Colonial Instrument in Democratic India: A Case of Armed Forces Special Power Acts 1958

 *By:- Ningthoujam Rameshchandra



The erstwhile Asiatic Kingdom of Manipur which was contentiously merged with India is experiencing armed conflict to exercise the right to self-determination since 1949. The prolonged armed conflict between the state and non-state has created an armed conflict situation. The state actors in order to suppress the voice for self-determination are deploying thousands of security forces with special powers without the consent of the state. The special power -Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958 is a colonial legacy where the Coloniser (British) used against the people of British-India to suppress the movement of Quit India during the early 1940s. The act empowers any armed forces to torture or kill anyone on mere suspicion. Surprisingly, in democratic India, the Act is imposed in the name of counter-insurgency operation but it neither helps in minimising the conflict nor brings peace. It only helps in bringing more security forces including the Indian army, which are trained to fight the external forces or enemy that aggrieve the human security. The proposed paper will discuss the human rights situation that has created out of the counter-insurgency operations in Manipur.

Key Words: AFSPA-1958, Armed conflict, Sate/non state actors, Manipur.



The term colonialism generally refers to the establishment, acquisition, expansion and maintaining of colonies in one territory by people from another territory. The colonists change social structure, economy and governance of the colonized territory. Colonialism normally refers to a period from the 15th to the 20th century when people from Europe established colonies on other continents. There are some common characteristics of colonialism, such as: political and legal domination over an alien territory; relations of economics and political dependence; exploitation between imperial powers and the colony; racial and cultural inequality (Yilmaz 2010).

Colonialism is a broad concept that refers to the project of European political domination from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries that ended with the national liberation movements of the 1960s. The legitimacy of colonialism was also a topic of debate among French, German, and British philosophers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Enlightenment thinkers such as Kant, Smith and Diderot were critical of the barbarity of colonialism and challenged the idea that Europeans had the obligation to “civilize” the rest of the world. At first it might seem relatively obvious that Enlightenment thinkers would develop a critique of colonialism. The system of colonial domination, which involved some combination of slavery, quasi-feudal forced labor, or expropriation of property, is antithetical to the basic Enlightenment principle that each individual is capable of reason and self-government (Margaret K 2011 cited in Yilmaz 2010).

Manipur, one of the states amongst India’s northeastern region, had established a sophisticated kingdom at the time when state formation was unknown to most parts of the region (Chandhoke, 2006). The state is as big as Israel in its size where it shares its frontier with Myanmar to the east. China lies to the north, and Bangladesh to the south. It has 9 administrative districts and Imphal is the capital city. Manipur was recognized by foreign nations, especially by the Shan kingdom with the 1470 C.E agreement between the king Kiyamba of Manipur and Khekhomba of Pong (Shan Kingdom) in upper Burma.  The Anglo Manipur Friendship Treaty in 1762, Anglo Manipuri Defense protocol of 1763, Treaty of Yandabo followed it in 1826 between the British government and the Burmese government after the Burmese occupied Manipur (1819-1826-remembered as “Seven Year Devastation”) (Hanjabam, 2008). Not only have the Meeteis[1] possessed a distinct political and territorial status for centuries, they also have a highly literate and developed culture, an advanced literary tradition which stretches back a thousand years, and a distinctive linguistic tradition (Chandhoke, op.cit). The British administered the state of Manipur directly from 1891-1947 after they defeated Manipur in 1891. But remain a British protectorate till 1947. On 15th August 1947 the British left Manipur. Accordingly she regained her independence after 56 years. The king surrendered his power to the people through the Manipur State Constitution Act 1947. Popular government was formed through the adult franchise in 1948. But it was short-lived as Manipur merged contentiously with India on 21st September 1949 (Hanjabam, 2008). Manipur became a state in 1972.

Manipur lies on the routes between South-Asia, Southeast-Asia and Central-Asia. Various ethnic groups belonging to southern-Mongoloid groups, the Tibeto-Burman, the Indo-Aryans and a sizable section of Tai (from Shan kingdom) came to Manipur from pre-historic times down to the present day.  The present ethnic groups of Manipur viz: – the Meities, the Naga tribes, the Kuki Chin tribes and other communities are the descendants of those migrating people (Kamei G 1991).


Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA)-1958

The Act – the Armed Forces Special Power Act 1958– was enacted by the Parliament in 1958 and it was known initially as Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act, 1958. It was imposed to suppress the Naga Movement in Naga Hills. It is the colonial legacy where the Coloniser (British) used against the people of British-India to suppress the movement of Quit India during the early 1940s, and has been enacted in order to suppress Quit India Movement by the British colonist. It was a colonial tool for continuation of colonization. The AFSPA 1958 of India inherited the same powerful political potency (Hanjabam, 2008). The Act was preceded by an Ordinance called Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Ordinance, 1958 promulgated by the President of India on 22-5- 1958. The Act applied to the entire State of Assam and the Union Territory of Manipur. After the new States of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland came into being, the Act was appropriately adapted to apply to these States[2]. The act has also been operated in the Kashmir valley since 1990 and in Jammu since 2001. The Act has not been made applicable to any other State in the country.

As originally enacted, the power to declare an area to be a ‘disturbed area’ was conferred only upon the State governments. However, Act 7 of 1972 amendment conferred such a power concurrently upon the Central government. The reason for conferring such a power upon the Central government is stated in the ‘Objects and Reasons’ appended to the Bill, which reads thus: “The Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act, 1958 empowers only the Governors[3] of the States and the Administrators of the Union Territories to declare areas in the concerned State of Union Territory as ‘disturbed’. Keeping in view the duty of the Union under Article 355 of the Constitution, inter alia, to protect every State against internal disturbance, it is considered desirable that the Central government should alsohave power to declare areas as ‘disturbed’, to enable its armed forces to exercise the special powers.”

The Preamble to the Act, as amended, reads as follows: “An Act to enable certain special powers to be conferred upon members of the Armed Forces in disturbed areas in the State of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura.”Sub-section (2) of Section 1, the Act applies the Act to the States mentioned in the preamble.

Section 2 defines the expressions ‘Armed Forces’ in clause (a) and ‘disturbed areas’ in clause (b). They read as follows:

“(a) ‘Armed Forces’ means the military force and the air force operating as land forces and includes any other armed force of the Union so operating. (Thus the Armed Forces established and maintained by the Union also fall within this definition.)

“(b) ‘Disturbed area’ means an area which is for the time being declared by notification under Section 3 to be a disturbed area.”

Clause (c) of Section 2 says that all other words and expressions used in the Act but not defined, but defined in the Air Force Act, 1950 or the Army Act, 1950 shall have the meanings respectively assigned to them in those Acts.

Section 3 of the Act reads as follows:

“Power to declare areas to be disturbed areas. —If, in relation to any State or Union Territory to which this Act extends, the Governor of that State or the Administrator of that Union Territory or the Central Government, in either case, is of the opinion that the whole or any part of such State or Union Territory, as the case may be, is in such a disturbed or dangerous condition that the use of armed forces in aid of the civil power is necessary, the Governor of that State or the Administrator of that Union Territory or the Central Government, as the case may be, may, by notification in the Official Gazette, declare the whole or such part of such State or Union Territory to be a disturbed area”.

Such a power can also be exercised by the central government by virtue of the 1972 Amendment Act. This Section, however, does not specifically say either that the Governor may, after issuing a declaration, request the Union government to depute the armed forces nor does it say expressly that the central government may, on issuance of a notification under the Section, depute armed forces to the State to act in aid of the civil power. Probably, these steps were thought to be implicit in the situation (Reddy Commission report 2005).

Section 4 enumerates the special powers of the armed forces, which are deployed in a State or a part of the State to act in aid of civil power. The Section reads as follows:

Special powers of the armed forces. —Any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank in the armed forces may, in a disturbed area, —

(a) If he is of opinion that it is necessary so to do for the maintenance of public order, after giving such due warning as he may consider necessary fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law or order for the time being in force in the disturbed area prohibiting the assembly of five or more persons or the carrying of weapons or of things capable of being used as weapons or of firearms, ammunition or explosive substances;

(b) If he is of opinion that it is necessary so to do, destroy any arms dump, prepared or fortified position or shelter from which armed attacks are made or are likely to be made or are attempted to be made, or any structure used as training camp for armed volunteers or utilized as a hideout by armed gangs or absconders wanted for any offence;

(c) Arrest, without warrant, any person who has committed a cognizable offence or against whom a reasonable suspicion exists that he has committed or is about to commit a cognizable offence and may use such force as may be necessary to effect the arrest;

(d) Enter and search without warrant any premises to make any such arrest as aforesaid or to recover any person believed to be wrongfully restrained or confined or any property reasonably suspected to be stolen property or any arms, ammunition or explosive substances believed to be unlawfully kept in such premises, and may for that purpose use such force as may be necessary.”


