Resurgence of civil society, not AFSPA, is the remedy


By Urmitapa Dutta

The High Court of Meghalaya recently called for the Centre to invoke Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA)in an effort to cope with escalating insurgent violence in Garo Hills. Draconian laws like AFSPA are antithetical to democracy and pluralism. Premised on the suspension of civil liberties, AFSPA has led to unbridled military action and gross infraction of human rights. This year marks the fifteenth year since Irom Sharmila began her fast in Manipur to protest the Indian State’s refusal to repealAFSPA. Are we going to mark this extraordinary act of civil resistance with a regression into militarization? While there is a smattering of support for AFSPA, this past week has largely witnessed protests registered by ordinary citizens and various civil society organizations. My goal in writing this article is two-fold: to elucidate why AFSPA is not a viable option and toprovide alternative modes of conceptualizing the issue of insurgency in Garo Hills. I will do so by drawing upon my long-term community-engaged research on everyday violence in Garo Hills. Moving away from security driven perspectives, my research interrogates multiple configurations of marginality from the vantage point of ordinary citizens in Garo Hills.

The call for AFSPA is based on specious logic. First, it assumes that militancy in Garo Hills is an exceptional or extraordinary situation that calls for extraordinary, autocratic response. Such crisis-based politics tend to view situations as chaotic, unstable, and as a break from routine processes. However, not all acts of violence occur within the confines of insurgency. Crisis-based politics fail to account for the enmeshed systems of violence and inequalities that mediate people’s everyday lives. Second, the High Court order claims that police and civil administration have exhausted all options in order to justify the recourse to AFSPA. This is however an inaccurate characterization given the poor quality of governance in Garo Hills. Successive governments have failed to adequately meet the needs of diverse citizens and guarantee the rule of law; thus creating an environment conducive to recruiting supporters for insurgent groups. A third problematic assumption is one that dehumanizes insurgent groups as a monolithic entity. Most armed insurgent groups are organized in strict hierarchies with “foot soldiers” occupying the lowest rungs of the organization. The circumstances of these young men, many of whom are in their late teens, tends to be vastly different from those of the leaders. In the course of my research, I conducted interviews with a number of such youth incarcerated for their alleged affiliation to armed insurgent groups. These youth often hailed from remote villages in Garo Hills. Their trajectories converged on several themes: families fragmented by abject poverty, lack of employment opportunities, and a sense of disconnect with the larger community. Contrary to popular beliefs that young recruits are irrevocably “brainwashed,” their narratives signal sites of possibility. They can in fact be reintegrated into society under altered circumstances. Draconian acts like AFSPA fail to make these critical distinctions and thus foreclose vital opportunities for recuperating human capital.

Protesting against the imminent threat of AFSPA, civil society organizations have rightfully pointed out the importance of economic development and combined peace efforts. While there economic deprivation stifles youth aspirations, the relationship between poverty and militancy is a complex one. When rising expectations of young people are met with limited opportunities in an exceedingly disparate society, the resultant frustration and anger can make young people more receptive to separatist agendas. Relative deprivation thus plays a far more influential role in violent conflict than absolute levels of poverty. We certainly need to work towards peace in Garo Hills. But what would this peace look like? In contexts of conflict, peace tends to be equated with the absence of direct violence, usually brought about by signing of ceasefire agreements. These agreements are limited in scope, Garo Hills being a case in point. The absence of direct violence may bring about passive coexistence but the active creation of harmonious environments that support cooperation and coexistence require concerted efforts. The conditions necessary to build a sustainable peace include access to education and physical necessities, societal justice, access to economic opportunities, freedom to express oneself without fear, to develop one’s abilities without obstruction, and security from harm. Peace then is not just the end or absence of direct violence, but the creation of lasting structures that ensure the reduction of all kinds of violence.

Moving forward, there are a number of steps that may be taken to deal with the current situation in Garo Hills without resorting to AFSPA. First, competent and sustained police work is necessary to neutralize the imminent threat. It is entirely conceivable that local police may be part of the problem whether it is due to incompetence, corruption, or co-optation. However, rather than relying on military forces, which are ill-suited for sustainable peace, radical police reform is imperative. This reform entails a two-pronged approach: enhancing operational effectiveness and fortifying intelligence; and investing in community-police relationships to address the erosion of public trust. While an overhaul of policing procedures will take time, interim measures can be taken to deal with imminent threat in ways that advance the long-term term reform goals.

A second step involves concerted efforts to resuscitate civil society in Garo Hills, one that is inclusive and offers a platform for social critique. The past few years have witnessed a gradual fragmentation of civil society in Garo Hills. Rather than an autonomous space for critical engagement and dissent, civil society in Garo Hills has been increasingly constricted by agitations against “outsiders” or ethnic others. In the course of my research, extensive interviews with both Garo and non-Garo youth pointed to the ways in which ethnic divisiveness has become an integral part of the social fabric and is no longer questioned. The tribal versus outsider conflict subsumes critical issues of gendered violence, corruption, environmental degradation, and displacement. The logic of ethnic divisiveness that drives armed insurgency is an invisible force gnawing away at the foundations of civil society. This is one of the primary reasons why AFSPA will fail to contain ethnic violence in Garo Hills. The struggle against insurgency is not a military campaign but one of strategizing how to prevail over the divisive ethnic identity politics fueling and fueled by insurgency. Some strategies include: creating opportunities for inclusive community and civic engagement; providing a safe platform for the expression of multiple voices; building issue-based solidarity networks that transcend ethnic identifications; actively shaping public discourse to counter divisive ethnic identity politics. In particular, these efforts should be integrated in curricula at various educational levels.

Finally, we need a multi-phasic strategic plan to tackle the issue of “development,” yet another buzzword that has come to be linked to insurgency. The dominant rhetoric is that “development” is the way to bring an end to insurgency. This raises the question: What would just, sustainable, and equitable development look like in Garo Hills? We need to resist neoliberal and top-down formulations to generate context specific understandings of development, those that are fundamentally committed to the local. Also crucial is the need to denaturalize corruption. Corruption damages the social fabric and weakens public institutions that are necessary for peaceful coexistence. By corroding the foundations of civil society, corruption makes it easy to create a society divided along ethnic fault lines.

Mounting research evidence points to the limited role of military and paramilitary approaches in bringing about lasting peace in contexts of insurgency. In order to generate more viable solutions, we have to reframe our problem definition. Expanding our conception of what constitutes violence to include inequality and oppression constitutes a vital step in moving past the current impasse. Violence that is ubiquitous and deeply entrenched in everyday practices necessitates a notion of “everyday” peace, that is, ongoing processes aimed towards building local community capacities. These processes have an implicit restorative value in that they begin to restructure the social fabric while fostering mutuality, trust, and equality.

(The author is Assistant Professor of Psychology and a faculty affiliate of the Peace and Conflict Studies program at University of Massachusetts Lowell. A native of Garo Hills, she has been involved in community-based research in Garo Hills for eleven years. Dr. Dutta is the President Elect of the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence, a division of the American Psychological Association. She can be reached at [email protected])

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