Civilian Casualties in army activities in light of the Nagaland Incident

Ajinkyaraj Pacharaney

The Indian army is one of the largest armies in the world and we are steadily increasing our  military expenditure over the years to the tune of almost 5 lakh crores in the defense budget of 2020-21, making India one of the largest military spenders in the world. With increased focus on military and its activities in the country, the concept of civilian casualties in army activities is a topic that becomes extremely crucial. The most recent example of the same is the case of 15 people losing their lives due to a firing incident in the villages of Nagaland, which has raised serious concerns about this sensitive topic.

In this ill-fated incident, security forces allegedly shot a van carrying daily wage-laborers who were returning from a coal mine in the district of Mon in Nagaland, which has caused an intense public outrage between military forces and civilians, leading to further deaths and an army personnel being killed. Due to these incidents, public tensions were extremely high in the state, which lead to mobile and internet services being suspended to prevent any rumors fueling the already distressed citizens. However, there were multiple protests in the state despite such heavy restrictions. 

This has led to the criticism of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which has existed since the British times to suppress movements for freedom by Indians. Moreover, it has been in force in the North-Eastern states of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland despite being criticized by several activists and communities which have advocated for repealing the AFSPA.

 The AFSPA itself is quite contentious, with criticism mainly levied at Sections 3 and 4. Section 3 enables any area to be declared as a “disturbed” area, which necessitates the use of armed forces to aid civil power.

Section 4(a) of the AFSPA is a highly controversial provision since it gives power to any commissioned officer, warrant officer or even a non-commissioned officer in the armed forces to fire a weapon or use force equivalent of causing death against any person who is acting in contravention to any law or order which is active during that time. This is further exacerbated with Section 4(c) of the AFSPA, which allows such officers to arrest a person without warrant on mere suspicion of committing a present or a future cognitive offence, with the usage of force authorized to make such arrests. Similarly, Section 4(d) allows such officers to enter and search any place without any warrant if there is a suspicion of a person being wrongfully restrained or if any unlawful property such as arms or ammunition is believed to have been stored and used. 

Section 4(a) of the AFSPA gives a dangerous level of freedom to army officers to an extent that it can be misused or can cause civilian casualties if not used and exercised with proper care and caution. This has been called a “draconian law” by many activists, like Irom Sharmila. She had protested against this law by going on a hunger strike for almost 16 years against a similar incident that had occurred in Tulihal airport in Imphal. This incident is called the “Malom Massacre”, where 10 civilians were shot by 8th Assam Rifles

Looking with a broader lens, the maximum number of civilian casualties have occurred in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which has been a hotspot for clashes between the Indian army and militants, with the number of casualties going as high as 14000. Similarly, a high number of civilian casualties can be seen for the north-eastern states of Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, etc., with civilian casualties amounting up to 4,300. Moreover, the reasons for such casualties are the result of civilians being caught in the crossfire between the army and militants, fake encounters or cases of mistaken identity, which has been seen in the incident in Nagaland. 

Several civil societies have also been protesting against the AFSPA’s unusually harsh laws. Recently the state of Nagaland has been planning to convene a special assembly session for deliberating on the aforesaid incident. An online petition has also been opened to repeal the AFSPA, which has collected a substantial number of signatures for the cause. Moreover, this is not an isolated incident. There have been several instances of civilian casualties in the past as well such as the 1995 incident involving clashes between the Rashtriya Rifles and the people of Kohima, which resulted in the deaths of 7 people, with many more being grievously injured. Another incident involving rape and murder of a woman named Thanjam Manorama was also seen, in which she was arrested on suspicion of being a militant and later found dead with gunshot wounds to her genitals and signs of torture. Thus, such incidents necessitate the need for solutions which can reduce the likeliness of civilian casualties in army operations and quick avenues for justice in an event of a civilian casualty.

There are multiple options to fix the unneeded loss of lives during army operations. Firstly, the AFSPA must be amended to introduce even stricter safeguards in place for any casualties that occur during army operations, with protocols for immediate action and enquiry into any civilian casualties that occur during such operations. The current safeguard in place, i.e., Section 5 of the AFSPA is not enough and needs to be amended in order to impose a stricter liability and a definite period of time for taking any person to the police, who was originally taken into custody under the AFSPA. Security forces must be trained and given sensitization sessions for reducing civilian casualties while in combat. Key provisions of the AFSPA must be modified to prevent any unjust or arbitrary loss of life other than by procedure established by law, which is a key tenet under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Moreover, additional provisions can be inserted in the AFSPA which can allow for any victim or their kin to seek quick and impartial justice in case of any unjust delay in addressing the aftermath of a civilian casualty. If this is not implemented on a war footing, countless innocent lives may be lost by the time any good can be done.

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