Critical analysis

The predecessor of AFSPA 1958- the Armed Force Special Power Ordinance 1942, was a colonial instrument for continuation of colonization. The AFSPA 1958 of India inherited the same powerful political potency (Hanjabam, op.cit). The AFSPA, enacted in 1958 that made an amendment in 1972 make more heinous with dehumanizing manifestation of the obsession with the power in the name of the state security, to the complete indifference about human security (Roy Burman, B.K, nd, cited in Hanjabam op.cit). As mention above, it gives Armed/security forces the legal immunity for their actions. There can be no prosecution, suit or any other legal proceeding against anyone acting under that law. Nor is the government’s judgment on why an area is found to be “disturbed” subject to judicial review.

On the other side, the government of India and the armed forces, for the sake of national security, justifies the Act, though; it hardly suits to the Preamble of one of the most exhaustive written constitution. The Preamble of India says: –

WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens:

JUSTICE, social, economic and political;

LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;

EQUALITY of status and of opportunity;

and to promote among them all

FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation;


It took just few hours to pass the bill in the parliament. The prospect of taking certain actions can be emotionally more satisfactory for decision makers. Judgments about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘courageous’ or ‘cowardly’ stem from moral significance and ideologies as well as concerns with self-image. Not only ‘courageous’ self-images but also ‘patriotic’ values in support of the strong military often favor the use of coercive methods. National leaders may feel that it is right, and ‘even a moral or religious duty, to use coercive methods in order to “win” against adversaries’ (Patchen, 1988: 125 cited in Jeong, 2008)). The shared moral principles, ideology, and self-image call for the automatic use of force in confronting a diabolic enemy. President Bush has, for example, legitimized the abuse of terrorist suspects at secret military prisons on the basis of ‘the protection of democracy’ and ‘freedom’ (ibid).

The Indian Armed Forces, who are particularly trained to secure the country’s’ safety against a foreign invasion, are being engaged to combat internal conflict with extraordinary power of impunity. In the period of 1980s to May 30th May 2007, 2,675 civilians and 1,314 militants were killed, while 2,061 civilians were injured and only 865 militants surrendered to the Govt. authorities (Hanjabam op.cit).  The figures of death and causalities appears in official state, Govt. and Security Force releases do not give a complete and accurate picture of the extend of violence. Many abuses are not even reported (especially beating and sexual assault) either, because of intimidation, lack of understanding of the procedure, or simply because the victims have no confidences upon the police. The information that are gathered are only of high profile cases that arouse enough public outcry  (Parrat, 2005).

There has been a number of Combing Operations as part of the counter insurgency[4] operation in Manipur. Worth mentioning operations are – Operation Blue Bird (1987), Operation All Clear (2004), Operation Tornado (2005), Operation Dragnet (2006). These operations were remembered by the most of the people and Human Rights bodies because of the rampant human rights violations-especially using villagers as “Human Shields” to prevent possible ambushes from the militia groups (Hanjabam, op.cit). Physical abuses and Human Right violation such as beating, torture, detention without trial, death in the custody, rape and sexual harassment, and random shooting has been a part of life in northeast India in general and Manipur in particular. Civilian people have developed the fear psychosis of picking up by Armed Forces some day or the other.

Some major notable incidences of gross Human Right Violations in Manipur are:

