On the Legitimacy of Protest:

Armed Forces Special Powers Act and People's Agitation


(The struggle of the Manipuris against the AFSPA continues in the face of brutal state repression. In this article, S. Minthang [Secretary, Trinity Youth Services (Manipur Chapter)] traces the roots of this agitation – in the nature of the Manipuri State and society, and its relation with the Indian State and ruling establishment.)


Will there be singing in the dark times,

Yes, there will be singing of the dark times.

— Bertolt Brecht


Contextualisation of the ongoing protest by the people of Manipur against the draconian AFSPA reveals the heinous logic of the power structure's necessity to suppress and repress dissent, through the most brutal means, to sustain itself and preserve a flawed social order.

The role of the modern state must be assessed in tandem with the movements that reflect the aspirations of the people. An increasingly repressive state, in order to perpetuate itself and sustain its existence will automatically seek the help of nefarious means to erode the institutions of civil society. The means may vary from brutal armed repression, to appeasement of elites, to the creation of schisms between communities. Over the last five decades, the Indian state has increasingly sought to muzzle the democratic voice of the people by brute force. Increasing “defence” expenditure seems to be the only thrust of successive governments as far as domestic expenditure goes. Resources drawn from the entire population either through taxation or through massive cuts in social spending finance the coercive apparatus of the state – the army, paramilitary and police forces. This practice goes directly against the aspirations of civil society in its constant efforts to democratize society. What is particularly disturbing in a marginalized land like Manipur is the shrinking of civil institutions. As a result of acute absence of growth, development and expansion in the civil institutions, growing aspirations are brutally quashed. In short, all the civil institutions face the threat of virtual extinction; basic and fundamental institutions like education, health care, public works, public health engineering, family welfare, public distribution etc. have shrunk and diminished to a pathetic state. On the other hand, increasing expansion of the military/coercive institutions have created enormous problems for civil society. While the government complains of financial crunch and bankruptcy to support its policy of strangulating civil institutions, with virtually a blanket ban on employment opportunities for years in Manipur, it has blatantly pursued a policy of expanding its military/coercive institutions. Crores of rupees pumped in every year for modernization and expansion of police forces, establishing new battalions of the Indian Reserve Battalion etc., along with the center's policy of massive recruitment drives in the army, Assam Rifles, CRPF, BSF etc. are glaring instances. The MOU signed between the Manipur government and the Union Government on the blanket ban on recruitment in the civil institutions while expanding the military/coercive institutions rapidly is a clear indication of the rampant militarisation of civil society.

Protests In Assam and Bengal Against Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958

The Assam State Committee of CPI(ML) observed a Solidarity Day with Manipuri people's struggle demanding withdrawal of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 from North Eastern States, on 18 September. Dharnas were held in several districts of Assam . The Party sent a memorandum to

the Prime Minister of India demanding:

i) that the Army personnel guilty for Manorama's rape and killing be arrested, tried and awarded the highest punishment, ii) the people arrested under NSA be immediately and unconditionally released, iii) Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 be withdrawn immediately, iv) an immediate end to the brutal police repression on agitators of the democratic movement.

Dharnas were held at the State capital Guwahati, district Headquarters of Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Nagaon, the SDO office of Pathsala and Block office of Bargaon. A delegation from the Party and the Sadou Asom Jan Sanskritik Parishad sent a memorandum to the Prime Minister

of India through the DC, Sonitpur. In Guwahati, demonstrators gathered at Judges Field, held a procession and handed over the memorandum to the DC, Kamrup. Simillar processions were held at Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Nagaon and Pathsala. The Sonitpur district committee held a sit-in and sent a memorandum at Bargang. In Nagaon, leaders of the local Meira Paibi (Manipuri women's organization) and members of the South East Asia Manipuri Co-ordination Committee joined the protest.

Earlier, in Kolkata, AISA had held a 3-day long fast in solidarity with the Manipur struggle. Veteran activist and writer on women's issues, Moitreyi Chatterjee and writer Mahasweta Devi, as well as others had participated in this protest.

A pervasive routine expansion of the military apparatus and its continued deployment is a problem which is primarily political and non-military in nature. Militarisation of civil society has continued without a break for 46 years as a result of AFSPA, 1958. There is virtually no space left for expression of dissent, which in theory, is supposed to be the foundation of a democratic order. The right to express dissent through protests and agitations has been hailed as the cornerstone of democracy. It has always remained an intrinsic feature of civil society to embark on agitation as a means to express dissent. The right to protest remains an inalienable right in any democratic order. It is without doubt that the people of Manipur have every legitimate right to protest against growing militarisation of civil society through the diabolic instrument called AFSPA. Decades of misery, suffering and agony of brutal atrocities committed by the Indian Armed Forces, logically warrants protest. The recent agitation by the people of Manipur is thereby in every sense legitimate and logical. Certain observations from particular quarters have failed to understand the consequential logic of “injustice” leading to protest against the “injustice”. Coining new phrases for counter violence, which is always a product of repression of aspirations, will eventually become an exercise in futility, as civil society will naturally and logically struggle against militarisation in its efforts to democratize society. Whether it is the capital town Imphal or elsewhere, the issue is not about bringing it to a halt, it is about the need to protest and resist collectively the mindless brutalities of an increasingly repressive political order, which has failed to reflect even the basic aspirations of the people. The concept of the state, conceptualized and evolved, to secure the welfare of its citizens is a far-fetched reality for the people of Manipur as the state is incapable of fulfilling people's aspirations. An outright withdrawal from welfare activities and rampant moves to militarize civil society characterize the state in Manipur. It has over the years been exposed as fascist in its brutal and wanton repression of democratic norms, its contention that such acts have been enacted to uphold the “unity and integrity” of the country does not ring true.

