The can of worms that is the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, or AFSPA, is irrevocably open. The reasons go beyond a few hundred army personnel filing a plea in early September in the Supreme Court: that the law which offers the army and its operational adjuncts such as Assam Rifles and Rashtriya Rifles both immunity and impunity in areas that it is enforced, isn’t diluted.
The plea was driven by a serving army officer being charged by the Central Bureau of Investigation in August for the death in a faked encounter of a 12-year-old boy in Manipur. But it brings attention the army clearly wishes to deflect. Indeed, it could even open the door for repealing of the law that offers the army a legal prophylactic.
Barely reported by national media, embarrassment had already arrived in July in the form of an affidavit in Manipur high court. It maintained that a serving lieutenant colonel, Dharamvir Singh of the para commandos, had complained in 2016 to higher authorities about corruption—and several custodial deaths of Manipuris in the headquarters of 3 Corp in Dimapur in Nagaland; besides allegations of several killings of non-combatants by the army in Manipur. The colonel’s wife filed the affidavit maintaining that Singh was arrested by his colleagues to stanch such leaks.
Matters are a lot more complex than the simplistic explanations offered by proponents of AFSPA—even though its active existence in 2018 is proof that AFSPA hasn’t ever stopped rebellion. It has instead bred resentment against India these past 60 years by protecting myopic prejudices and atrocities.
Reverses for several key insurgencies in North-East India, for instance, have not happened on account of AFSPA. They came about with a combination of pin-point and coordinated policing and combat operations; effective Indian diplomacy and changing political realities in countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar that have made governments there less inclined to harbour anti-India rebels; and eventual realization in New Delhi that peace overtures, governance, development, and respect are the surest guarantors of India’s internal security.
Nagaland felt the brunt of some of the worst human rights atrocities in free India’s history even before the first edition of AFSPA came into force. Government-led brutality replaced governance in Mizoram in the name of national integrity. Officially, India treats atrocities in Nagaland and Mizoram as history—done and dusted. AFSPA-related incidents in Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura are largely buried by political gamesmanship.
Manipur and Jammu and Kashmir remain hot-button areas. In several ways, Jammu and Kashmir more than Manipur because it offers greater scope for geopolitical hyperventilation and greater traction for Indian and global media. In terms of spin, it’s easier for government agencies to contain Manipur in particular and North-East India in general, which, typically, briefly enter India’s attention in times of elections or spectacular militant attacks or civilian protest.
The spilling over of AFSPA-related matters to the Supreme Court which now places the army squarely in the spotlight makes none of this easy. Indeed, it sets a precedent for similar suits for incidents in Jammu and Kashmir, where a version of AFSPA is in force.
The awkward malaise will remain until the armed forces and policy hawks maintain the primacy of AFSPA at any cost. More so, if they continue to conflate specific criticism of AFSPA-related incidents and crimes as a general condemnation of the army and its adjuncts.
This is of course far from the truth. Indeed, even in Manipur for example, only active rebels and ultra-nationalists—not to be confused with the majority of the people of Manipur, Meitei, Naga, and those of Kuki-Chin-Mizo ethnicities—decry the presence of Indian armed forces.
Besides, AFSPA is applied after consultation with the local government; and it is always applied on account of the policy and administrative failure of national and local governments that led to militancy in the first place.
But most decry AFSPA, because it shields avoidable death and avoidable crime in the name of national purpose.
This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.