  • Heirangoithong incidence of March 14th, 1984 where, 13 people including 2 children were killed and over 30 injured by indiscriminate firing of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel  (Parrat, op.cit).
  • Operation Blue Bird at Oinam in 10th July 1987 where 15 civilian deaths while many became the victim of physical and mental torture, rape and illegal detention (ibid).
  • Tera Bazar incidence of 25th March 1993 where, 5 civilians were killed and many others received bullet injuries. However, no enquiry has been instituted to date (MRF, EQ Vol. 3 Issue I).
  • Regional Medical College (now RIMS) incidence of 7th January 1995 where, the CRPF personnel shot dead nine innocent persons in retaliation to attacks on them by the members of an armed opposition group (Begum, 2010).
  • Malom incidence of November 2nd, 2000 where, 10 civilians including a 63 years old women and a boy who was a National Bravery Awardees shot dead on the spot by Assam Rifles convoy in retaliation of the insurgent attack. A brutal combing operation was followed by. Irom Sharmila’s fast-to-death began in the aftermath of this incident where she is still continuing till date (Begum, 2010).
  • The Great June Uprising incidence of June 18th 2001 where, 18 people including a woman were gunned down by CRPF personnel in the name of suppressing the agitation[5].
  • Leplen Mass Torture of 2002[6]
  • Pangei Bazar incidence of April 9th, 2002 where, Ms. Robita Chanu, 18 years, student of Naorem Bihari College and Mr. Khundrakpam Ashem Romajit Singh of Brighter Academy were allegedly killed in CRPF shooting following an ambush on the CRPF (MRF, EQ vol. 3 Issue 1).
  • Fake encounter in Imphal city on July 23rd 2009 where, Rabina Devi a five month pregnant woman walking with her two year old son, and, 22years old Sanjit were gunned down by City police commandos, leaving the crowded city in chaos (Tehelka 2009).
  • Fake encounter of Andro in November 1st 2009 where, 7 youth has been gunned down by 28th Assam Rifles troops in suspicion of militants (The Hueiyen New Service- 31st January 2011).

In addition to the above incidences- Oinam Leikai incidence on November 21st 1980, Ukhrul incidence on May 9th 1995, Bashikhong incidence on February 19th 1995, Churachandpur incidence on July 21, 1999, Nungleiban incidence on October 15, 1997, Tabokpikhong incidence on August 12, 1997, and Tonsen Lamkhai incidence on October 4, 1998 are worth mentioning (Begum, 2010). No doubt, in most of the cases of these above mention incidences are quite the implication of the armed opposing/militant groups. Unfortunately, the innocent people face the weight.

The AFSPA-1958 has done a huge damage to soul and mind of the people of northeast India in general and Manipur in particular. Ironically, when AFSPA-1958 was imposed in Manipur[7], there were hardly any Self-Determinist groups who are working on self-deterministic ideology. But today, Manipur lead the list in terms of numbers of militias (IMC 2002, cited in Baruah, 2007).  There are now almost forty groups operating in Manipur (Baruah, 2007). Various Members of Parliament and even the current Prime Minister of India – Sri Dr. Manmohan Singh had voiced that The Armed Forces Special Power Act is “inhuman”. Unfortunately, the “Inhuman/unconstitutional Law” is still gladly imposed against the will of the people or against the constitutional right. Sri Achau Singh (Manipur), Sri Warrior (Trichur), Sri Mahanty (All MPs) argued against the Act terming as “Martial Law” (LSD, p1426; Quated in Sanajaoba 2006, Hanjabam 2008). Retd. Justice Jeevan Reddy on its Committee Report[8] recommended to repeal the Act altogether in which, the then defense minister rejected the recommendation out rightly (The Hindu June 26th 2007, Hanjabam 2008).



In handling the current relationship effectively, the first step is to acknowledge the history of the underlying conflict. It is this history that often explains why people feel as they do end which can give hints about possible remedies for the current situation. A history of past events must be taken seriously, then, to assess not only their impact on development of an ongoing conflict, but also on possible approaches for conflict management or resolution. However, the initiatives towards conflict resolution are hindered by the refusal to recognize the legitimacy and rights of the groups that have been marginalized by discriminatory social structures and norms. In addition, a lack of agreement on suitable process for resolution has been an obstacle to discussion about substantive issues (Jeong, 2008).

In fact that AFSPA-1958 is a discriminatory act, which is imposed only in India’s northeastern states and J&K. The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act-1967 (as amended by the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act. 2004) that is imposed in all over states of India has more then enough power to curb problem of law and order situation or terrorist activities.  Section 4, of the Act (AFSPA-1958), that conferred various powers upon any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank in the armed forces is of-course, the powers that are functional only in an area notified as ‘disturbed area’ under Section 3. Section 6 of the act, confers a protection upon the persons acting under the Act. No suit, prosecution or other legal proceeding can be instituted against such person “in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers conferred by this Act”, except with the previous sanction of the central government.


