hideout by absconders ‘˜wanted for any offence’. This attitude would permit the destruction of any shelter or structure, including in several instances, places of worship like churches, apart from educational institutions like schools and colleges. Section 4 (c) permits the arrest without a warrant, with whatever ‘˜force as may be necessary’ of any person against whom ‘˜a reasonable suspicion exists that he is about to commit a cognizable offence.’ This has provided the basis of indiscriminate arrests, and the use of brutal force including firing against innocent civilians.

Section 4 (d) of this special law authorizes the entry and search without warrant of any premises to make arrest as sanctioned under Section 4 (c), or to recover any person ‘˜believed to be wrongfully restrained or confined’ or any property ‘˜reasonably suspected’ to be stolen property or any arms, ammunitions or explosive substances ‘˜believed to be unlawfully kept in such premises.’ For this purpose also, all ‘˜force as may be necessary’ is authorized. For military personnel operating in a culturally alien terrain, reasonable suspicions are often wholly unfounded, leading to horrendous abuses, as we shall see below.

Though Section 5 explicitly states that ‘˜Any person arrested and taken into custody under this Act shall be made over to the officer in charge of the nearest police station with the least possible delay’¦’ this has been repeatedly violated. Apart from all these caveats, Section 6 (the last section of this short Act) rules that, ‘˜No prosecution, suit or legal proceeding shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the Central Government against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of powers conferred by this Act.’ The exemption from prosecution is not only for what is done under this Act, but also for what is ‘˜purported to be done’.

This Act, therefore, provides legal cover for the militarization of the Northeast and the consequent terrorization of the civilian population. Experts in the UN Human Rights Committee which met in Geneva in March 1991 were categorical that this Act is violative of several Articles in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as of the Indian Constitution. Article 2 (1) lays down that each State Party will ensure to all individuals (not only citizens) the rights laid down in the Covenant. Article 2 (3) (a) directs the state to ensure that any person whose rights have been violated ‘˜shall have an effective remedy, notwithstanding that the violation has been committed by persons acting in an official capacity.’ Article 26 talks of the equality before the laws, the equal protection of the law and the fact that the equal protection of the law itself shall prohibit any discrimination in the rights guaranteed to all persons in the Covenant. All these Articles have been violated by the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.

Article 4 (1) permits State Parties to take measures derogating from their obligations under the Covenant in the time of national emergency. But Article 4 (3) lays down that any State Party availing itself of the right of derogation must inform other State Parties through the Secretary-General of the UN. The Indian government made no such communication. In any case, as an expert in the UN Human Rights Committee pointed out, such an emergency must be a temporary measure and cannot continue for decades as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act has. Further, Article 4 (2) stipulates that no derogation from various Articles including Article 6 (right to life) may be made under this provision. But Section 4 of the AFSPA empowers firing which may result in death merely on the basis of a relatively junior officer’s opinion of suspicion. This violates Article 6 (1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which inter alia states that ‘˜No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.’

This Act, like the erstwhile TADA, is a violation of Articles 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution and is derogation from Entry 1, List II of the Seventh Schedule. The Act also infringes Article 13, which declares all laws inconsistent with the fundamental rights as void. Article 19, which protects the freedoms of speech and expression, of peaceful assembly, and the right to form associations and unions, is also violated. Though various civil liberties groups and others challenged the constitutionality of this law in the Supreme Court in 1982, the matter has not yet come up for hearing.

The Punjab security of State Act, 1953 came in force in Manipur on January 26, 1971. This Act also has draconian features similar to those analyzed above. For example, the Act debars any court from requiring production of documents or particulars contained in any correspondence between the Lieutenant Governor of Manipur and his Advisory Council set up under the Act. Any speech, statement, rumor or report which undermines friendly relations with foreign States, decency, and morality, apart from more serious charges, is punishable with three years imprisonment. The Act provides for collective fines to be levied on the order of a District Magistrate. All offences are non-bailable.

Section 13 (1) rules out all legal proceedings against any person ‘˜for anything which is in good faith done or intended to be one under, or in pursuance of this Act.’ Section 13 (2) provides for similar immunity for the Central Government and the Lieutenant Governor of Manipur.

