The Ministry of Home Affairs last week extended the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in three disturbed districts of Arunachal Pradesh – Tirap, Changlang and Longding, along with eight police stations bordering Assam. According to a Home Ministry official, AFSPA, which has been in force in some parts of Arunachal Pradesh for the last three decades, has been extended for six more months due to the various violent activities by insurgent groups, like NSCN, ULFA and NDFB, among others.
The Indian Parliament enacted AFSPA in September, 1958, in the context of the budding Naga insurgency and is still active in several states. The Act provides the army, central police forces, and state police with special powers to shoot, search suspect vicinities, arrest a person who has committed or is deemed to commit a cognizable offence without warrant. Apart from such sweeping powers, the security forces are also immune to any form of prosecution, unless sanctioned by the central government.
Speaking to TVON, decorated retired colonel KK Singh pointed out that “AFSPA is not something that is desired or demanded by Army. It is a power that is given to them to control violence in a disturbed region by Government, be it central or state, unless normalcy is restored. No defence forces want to exercise power against fundamental rights of the citizens.”
The colonel added: “The local people are actually mobilised by insurgent groups in the affected regions so that they are free to carry on their operation. The army is deflected in the process and often loses control of the situation. It’s very tricky for the armed forces. AFSPA is the last resort for the government and it’s their decision. If we don’t consider AFSPA as an option then what is the alternative?
However, the existence of such a powerful act for long durations, which has reportedly caused havoc in the lives of people in the region, raises an important question. Is AFSPA really a necessary evil? There have been numerous debates on this, but they are rarely grounded on the understating of the historical context of the Act.
The act is rooted at a time when India was still recovering from the colonial clutches and was moving towards the consolidation of its states. The glaring disparity among states, made more worrying with hostile neighbours like China, Pakistan, and then-East Pakistan made it extremely difficult for India’s young bearers of democracy. India had no choice but to protect the country from undue volatility.
The intrusion by our neighbouring countries is responsible for boosting insurgent activities in the affected regions. For instance, China has been challenging Arunachal Pradesh’s Indian statehood for a long time now. It is trying to create internal instability in the state by both supporting internal threats and injecting external ones. Similarly, Pakistan is working consistently against India by radicalising youth in Jammu and Kashmir and exporting terror.
Given the probability, even if it’s remote, of seizure by immediate neighbours, extending AFSPA, at least in Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, appears to be the only solution. But being the largest functioning democracy in the world, extending such a strong act is bound to raise human rights criticisms.
Critics have argued that AFSPA is now emerging to become one of the major factors of violence in the affected regions and has not been effective in restoring normalcy. The argument is drawn keeping in mind that the insurgents continue to wreak havoc despite the ominous presence of AFSPA. But if you analyse, the security situation in the regions might have been worse if not for the resolute AFSPA.
But ignoring human rights concerns is not right either. If reports are to be believed, in January, the government informed Rajya Sabha that between 2001 and 2016, the Ministry of Defence received 50 requests for prosecution sanction from the J&K government — sanction was denied in 47, while three were pending. Charges in these cases related to killing of civilians, custodial deaths, disappearances, rapes and molestations. This suggests that we have not failed because the security forces lack the potential to secure us against threats, but because of the lack of confidence that people are experiencing in the AFSPA-controlled regions.
Without doubt, the contemporary security situation indicates that we may need AFSPA for a considerable duration in certain regions. However, we need to work on how to make it more humanitarian and sensitive to people who are forced to live in the shadow of guns and boots.