Topographies of Violence and Deprivation – Armed Forces Special Powers Act as a site of conflict: Abantee Dutta

Conflicts are multidimensional and difficult to define. The famous opening line of John Berger in Ways of Seeing is instructive while engaging in a conflict situation as ‘the relation between what you see and what you know is never settled’. Nevertheless, definitions are important. Conflicts are too often viewed as negative, destructive and violent. Further, conflict is often experienced as something that happens to people. However, conflict does not happen by itself nor do their escalations- choices are critical in escalations or de-escalation of conflicts (Tjosvold 2006). Such choices are made based on how we understand, define and frame conflicts.

Northeast India, comprising of Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh (federating units), is often called its ‘troubled periphery’ (Bhaumik 2009). In postcolonial times, this poly-ethnic peripheral region has witnessed numerous contestations, which have taken multiple forms- insurgent and armed resistance against the Indian state, violence against migrants from Bangladesh, contestations over land, livelihood and homelands, ethno nationalist movements (often overlapping territories) for autonomy and statehood within the fabric of the Indian nation state (McDuie-Ra 2009a). This paper specifically posits the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) as the site of conflict, creating the environment in which such contestations play out and examines it through the lens of relative deprivation and structural violence.

The AFSPA is a piece of extraordinary legislation, which can be applied to areas in all the states of the Northeast India designated as ‘disturbed’ by the Central Government. In such ‘disturbed’ areas, the armed forces, including the para military forces, some of which have been created specifically for operation in the Northeast, are given extraordinary power. This includes the use of lethal force (Ministry of Home Affairs 1958/1998, Section 4a), right to enter and search premises without warrant (Ministry of Home Affairs 1958/1998, Section 4d) and the right to detain and arrest suspected lawbreakers (Ministry of Home Affairs 1958/1998, Section 4c). No effective safeguards have been incorporated for the civilian population. Use of lethal force is authorized against any person acting in contravention of any law and order and arrest and search and seizure of private property are allowed on the basis of ‘reasonable suspicion’. Most significantly, the Act vide Section 6 also grants blanket immunity for the Indian armed forces by stipulating that,

No prosecution, suit or other legal proceeding shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the Central Government, against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers conferred by this Act’.

AFSPA thus provides the legal framework for continuous military occupation of the region and the subsequent militarization of everyday life (Bhattacharyya 2018, McDuie-Ra 2009a). Active soldiers and para military forces stationed in Northeast have been estimated to be as high as 450,000 (Hayes).[1] The presence of armed personnel on the roads, in the market places, on the highways and in the border areas is palpable (Bhattacharyya 2018, Kikon 2009, McDuie-Ra 2009a). Check posts are numerous, routinely and heavily curtaining movements (Bhattacharyya 2018, Kikon 2009, McDuie-Ra 2009a). Stopping, searching and questioning have made every day life oppressive for most people in ‘disturbed areas’ (Bhattacharyya 2018, Kikon 2009, McDuie-Ra 2009a). Armed groups threaten public officials and extort money from local businesses (Hayes). ‘Taxes’ are collected at security checkpoints.[2] A parallel economy fuelled by drugs and guns flourishes with both the army and rebel groups said to be involved. [3] Reports projects the Indian army to be the single biggest buyer of land mines in the world and the region is now heavily mined with both army ordinance and rebel produced improvised explosive devices.[4] Landmine clearance operations have however failed and have in fact resulted in internally displacing persons disconnecting them from their lands and leaving families in vulnerable situations.[5] Traffickers of women and children, have in turn exploited poverty and dispossession, primarily for domestic labour and sex, thus creating a vicious culture of AFSPA.[6]

The dubious expression of power aimed at maintaining its legitimacy where the Government (invested in tackling insurgency) ignores individual and human rights in the process to profess extension of power through AFSPA (Bhattacharjee 2018) is what Galtung terms as ‘cultural violence’ (Galtung 1990). He defines cultural violence as “those aspects of culture, the symbolic sphere of our existence- exemplified by religion, ideology such as military, language etc- that can be used to justify or legitimise direct or structural violence’ (Galtung 1990). AFSPA then “enforces a state of exception that allows democracy to be permanently suspended and the people of the region to be under permanent surveillance’ (Mc Duie-Ra 2009a).