Militarization and Violation of Human Rights

Any discussion of the role of the Indian armed forces in the Northeast should begin with an introduction to the specificities of this region and its dissimilarities to the rest of the country. More than 220 hill tribes live in the quarter-million square kilometer region of Northeast India comprising of the seven States of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. They feel ethnically, economically, socially and culturally quite different from other people of India. These perceived differences along with feelings of exploitation and oppression have fuelled movements of autonomy and independence, some of which have resulted in armed struggle.

As early as 1929, some Naga representatives made a plea for self-rule when the reorganization of India was being discussed. Nagas led by the Naga National Council (NNC) asserted their demand for independence, which they declared on August 14, 1947. In 1951, the NNC claimed 100 percent support for independence in a plebiscite. The Indian state reacted strongly. In 1953, the Assam Maintenance of Public Order (Autonomous District) Act, 1953 was enacted. In April that year, armed police from Assam entered the Naga Hills to arrest NNC leaders. In 1954, a special army officered force, the Assam Rifles, entered the Naga Hills. On 27th November that year, Chingmei village was bombed. In 1955, the Assam Disturbed Areas Act was introduced. On April 2, 1956, the Naga Hills and Tuensang were handed over to the army, and the commander of the armed forces set up the headquarters in Kohima. In 1958, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Regulation was introduced, which on 11th September was converted into an Act.

In Mizoram too, militarization occurred in the mid-fifties, and villages were strafed and bombed. The pattern in Assam and Tripura was different. Militarization in the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), which later became Arunachal Pradesh, was initially directed against an external threat, China. But there are commonalities in the manner in which the armed forces tackled the civilian population in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura.

Armed Forces and Human Rights

The Indian armed forces in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura appeared to have little knowledge or acquaintance with the customs and culture of the local people. This, given the Hindi-Sanskrit-centrism of dominant nationalist culture briefly indicated above, was to be expected. Intelligence was poor, and the counter-insurgency forces had problems of communication with the people. With these forces armed with sweeping powers, often without civilian control, with sympathetic governments and an uncritical media, there were in the initial decades in the Naga Hills and Mizoram, little check on excesses by the armed forces. Thus Prime Minister Nehru could report to the Lok Sabha on September 5, 1959, that between December 1958 and 31st July 1959, Nagas had suffered 1568 casualties compared to 334 casualties for the armed forces.

Repeatedly in affected districts in this region, armed forces personnel have violated even the extensive powers granted them under the special laws, in their search for an elusive enemy. Civilians have been detained illegally and tortured. In other instances, they have been handed over to the local police and then taken into illegal army custody again. The Gauhati High Court repeatedly directed the army during Operation Rhino and other counter-insurgency campaigns not to interrogate detained civilians after their arrest under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, and not to take into custody such persons after they were handed over to civilian authorities.

The patterns of human rights violations have been fairly consistent. In Nagaland and Manipur these have included:

(a) Extra-judicial killings

(b)Extra-judicial deprivation of the liberty of people especially in villages due to:

(i) grouping of villagers and villages;

(ii) illegal imposition of curfew;

(iii) detention for long periods at army posts and campuses;

(iv) use of churches and schools as detention or interrogation centers.

(c) Rape, molestation and sexual harassment of women, which includes:

(i) hitting with rifle butts, kicking with boots and striking with blunt weapons;

(ii) giving electric shocks;

(iii) depriving persons of food, water and sleep;

(iv) hanging persons upside down and beating the soles of their torture feet; and

(v) threats to shoot, interrogation at gun point with the weapon placed against the forehead and inside the mouth.

(d) desecration of churches

(e) forced labor

(f) large scale looting of homes and granaries.

There are, of course, differences in the specificities in human rights violations in different regions. For example, in Assam, forms of torture also included:

(i) burying persons in the ground up to the neck and covering the head with a bucket;

(ii) anal penetration with a lathi smeared with chilli powder and petrol;

(iii) tying persons spread eagled to a vertical rectangular wooden frame;

(iv) dunking the head of a person in a drum/bucket of water;

(v) continuously pouring water over the mouth and nose of a person immobilized on the ground; (vi) pulling out hair from the roots; and

(vii) inflicting burns with cigarette butts.

