AFSPA is so last century

The action in Tripura must now be mirrored across the region, which has a new heft in New Delhi because of China’s over-arching interest in the area


Photo: AP
Photo: AP

The most significant security-related development this week has to be the decision by Tripura’s cabinet on 27 May to remove the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, or AFSPA, after consultations with central government agencies and the armed forces.

Those outside north-east India rarely understand the effect AFSPA has on the emotions and politics of the region. It permits the state to brutalize the people it so dearly claims as its own—collateral damage in the name of peace—and offers fear, torture and death when dialogue would do.

The action in Tripura must now be mirrored across the region, which has a new heft in New Delhi because of China’s over-arching interest in the area; the promise of energy, trade and communication links with Myanmar; and similar impetus with Bangladesh, with the added socio-political pressure of immigration from that country. AFSPA is no substitute for development or diplomacy; even less a formula for national integrity with the resentment and hatred it spawns.

Nearly 10 years ago, on 6 June 2005, a committee to review AFSPA chaired by Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy signed off on a report to the home ministry, suggesting that the Act be repealed. And, that numerous existing policing and national security laws, and constitutional provisions were already, and adequately, applicable to safeguard the internal and external security of India.

The home ministry buried the report. That mistake must now be reversed. There’s every reason.

Tripura’s decision to remove AFSPA—applied primarily in the tribal areas of the state—is not altruistic. It is practical; integrationist even. The state’s rebellions, like most rebellions in north-east India, were and are a direct consequence of political and administrative apathy. In Tripura’s case, many disgruntled tribal folk saw a conspiracy of domination by a constructed majority: several waves of mostly Hindu, Bengali immigrants from what is present-day Bangladesh, since the middle of the 20th century. Such resentment erupted into armed violence in the 1970s and peaked in the 1990s, when AFSPA was extended to Tripura.

Brutal policing, deft politics, some development and aggressive border controls, especially with Bangladesh, which envelops Tripura on three sides, have since reduced insurgency to a trickle. Over the years the state—its economics, politics and administration controlled by the majority Bengali population—has also seen itself as a regional player. While Tripura’s hydrocarbon reserves will fuel it, the state’s improving infrastructure and locational advantage in relation to Bangladesh’s modernizing waterways, port and rail networks will sustain it. Last year, at a major conference in the state capital Agartala, I heard businessmen from Bangladesh pitch to create a hinterland of investment, manufacturing and services in Tripura.

AFSPA detracts from such a future. The Tripura government’s decision to remove AFSPA is a leap of faith, even though insurgency still occasionally troubles it, and a salve for the state’s human rights record that is far from lily white. For Tripura, this is a manageable insurgency for which the army is no longer required.

Neither is the Act, which provides India’s armed forces and operational adjuncts, such as Assam Rifles, both immunity and impunity in areas where the Act is enforced to kill anyone on the merest suspicion of breaching law and order, of being a rebel sympathizer. This writ extends to any “commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank in the armed forces…in a disturbed area...”

By itself and as imagined pieces in India’s Look-East jigsaw, north-east India wants to move ahead, ditch the economy of conflict that has characterized many states—in Nagaland’s case, since the 1950s—and embrace the economy of peace. Even Manipur—on paper the state with most active rebel groups, mostly resident in Myanmar, and with a flourishing narcotics food chain linking security personnel, politicians, administrators and rebels—wants to break free.

AFSPA has, for some time, been lifted from the municipal limits of Manipur’s capital Imphal. Top practitioners in India’s security establishment have maintained that removing AFSPA from the rest of the state—or everywhere, barring a slim strip along the border with Myanmar—wouldn’t harm the security situation.

As to removing AFSPA entirely from everywhere, comments have ranged from “We cannot contain insurgency-related violence by alienating the citizens. We can do so more effectively by involving them…” (Meghalaya’s former governor Ranjit Shekhar Mooshahary) to AFSPA’s “toxic implications for the restoration of durable peace” (R.N. Ravi, chair of the joint intelligence committee and the government’s interlocutor for talks with Naga rebels).

AFSPA is so last century.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His earlier books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays. Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

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