A causal flow from cultural via structural to direct violence as articulated by Johan Galtung is discernable in case of Northeast and AFSPA. In his theory Galtung maintains that violence breeds more violence and cultures of violence are therefore not models of virtue (Galtung 1990). His theory focuses on “anthropo centric’ violence which underpin needs related to survival, well being, identity and freedom – each of which are threatened under the legal and military framework under AFSPA (Galtung 1990). The everyday enactment and normalisation of military existence suggests a sense of alienation within the community amounting to “spiritual death” as devised by Galtung. A “silent holocaust” (misery) unfolds where businesses are interrupted frequently and homemakers remain worried for the safe return of their family members. As narrated by one shopkeeper,

whenever there is some form of disturbance (protests, bomb blasts, crackdowns), we are usually the first ones to be targeted, so the best thing is to shut down our shops, but it affects our daily business’ (Bhattacharjee 2018).

Further, few die in open combat with armed personnel. Terms like ‘fake encounters’ have notoriously infiltrated common parlance, where young men of the region are picked up by armed men and later found dead in secluded locations (Hayes).[7]

Ted Gurr, who examines the frustration aggression matrix in his theory of relative deprivation, maintains that, while frustration by itself does not necessarily lead to violence, it often does when felt strongly and over a long period of time (Gurr 1970). This is particularly true for Northeast India where increased expectation of social conditions has been left unfulfilled and has resulted in sustained disconnect among individuals and groups. This has consequently resulted in the mushrooming of various militant groups and insurgent organisations, which have witnessed a dramatic increase since AFSPA has been in operation.

The extensive militarisation has witnessed wide human rights violations, human/civilian casualties, arbitrary and extra judicial killings, enforced disappearances, sexual harassment and institutionalised rape in the region with no accountability for the perpetrators protected by the AFSPA. This creates a sense of ‘routine violence’ as noted by Ted Gurr and perpetuates a sense of fear, anxiety and uncertainty in the everyday life of the civilians (Gurr 1970). Such an environment, in turn shapes people’s choice of their movements and family members, especially when movements relate to accessing education, employment, livelihoods and healthcare and causing large scale frustration.

Further, building on this theory, Gurr argues that in diverse regions (such as Northeast India), differences in access to scarce productive resources often result in economic deprivation (Gurr 1970). It is largely perceived by the locals that policies framed for the Northeast India are deeply influenced by counter insurgency tactics, security concerns and are affected by the legacy created by AFSPA. Therefore each measure designed to break the region’s isolation by connecting it with neighbouring countries is countered by measures to restrict connectivity (routine extensions of AFSPA), policies to promote the region’s economies are implemented by maintaining the patronage of the armed forces and local elites and participation from civil society is carefully controlled (Mc Duie-Ra 2009b).

The economic situation and development of the region has worsened since Independence and while the rest of the country surged through rapid economic progress, the Northeast, with high rates of unemployment (despite a high literacy rate), lack of industrialisation (perceived as unsafe by investors), have been relegated to ‘special category states’ (Mc Duie-Ra 2009b, Vadlamannati 2011). It is ironic that the Northeast India supplies oil to the rest of India yet petrol prices are among the highest in the country (Hayes, Vadlamannati 2011). Staples like rice and milk, which can be produced locally in the region, are being imported from other parts of India. The region continues to be marginalised and lack the opportunity and infrastructure of other parts of India, despite its substantial contribution to the nation’s resources (Vadlamannati 2011).

Expansion of military presence in the region has also resulted in the growing control of army elites on the political and economic life of the region (Hayes). Military personnel are well represented in the institutions of regional governance (State Governors have mostly been either from the police, military or intelligence background) and have power over development policy (Hayes). This has led to a deep sense of alienation amongst the local communities where they feel under represented in decisions pertaining to development policies and controversial plans of the Central Government to increase resource extraction through construction of ‘megadams’, a classic manifestation of ‘decremental deprivation’ (Gurr 1970, Hayes, Mc Duie-Ra 2009b).