A proper critique of the recent agitation in Manipur for the removal of the draconian AFSPA necessarily entails a detailed scrutiny of the definitely well marked history of protest against the Act. Keeping in view the limited scope of this essay, it will not be possible to provide a detailed picture of this history of protest. With all the gaps and fissures in mind, one can recall the historic protests in the early 1980 against the killings and atrocities in Patsoi Langjing perpetrated by the CRPF. Democratic forms of protests – dharnas, rallies, and strikes – immediately invited undemocratic modes of brutal repression from the state and its coercive apparatus. The same story of curfews and tyrannical repression has been repeated. There were protests against the enforced ‘disappearances' of two persons after the Indian Army arrested them in late December 1980. The protests against the Heirangoithong massacre and the infamous Oinam atrocities marked the 1980's among a series of agitations. The legacy of atrocities continues unabated well into the 1990s till today; so also the legacy of protest against injustice - the protest against the indiscriminate firing and killings on 25 th August, 1994 at Tera Keithel, on 12 th November, 1994 at Ningomthongjao, on 21 st November1994 in the District Court Complex, in 1994 in Yankhullen, Willong and Sajouba villages, the RMC massacre in 1995, the Nungleiban massacre in Tamenglong and so on and so forth. Protests came up even in distant places like Delhi where various students' organizations, civil liberties and human rights organizations joined hands against the draconian AFSPA. The recent agitation is yet another episode in the long drawn history of protest against the mindless crimes perpetrated on the common man through this act and for removal of this heinous act from the face of the earth. As far as the history of protest indicates, it always started with democratic and peaceful means of agitation – dharna, rallies, strikes, civil disobedience, non-cooperation – which are accepted as standard means in a democratic country like India which has a “ Gandhian past ”. However, it is rather unfortunate that the state's response to these peaceful agitations has always been in terms of brutal and violent means of repression. Instead of sincere attempts to redress the issue, the state always resorts to violent suppression, which in turn perpetuates violence. Hereby, one can clearly see the legitimacy of the recent agitation, which underwent a series of transformations because of illogical state repression.

One should not be so naïve as to assume that the Manipuri society is characterized by symmetrical relationships vis-à-vis its different strata. It is as asymmetrical as societies elsewhere. It is no wonder that the entire people of the state, except for those in the exclusive elite category of politicians, bureaucrats, top brass officials or those connected with the Indian armed forces or retired army personnel, are unanimous in their rejection of the AFSPA which has affected, in unequivocal terms, the underprivileged, down trodden, destitute and suffering masses in the state. It is rather facile and reductive to make generalized statements that the on-going agitation adversely affects the poor and middle class families. Without any doubt, it is this section of society that remains most affected by this draconian Act and henceforth their participation in the agitation is massive. If apprehensions are raised, it definitely comes from the “elite” section or those who are detached from the real hardships faced by the masses in their everyday struggle for survival. The overwhelming support given by the masses in the on-going agitation leaves the state with no choice but to intensify its brutal modes of repression – hence, the onslaught of the National Security Act against women and student protestors. It is precisely the asymmetrical relationship between Manipur and other “ mainland ” Indian states, is reflected in the mainstream's speculations that the bandh and agitation will deprive Manipuris of “ essential commodities ” which ironically seems to include items like LPG, oil and salt etc. On an objective analysis of Manipuri society, one really wonders whether this concern is genuine. For more than 80 % of Manipur's population, these items are luxuries, not necessities. Salt still remains an item out of reach for many in the acute poverty stricken remote hill areas, leaving aside items like LPG and oil, which are even more far-fetched.

A genuine attempt to redress the problems of the people in Manipur cannot be sporadic, piece-meal and one-dimensional as some of the recent attempts have been. There is a paramount need to understand the complexities of the problem in the first place. A sincere effort should necessarily engage with the historical aspect of the problem. Mainstream perception and understanding has tended to adopt one of two vantage positions – both not dissimilar in dynamics and politics. One position reflects the bureaucratic viewpoint, which sees the North-Eastern region primarily in terms of its geo-strategic location and its identification with the security/defence matrix of India . Geo-strategic concerns, strictly conceptualized as the “national security” point of view, led to the visualization of the problems of the people of the region as an administrative or “law and order” problem. The other position, apparently liberal in its outlook, talks about developmental perspectives and the underdevelopment or economic backwardness of the region. Both these positions lack historicity as they are underlined by an a priori notion of integration – the notion that the peoples of the North-Eastern region are already integrated. There is a compelling need to analyze and assess the production and consumption of this notion, as the persistence of the problem indicates that it is out of tune with reality and history. Tensions and conflicts generated by the contesting, opposing tendencies vis-à-vis appropriation and integration are pertinent issues, which should inform any attempt to understand the nature of the problems of the North-East.