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Caught in the crossfire

Feb 18, 2010

In India’s northeastern states of Nagaland, Tripura and Manipur violent conflicts have led to serious violations of the rights of ordinary people, especially women and children, writes K S Subramanian.

Manipur, Nagaland, and Tripura in the northeast are affected by active political conflict today. The whole of Nagaland and Manipur and significant areas in Tripura are under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 as amended in 1972, in view of the ‘disturbed conditions’ prevailing there.


This law empowers ‘‘any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank in the Armed Forces’’ to shoot to kill on suspicion, destroy armed dumps, arrest any persons without warrant and search any premises without a warrant. No prosecution, suit or any legal proceeding against any such officer shall lie without the previous sanction of the central government.

The normal operation of the law and order and development machinery is not possible in such conditions. Human rights violations are common. Paramilitary forces, excluding army units, outnumber the civilian police in the entire region .Though the Assam Rifles is said to be the oldest police force in the country, it is actually a paramilitary force under the Indian army.

Few human rights organisations have made a serious study of the impact of violence on the lives of ordinary people, especially women and children, in this region. Security analysis is a complex area, which should include the human rights of women and children as an essential component. In the northeastern context, there have been excessive political conflicts and human rights violations and tardy or negative state response. The conflict in the region began after the induction of the army into Nagaland in 1955. The insurgency in that state is often considered ‘the mother of all insurgencies’ in the region.

Conflict in the region is aggravated by drug trafficking, money laundering and arms trafficking in addition to migration. Neighbouring Bangladesh has the world’s highest population density of 1,000 persons per square kilometre but the northeastern states are thinly populated with porous borders. Political conflict leads to cross-border population movements. Tripura, once a tiny tribal majority state, was transformed by migration from Bangladesh into a non-tribal majority state, which caused ethnic violence.


Manipur is a strategic state bordering Nagaland, Assam and Mizoram to the north and west, with an extensive border with Myanmar to the east and south. Political violence and confrontation between armed opposition groups and government forces is a dominant feature in the state leading to serious violations, by both state and non-state agents, of the rights of ordinary people, especially women and children.


In 1980, the whole of the state was declared a “disturbed area” under the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur Special Powers) Act, 1958. The Act confers on government armed forces broadly defined powers to shoot to kill. This law fosters a climate that enables law enforcement agencies to use force with impunity.

Unlawful killings of suspected members of armed opposition groups have resulted from the systematic use of lethal force as an alternative to arrest. Civilians, especially women and children, have been among the victims. All children born after 1980 in the state are innocent victims of a state of siege and have never known the meaning of peace.  In 1997, the Supreme Court of India upheld the validity of the law, but human right agencies hold that it violates Article 6(1), 9 and 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Redress for victims of human rights violations, including a growing number of children, has, for many years, been impossible to obtain in Manipur, although the Supreme Court had suggested measures to protect against human rights violations under the above law.

The population of Manipur (about 2 million) can be divided into two main groups, the Meiteis and the hill tribes. Most of the Meiteis live in the smaller valley area of the state, while the hill tribes live in the surrounding, much larger, hill areas. The hill people can be subdivided mainly into Nagas and the Kuki-Chins or Kuki-Mizos (together consisting of 29 major tribes and 14 minor tribes). People from other tribal groups have also migrated into the valley region from neighbouring states.

Other armed underground organisations also came into existence in the late-’70s and the early-‘80s. In 1980 the Indian government imposed the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 in the valley.

Every person born after 1980 has lived under this Act, admitted to be abnormal in Indian law and considered a violation of international humanitarian law. Children have been witnesses, survivors and direct victims of armed conflict between the state and the various armed opposition groups. Civilians, not engaged in armed conflict, have been frequent casualties and are often children and youth.

Pre-school education is affected by poor functioning of schools, especially in remote areas. Funds for teaching aids are disbursed infrequently. The right of the indigenous children to receive education in their own languages, to be familiar with their own histories and cultural values, has been denied. The violent political context thus affects the implementation of an entire range of educational, nutritional, health and other services. Funds earmarked for nutritional supplements have not been disbursed for many years. Many case studies exist on the impact of conflict in Manipur on women and children.


Nagaland is unique for its enduring conflict, which has had a deeply damaging impact on the security, survival, development and participation of women and children. The conflict between the Indian government and the militants in this tribal-dominated state (88% of the population is Scheduled Tribes) began as soon as the Indian state came into existence in 1947 and has lasted to this day.