Very often despite torture, no alleged hard-core insurgents were apprehended or any hard evidence obtained. Because of the strangeness of the local language and culture, army personnel tortured persons for no reason. For instance, during Operation Rhino Dr. Rudra Gogoi, Assistant Professor of Radiology, Assam Medical College, Dibrugarh was repeatedly asked, ‘˜Why are you so popular, why does everyone address you as da?’. The army personnel, not knowing that da an honorific denoting elder brother is commonly used in Assam, tortured Dr. Gogoi for three days. Similarly, Assamese youth who did not speak Hindi were suspected of being ULFA supporters and tortured. But so were those who spoke Hindi, who were suspected for that reason. There have been numerous instances of armed forces personnel trying to destroy, diminish or impugn evidence of human rights violations. Witnesses have been threatened, tortured or detained in order to ensure that they do not level charges or provide evidence against the armed forces.

Generally, senior army officials dismiss human rights activists as naive busybodies at best, and agents of anti-national forces at worst. Armed Forces spokesmen have repeatedly denied reports of human rights violations as ‘˜unfounded’, ‘˜baseless’ or ‘˜highly exaggerated’. These reports are usually put down to pro-insurgent propaganda, and are often accused of being ‘˜foreign inspired’. Using nationalist sentiment of the most chauvinist variety, official spokespersons have almost invariably questioned the patriotism of critics of militarism and human rights violations. For instance, in a press conference in New Delhi on January 10, 1995, the then additional director-general of military operations, Maj. Gen. A.B. Masih, referred to counter-insurgency operations being carried out in various parts of the country, including Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, parts of Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram. He revealed that a total of twenty-three columns were called out four times in Assam, and three columns once in Sikkim. He was particularly vocal on the human rights issue.

Maj. Gen. Masih alleged, in Times of India, January 11, 1995, ‘˜we seem to be buckling under human rights, a Western rights concept. There are far more human rights violations in the West.’ He claimed that the Indian Army had an enviable and impeccable record despite performing under duress and provocation. Equating human rights violations with breaking traffic rules, the senior officer, regretted that the media never highlighted violations of traffic rules the way it allegedly blows up an aberration of an army jawan under extreme provocation.

This statement reveals various elements of the militarist ideology. Patriotism was invoked and the army lauded. Foreign intervention was criticized and shown as hypocritical. And human rights violations were trivialized by equating them with traffic violations. And all this was used in an attempt to question the credentials of the media and to pressurize it not to report human rights violations. As we shall see below such pressures have been remarkably effective.

In a few cases, the armed forces have taken action against their personnel for human rights violations. In August 1988, an army lieutenant was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of a woman in Ngaimu village, Manipur in January 1986. Often, the action taken is minimal. For instance, two army soldiers were dismissed from service and given one year’s imprisonment for raping a minor girl in Sibsagar district, Assam.

Militarization of Civilians

The armed forces have also tried to inflame ancient tribal hatred and pit ‘˜loyal’ tribes and communities against allegedly ‘˜anti-national’ ones. In the most recent instance, the army and other state agencies, allegedly motivated, armed, trained and protected Kukis to attack supposed Naga supporters of the NSCN in Chandel district in Manipur. This is a tactic that the British colonial regime also used against Naga insurgents. But the impact had been far-reaching. Hundreds, both Kuki and Naga, had been killed, and thousands rendered homeless, especially in the hill districts of Manipur. During the Kuki-Naga clashes, villagers had set up armed self-defense squads demonstrating the militarization of the civil society, and ensuring its perpetuation even if state agencies stop their activities.

Judiciary and Human Rights

As shown above, the judiciary has also been affected by militarist ideology. Since a number of groups in the Northeast are secessionist, virtually all dissent has been characterized as ‘˜anti-national’, often ‘˜foreign inspired’. Ideological-political pressures have thus resulted in judicial delays and unfavorable judgments, with the benefit of doubt often going to state agencies.

