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The battle against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is a long, bitter one. On August 15, 1942, Lord Linlithgow, the viceroy of India, promulgated the Armed Forces Special Powers (Ordinance) to suppress the Quit India Movement launched by Mahatama Gandhi a week earlier. Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and most leaders of the Indian National Congress were imprisoned. Indian protesters targeted and burned down police offices and railway and telegraph lines, which the British saw as designed to hamper the war effort against an impending Japanese invasion on the Burmese front. Linlithgow responded with violence: 2,500 were killed in police shootings on Indian protesters, tens of thousands were arrested, rebellious villages were torched, and protesters were flogged and tortured.
In August 1947, freedom from British rule and the birth of India and Pakistan were accompanied with genocidal violence and the mass migration of Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan and of Muslims from India. A few years into Indian independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, faced his first insurgency in Naga districts of Assam, along the Burmese border. Baptist missionaries had converted a majority of the Nagas to Christianity and an educated leadership had emerged in the form of the Naga National Council. In the meetings between the Naga and the Indian leadership, Gandhi theoretically considered the possibility of Naga independence, but Nehru vehemently rejected the idea and offered the Nagas autonomy within India.
In 1954, the Nagas began an insurgency for independence. India responded by sending in thousands of Indian army soldiers and paramilitary men from the Assam Rifles to crush the rebellion. An intense cycle of violence followed. To further arm his counterinsurgents and provide them with legal protection, Nehru’s government passed the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958) in the Indian parliament. Very few lawmakers spoke in opposition to the law. “We want a free India. But, we do not want a free India with barbed wires and concentration camps, where havaldars (sergeants) can shoot at sight any man,” Surendra Mohanty, a dissident member of the parliament from Orissa, told the house.
Now, Prime Minister Nehru echoed Churchill and Linlithgow as they had set about crushing the Quit India Movement with violence and legal protections of the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance. “No infirm government can function anywhere. Where there is violence, it has to be dealt with by government, whatever the reason for it may be,” Nehru told the Indian parliament. And Nehru’s soldiers in Nagaland mirrored the ruthlessness of the British forces in India. “The stories of burned rice stores and houses seemed endless,” wrote Gavin Young, a reporter for The Observer, who traveled throughout Nagaland in 1961. “Individuals told how they had been beaten and tied up for hours without water; how they had been bound and hung downwards from beams to be flogged; how sons, brothers and fathers had been bayoneted to death.”
The discontent in the borderlands of Nehru’s India wasn’t limited to the Naga areas. Signs of trouble and disillusionment with being ruled by a bureaucrat from New Delhi were growing in the former princely state of Manipur, which had merged with India in 1949. In 1964, the year of Nehru’s death, a separatist militant group seeking independence from India, the United National Liberation Front, was formed in Manipur. India reacted to the centrifugal force by granting statehood to Manipur in 1972, which brought an elected local government and greater financial resources.
A few years later, inspired by Maoist ideas, some Manipuri rebels traveled to Lhasa and, with Chinese support, formed an insurgent group, the People’s Liberation Army, which sought Manipuri independence. Several smaller insurgent groups came into being. The number of persons killed in acts of violence went up from two in 1978 to 51 in 1981, according to the South Asian Terrorism Portal. India responded by declaring Manipur a “disturbed area” and imposed the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in late 1980. A brutal cycle of insurgency and counterinsurgency has continued ever since, claiming several thousand lives.