Unlike the structural violence approach, the relative deprivation frame offers fairly concrete methods to evaluate the intensity of frustration. According to Gurr, ‘Relative Deprivation is a discrepancy between value expectation and value capabilities’ (Gurr 1970). The relation between these two values is central to the theory and one can track potential conflict by engaging with the stakeholders of the conflict. One of the main narratives of insurgent groups of Northeast is one for autonomy- political, economical and social. Any intervention to shift the present frustration-aggression paradigm and contain frustration would necessitate a developmental approach based on grass-root empowerment of people, promoting self governance, capacity building of people and institutions, participatory development through grass-root planning etc. However, such an approach ignores those deeply embedded structures and cultures of militarism, addressed by Galtung, that create fault lines eventually relapsing into conflict. With the violent structure institutionalised and the violent culture internalized, direct violence also tends to become institutionalised, repetitive, ritualistic, like a vendetta as evident from the case of Northeast (Galtung 1990). Structural violence includes a host of offences against human dignity, such as poverty, various forms of inequality and human rights violations as evident from the case of Northeast India. The task for structuralist then is to design intervention processes that acknowledge such injustices while reducing structural violence by narrowing inequities, challenging hegemonic power relations and creating a more inclusive and participatory society (Mcgill 2017). To conclude, the paper demonstrates and affirms the need to define conflicts and reiterates its importance, as they shape our understanding of issues and affects its dynamics and outcome.


Asian Centre for Human Rights. 2008. India human rights report 2008. New Delhi: Asian Centre for Human Right

Berger, J. (1977) Ways of Seeing. Penguin Books

Bhaumik, S. (2009) Troubled Periphery: Crisis of India’s North East, Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd.

Bhattacharyya, R. (2018). Living with Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) as everyday life. Geojournal, 83, 31-48.

Galtung, J. (1990). Cultural violence. Journal of Peace Research, 27(3), 291–305.

Gurr, Ted R (1970) “Ch 2: Relative Deprivation and the impetus to violence.” Why Men Rebel. New York: Princeton University Press, 22-58.

Hayes, B. The other Burma? Conflict, counter-insurgency and human rights in Northeast India Retrived from:

Human Rights Watch. 2008. Getting away with murder: 50 years of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. New York: Human Rights Watch.

Kikon, D. (2009). The predicament of justice: fifty years of Armed Forces Special Powers Act in India. Contemporary South Asia 17 (3), 271–82.

McDuie-Ra, D. (2009a). Fifty-year disturbance: The Armed Forces Special Powers Act and exceptionalism in a South Asian periphery. Contemporary South Asia, 17(3), 255–270.

McDuie-Ra, D. (2009b). Vision 2020 or re-vision 1958: The contradictory politics of counterinsurgency in India’s regional engagement. Contemporary South Asia, 17(3), 313–30.

Mcgill, D, (2017). Different violence, different justice? Taking structural violence seriously in post conflict and transitional justice processes. State Crime 6(1), 79-101.

Ministry of Home Affairs. 1958/1998. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958. New Delhi: Ministry of Home Affairs

The Scroll (2017, July 19) ‘ Will Supreme Court verdict on Manipur fake encounter killigs force the Centre to rethink AFSPA?’ URL (consulted 16 September 2018) from

Tjosvold, D. (2006). Defining conflict and making choices about its management. International Journal of Conflict Management 17(2), 87- 95.

Vadlamannati, K.C. (2011) Why Indian men rebel? Explaining armed rebellion in the northeastern states of India, 1970-2007. Journal of Peace Research, 48(5), 605-619.

Yumnam, J. (2017) Armed conflict, militarization & implications in Manipur. Kangla Online Retrieved from:

[1] To put this figure into context, the number of US and allied troops in post invasion Iraq peaked at around 165,000.[1]

[2] Hayes, B. The other Burma? Conflict, counter-insurgency and human rights in Northeast India Retrived from:,

[3] Hayes, B. The other Burma? Conflict, counter-insurgency and human rights in Northeast India Retrived from:, Also see, Asian Centre for Human Rights. 2008. India human rights report 2008. New Delhi: Asian Centre for Human Rights; Human Rights Watch. 2008. Getting away with murder: 50 years of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. New York: Human Rights Watch.

[4] Hayes, B. The other Burma? Conflict, counter-insurgency and human rights in Northeast India Retrived from:

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Scroll (2017, July 19) ‘ Will Supreme Court verdict on Manipur fake encounter killigs force the Centre to rethink AFSPA?’ URL (consulted 16 September 2018) from

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