On some occasions the judiciary, particularly at the higher levels, has intervened. During Operations Rhino and Bajrang, the Gauhati High Court (Assam) repeatedly pulled up the army for the torture, arrest and harassment of civilians. In July 1991, the Supreme Court ordered that army officers making arrest of women under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 should follow procedures laid down for police officers under the Code of Criminal Procedure, which guarantees various rights and protections to women and children.

In April 1984, the Supreme Court ordered the payment of Rupees two hundred thousand to the widows of a pastor C. Paul and a school teacher C. Daniel who had been picked up from their villages in Ukhrul district, Manipur in March 1982 and were never seen again. In August 1991, the Supreme Court ordered the Union Government to pay compensation of Rupees one hundred and fifty thousand each to the mothers of two youths from the valley who were picked up by the army in October 1980, and had been missing since.

Militarization, Human Rights and the Media

Though the media has often highlighted human rights violations, its reporting is often highly tendentious. A study of the reportage, by Sanjay Kumar Singh (Solidarity Group), on the Naga-Kuki clashes in major Indian dailies, both English and Hindi language, between 10th April 1992 and 1st January found the gaps and silences in otherwise detailed reports to be linked to the counter insurgency concerns of the Government of India. This has been brought out by analyzing the shifts and quality of reporting in three phases during this period.

The study concludes that, ‘˜the media has acted as a willing conniver in the Centre’s (Central Government’s) plan for military integration of (the) Northeast. This fascination of media to capitulate to the central authority augurs ill for the future of Indian democracy.’


The militarization of the Northeast has led to a substantial deterioration of the lives of the common people there. But the costs of militarization are both national and international. Armed forces brutalized by such experiences retain little respect for democracy, civilian rule or international commitments. For them human rights violations become equivalent to breaking traffic rules. Militarist ideology legitimizes authoritarian measures including the suppression of democratic institutions and rights. Militarist measures accentuate the alienation of affected peoples. This alienation is taken to justify even harsher punitive action resulting in greater mass alienation threatening national unity and stability.

The opportunity costs of militarism are also very large. Scarce and vitally needed resources for development are squandered in military expenditures in counter insurgency and pacification campaigns. A mass psychology of chauvinism and hostility to minorities, the underprivileged and foreigners is built up. These factors cumulatively undermine democratic institutions and processes, and render development efforts unsustainable. Since the ‘˜Foreign hand’ is seen as instrumental in a number of movements in the Northeast, militarist ideology and policies also run counter to all genuinely popular attempts at peaceful cooperation between India and her neighbors.

In multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societies in South Asia that are marked by social pluralities, militarism can only be profoundly destabilizing. Militarization in any region has profoundly negative consequences. More so, because the militarization of one country often serves as justification for that by others. Thus, the struggle against militarism became a national as well as an international imperative.


1. People’s Union for Democratic Rights. July 1994. TADA Judgment: A Critique. Delhi: PUDR.

2. Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights. November 1991. Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights Goes to United Nations. Imphal: NPMHR.

3. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in Resolution 2200 A (XXI) of 16 December 1996, and entered into force on 23 March 1976.

4. Amnesty International, India. October 1990. ‘˜Operation Bluebird’, A Case Study of Torture and Extrajudicial Executions in Manipur. AI Index: ASA 20/17/90.

5. NPMHR. July 25’“29, 1994. Submission of the Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights. Presented at the 12 the session of UNWGIP, Geneva.

6. NPMHR. June 1993. Know Your Rights. Imphal: NPMHR.

7. Manab Adhikar Sangram Samity. September 1991. A Report on Human Rights Violations & State Terrorism in Assam during Operation Rhino. Guwahati: MASS.

8. NPMHR. 1990. A Question of Human Rights. Delhi: NPMHR.

9. Manab Adhikar Sangram Samity. 1993. The Terrorist State Unmasked: The State as the Abductor. MASS: Guwahati.

10. Solidarity Group. January 1994. An Introduction to the Ethnic Problem in Manipur & A Reportage on the Naga-Kuki Clash. New Delhi: Solidarity Group.

*The paper is written by Kamal Mitra Chenoy.

* The article was originally published at

* The article has been published with due permission from the Manipur Research Forum.

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