The Naga people were never part of the freedom struggle launched by the Indian nationalists. Historically, they had enjoyed a separate identity even during British occupation of India. This experience, coupled with considerable misunderstanding on the part of Indian nationalists, is seen by many to be at the bottom of the trouble between India and the Naga people.

The history of the conflict between India and the Naga movement for independence is a complex and tortuous one. Several factors have contributed to the persistence of the conflict even after the formation of the state of Nagaland in 1963, the introduction of a democratic political setup in the state, and the holding of regular elections.

No comprehensive study has yet been made of the various impacts on ordinary people including women and children, of the conflict between the Indian government forces and elements of the armed Naga underground. However, anecdotal and journalistic accounts do reveal a serious picture. Women and children became the main victims when in the past village after village was burnt down, concentration camps were set up, forced labour imposed and large-scale internal displacement of populations occurred along with everyday incidents of torture, rape and killings.

Women have borne the brunt of this conflict which has created a large number of young widows and orphans. Naga villages today are crowded with single mothers struggling to support their children. Many of the women and children, themselves victims of violence, are burdened with other victims of torture as dependents for life. Rape victims are especially vulnerable, as they cannot marry again easily and have to live with both the mental trauma and the social stigma.


Tripura, like Manipur, Nagaland and Assam, faces the problem of an armed tribal militancy directed at the state government. More than half the total area of the state has been declared “disturbed” under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. The administration is largely dominated by non-tribals who are seen as biased against tribals in the framing of policies and their implementation.


An example often cited is the Dumbur hydroelectric project, which led to large-scale displacement of tribal families when good tribal land was submerged to generate a few megawatts of electricity for urban areas with non-tribal populations.

Anti-poverty programmes have not resulted in reduction of poverty. These factors have led to divisions along tribal and non-tribal lines and raised issues of ethnicity, identity and sub-nationalism among tribal youth. The state’s political framework has not provided an effective platform for expression of these issues, and insurgent groups in nearby states have become role models for local tribal youth.

From the 1940s onwards, a series of ethnic movements emerged to articulate the tribal cause. The limited expansion of educational opportunities in the 1940s created a new group of educated tribal youths, discontented at being denied posts in the administration. The princely state had preferred to employ Bengalis. Tribal youth organisations emerged and served as a vehicle for the development of Tripuri nationalism and communism.

In 1967, a new tribal youth organisation, the Tripura Upajati Juba Samithi (TUJS), was formed. It demanded, among other things, the introduction of an autonomous district council for the tribal people, the recognition of Kok Borok, the indigenous language, as an official language and the restoration of tribal lands alienated by non-tribals.

In 1977, the TUJS became an electoral force to reckon with. It did well in the elections in 1982 and 1985 for the Tribal Autonomous District Council (formed in 1979). Later on, the TUJS provided impetus to the formation of a guerilla group titled Tripura National Volunteers (TNV), headed by Bijoy Hrangkhal, which became the fountainhead of the two main militant groups operating in Tripura today: the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) and the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT).

The setting up of the Tribal Autonomous District Council resulted in an anti-tribal uprising in 1980 in which over 2,000 people, mainly tribals, were killed. In the subsequent period, despite the strengthening of the Tribal Autonomous District Council to empower the tribals, tribal discontent has not been assuaged mainly on account of political failures.  Recent years have seen an increasing number of violent incidents perpetrated by various militant outfits such as killings and kidnappings for ransom. The Government of India has had to deploy hundreds of central military and paramilitary units in the state.

There is a serious paucity of information and analysis on the status of women and children affected by conflict in Tripura.

Tripura is the only state in the northeast where the indigenous tribal people, once the majority population, have been reduced to a minority as a result of the influx of refugees from across the international border with Bangladesh. The indigenous people, who accounted for 95% of the population in the 1931 census, were a mere 31% in the 1991 census. In addition to controlling land and having a monopoly on trade and business, the immigrants also dominate government jobs.

The conflict situation, relating basically to the land issue, has persisted from around the 1940s to the present. Demographic and political forces have further conspired to thrust political power firmly into the hands of non-tribal immigrants. The aggravated disadvantage lends a sharper edge to the ongoing militancy of indigenous communities.

These developments have had an adverse impact on women and children. There is a particular need and scope for a comprehensive study of this impact.

The impact of the conflict on women and children in the region during the last several decades is a subject that calls for serious examination by official and non-official agencies.

(K S Subramanian, formerly of the Indian Police Service, was Director-General of the State Institute of Public Administration and Rural Development, Government of Tripura)

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Source : Infochange
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