Hallelujah! Tripura has finally shown the way. The draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 has been withdrawn in this remote northeastern state 18 years after it was introduced. Reason: the Left Front government did not consider it necessary to continue with the law when insurgency had been on the wane in the state for the past decade -- partly due to a committed and sensitive state administration that was determined to take governance to the grassroots.
Observers of the Northeast will agree that the AFSPA did not have any role whatsoever in this success story. It had to do more with the Left government's strategy and the structural weaknesses of the insurgent outfits - All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) and National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) - that operated out of camps in neighbouring Bangladesh. While ATTF chief Ranjit Debbarma is behind bars, one faction of the NLFT has a ceasefire agreement with the government and is exploring the option of a negotiated settlement.
This momentous decision will lend credence to the increasing demand that this law should be done away with in the other states in the Northeast. The unpopular law is still in effect in Manipur, Nagaland and Assam and some districts in Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. Nobody can deny that AFSPA has led to human rights violations by the armed forces in the Northeast, including killings, torture, extrajudicial executions and rapes. Who can ever forget the image of women protesting naked in front of the Assam Rifles establishment in Imphal 11 years ago holding banners titled "Indian Army Rape us."
"The real battle cannot and should not be waged by the army but by the government, which must win back the faith and support of the people."
What's so controversial about AFSPA? And is this law actually required in the first place?
Through a simple notification the government can declare the entire state or parts of the state as "disturbed" without any public debate. The deployment of the armed forces, the suspension of fundamental freedoms and the "special powers" of the armed forces can immediately come into play. An area can remain "disturbed" for years on end, as has happened in Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. The authorised officer has the power to open fire (though he must issue a warning first) even if it results in the death of the person(s) if he violates the laws prohibiting the "assembly of five or more persons" or carrying of weapons. The officer has also been given the power to arrest, seize and search without any warrant in order to make an arrest or recovery of hostages, arms and ammunitions. Individuals who have been taken into custody have to be handed over to the nearest police station with the "least possible delay". There is no definition in the act of what constitutes the least possible delay. The holding of the arrested person, without review by a magistrate, constitutes arbitrary detention. Worse, prosecution of the officer requires prior permission of the Central government.
Giving more powers to the army hasn't really helped improve the situation. There are more than 50 insurgent outfits operating in the Northeast currently. Such groups are active in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Assam, Manipur and Meghalaya. The real battle cannot and should not be waged by the army but by the government, which must win back the faith and support of the people. The Tripura government was successful in this endeavour as the opposition was supportive too. Their entire counter-insurgency strategy needs to be critically examined by security mandarins.
"What is required in real terms is good governance and development with a local flavour. "
Also, it seems odd that one of the world's largest armed forces needs special powers like the AFSPA to deal with separatist militants. The army has a huge establishment in the Northeast, well connected and resourced from multiple sources. But there may be some logic behind the army's steadfast demand of retaining the law. The Northeast is seen as a posting of opportunity. Special allowances are given and there are better chances of promotion if militants can be killed or made to surrender with weapons -- AFSPA makes the task easier. There have been several allegations of fake encounters and surrenders.
Whatever the truth, the inescapable conclusion is that the Northeast must be peaceful. There must be an end to violence and the army's agenda cannot be allowed to shape policy. Insurgency, it must be remembered, is not a manifestation of separatism alone. Only nine outfits are pitching for independence and the rest are either extortion groups or demanding autonomy. The path of violence has come to be viewed as a legitimate means of redressing grievances and earning a livelihood. What is required in real terms is good governance and development with a local flavour. Continuing to treat the Northeast as a battlefield where the government can carry out experiments is bound to be counterproductive, as it has been in the past.
The Indian Constitution nowhere says that laws can violate some of its provisions. According to commentators, AFSPA violates Article 21 which guarantees the right to life to all people. Under section 4(a) of the AFSPA, which grants army personnel the power to shoot to kill, the constitutional right to life is violated. In addition, Article 22 of the Constitution states that "No person who is arrested shall be detained in custody without being informed, as soon as may be, of the grounds for such arrest nor shall he be denied the right to consult, and to be defended by, a legal practitioner of his choice." This is in addition to the contravention of procedures laid down in the Indian Criminal Procedure Code and international laws including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It's time to think beyond the conventional paradigms in the Northeast and take tough decisions.