Disturbed Areas

Disturbed Areas
(Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 15, No. 22 (May 31, 1980), pp. 946-947 Published by: Economic and Political Weekly)

A CURIOUS feature of the notification declaring Assam a ‘disturbed area’ issued on April 6 has been the omission of North Cachar district from the purview of the notification.

Also, while the proclamation was made under the provisions of Section 3 of Assam Disturbed Areas Act, 1955, another notification was issued enforcing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958, as amended by the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers (Amendment) Act, 1972. Thereby hangs a tale.

Essentially, there is no difference between the two Acts; while the former is intended “to make better provisions for the suppression of disorder and for the restoration and maintenance of public order in disturbed areas in Assam” and empowers civil authority (“any magistrate or public officer not below the rank of a sub-inspector” or, in the case of armed police including the Assam police, “not below the rank of a havildar”) with virtually unlimited powers, the latter whose coverage is more extensive and includes, apart from Assam, the states of Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura and the Union territories of Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram empowers, as the title of the Act says, members of the armed forces (“any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank in the armed forces”) enter and search without warrant any premises, arrest without warrant, conduct search and destroy operations and of course, shoot to kill, with complete immunity from prosecution, except with the previous sanction of the Central government, in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers conferred by the Act.

Clearly, the powers bestowed by the two Acts on functionaries of the civil and military police as well as the armed forces are very wide with no bars being placed on their exercise, though the power to ‘shoot at sight’ has for the moment been denied following the Gauhati High Court’s order of April 18. Very rightly, there has been widespread opposition to the declaration as well as strong criticism of the legislation which makes such declarations possible.

But it is significant that though these laws were passed more than twenty years ago, and though these have been in operation not merely in the general area of the northeast, but in the state of Assam itself, including within the area of the present truncated Assam, there had been no protest against these dangerous laws in Assam till now. The reason, for instance, for certain parts of Assam being ‘exempted’ from the ambit of the proclamation of April 6, 1980 was that these areas have for long been declared ‘disturbed areas’, and so, administratively, could not be declared over again as ‘disturbed areas’.

One of the objectives of these enactments made in 1955 and 1958 was to put down Naga insurgency, though these acts have been in operation not merely in the Naga hills district of Assam (and, later, in the Naga Hills Tuensang Area and the state of Nagaland), but also in the territory of the present Assam itself – the former Mikir and North Cachar Hills district and the areas bordering the Naga Hills. Indeed, the gazette notifications declaring these parts of the present state of Assam as ‘disturbed areas’ have been issued with clock-like regularity (the latest of such notifications was issued on May 27). It was only when the ‘disturbed area’ proclamation was made covering the Brahmaputra valley that the People of Assam appear to have woken up to the horrendous implications of the two Acts.

There is a lesson in this, both for the people of Assam and for those of the areas which till recently were part of Assam. (Italics ours.)

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