However, to fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law and order or, power to enter and search without warrant to make an arrest etc., contradicts the Preamble or, article 21 of the world’s most exhaustive constitution that expressly declares that no person shall be deprived of her/his life or personal liberty except in accordance with the procedure established by law[9].

Northeast India in general and Manipur in particular, does not fit easily into a standard democracy in today’s post-colonial era. The region has been affected by several decades old armed conflict that is least know in the world even though the people of the region are paying the price with their blood and tears. India’s human rights records in the northeast would have put many other democracies to shame. Yet the debate upon violation of human rights stuck upon ‘which came first: chicken or the egg’ kind of controversy on whether the security forces, or the insurgent bear the responsibility for the sorry state of human rights or whether the region’s fledging human rights groups have a pro-insurgent bias. The Act specially designed for the northeast and that has remained in force for decades – despite popular protests – makes serious violations of human rights possible (Baruah, op.cit). Democracy, as Guillermo O’Donnell argues that, ‘it is not only a polyarchical political regime but also a particular mode of relationship, between state and citizens, and among citizens themselves, under a kind of rule of law that, in addition to political citizenship, upholds civil citizenship and a full network of accountability’ (O’Donnell 1999: 321 cited in Baruah op.cit). Armed Forces Special Powers Act or in short AFSPA, makes the regime of informal illegalities – or at least some of the worse forms of illegalities such as the use of secret killer – possible. Whatever, the justification for such laws, the real cost of the way India chosen to engage with the challenge of independentist militancy is the erosion of the principles of rule of law, accountability, and transparency.



*This article was submitted by Ningthoujam Rameshchandra, EMA Member, who is currently in Spain for his Phd Degree. A detail resume of the writer can be found below:

Writer Profile: Ningthoujam Rameshchandra is currently enrolled for PhD degree program at International and Intercultural Studies at University of Deusto, Bilbao, Spain. European Commission through Erasmus Mundus scholarship program is funding his PhD program. His works mainly focuses on migration and conflict, Human Rights etc. He has presented a paper titled – “Colonial Instrument in Democratic India: A Case of Armed Forces Special Power Acts 1958”, at Sustainable Peace Building (SPBUILD) conference held at Universidad de Duesto. He did his Master of Arts in Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India. He has been part of Gyuja- TATA Project as program officer in Leh, Ladakh, J&K, India (2009-10). You can contact him on





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[1] Meeteis are one amongst the major ethnic communities settled in Manipur. They mostly settle in the valley of Manipur.

[2] During the 1950s, most of the current states of India’s northeast region were under one administrative province.

[3] Governors are the representatives of the central government assign to every states in a Quasi-federal form of Indian Govt.

[4] Insurgent is somehow not a self-designation but a term generally applied to them by their opponents, and one that prejudges the issue of the legitimacy of their case as, the term ‘insurgent’ carries that implications not only of violence (which may or may not be justified in individual cases) but also of illegitimacy and insurrection (Parratt J 2009).

[5] In the aftermath of extension of ceasefire “beyond territorial limits” between the Delhi and National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) in June 2001, Manipur people strongly opposed the move and in the protests (The Hindu, 19th June Monday, 2006).

[6] See the link-

 [7] Till 1979, AFSPA was impose only in Naga Hills to suppress the Naga Uprising, but from 1980 it was impose in whole Manipur state (Hanjabam 2008).

[8] See- The report that was submitted on 6th of June 2005 to the Indian Govt. was not made public after even one year. The Hindu fortunately published it on 8th of October 2006 (Hanjabam 2008).

[9] Article 14 in Part III of the Constitution ensures to its citizens equality before law and equal protection of laws within the territory of India which means that no citizen or group of citizens shall be discriminated vis-a-vis any other citizen or group of citizens. Article 19 confers upon the citizens six valuable freedoms viz., freedom of speech and expression; freedom to assemble peacefully and without arms; freedom to form associations or unions; freedom to move freely throughout the territory of India; freedom to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India and the freedom to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business subject of course to such reasonable restrictions thereon as may be placed by a law made by the Parliament or State Legislatures under clauses (2) to (6) of the said article. Clauses (1) and (2) of Article 22 confer equally valuable rights upon the citizens of India. See: –