File photo: HT
File photo: HT

Opinion | Armymen’s plea has brought AFSPA into spotlight

Fresh plea has put the focus on AFSPA, when all the army wants is for the law to remain

Take this curious case of the Indian Army chief, Bipin Rawat, criticizing the action of his colleagues in public. On 2 September, during an interaction with senior officers and their spouses in New Delhi, Gen. Rawat questioned the need for about 380 officers, and other ranks, to take a plea a day earlier to the Supreme Court, pleading against any possible dilution in the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, or AFSPA. Nearly 360 army personnel had earlier filed a similar petition.

Indeed, The Indian Express, which was among several publications to report the interaction, went as far as to quote a person familiar with the matter to say Gen. Rawat was scathing in his censuring of personnel in army’s Judge Advocate General branch; he felt that they had “misled" the petitioners into filing the plea.

Now Gen. Rawat is far from being a proponent of diluting AFSPA. On 28 January, he was quoted as saying in a Press Trust of India report that the time wasn’t right “to even rethink on AFSPA". But his recent irritation is understandable. What the army personnel have done in their apparent defence of a fellow officer is merely highlight AFSPA in general, and an officer’s case and the situation in Manipur, in particular.

In early August, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) filed charges against Major Vijay Singh Balhara for allegedly causing the extrajudicial death in Manipur of a 12-year-old boy, Azad Khan. A commission of enquiry by retired Supreme Court judge Santosh Hegde had earlier termed the incident an extrajudicial killing by Major Balhara and his colleagues—he was then attached to Assam Rifles—and questioned evidence that, among other things, accused the boy of being a member of a militant group.

The fresh petition and the general’s response have spotlighted AFSPA, when all the army wants is for the law to remain but lawlessness attributed to it buried. Indeed, it opens up the awkward possibility, as Gen. Rawat himself hinted at, of the Supreme Court suggesting a review or dilution of AFSPA.

Among other things, AFSPA provides India’s army and operational adjuncts, such as Assam Rifles and Rashtriya Rifles, both immunity and impunity in areas that the Act is enforced, to kill at will anyone, even on the merest suspicion of breaching law and order, of being a rebel sympathizer. This writ extends to “(A)ny commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank in the armed forces…in a disturbed area…" They cannot be publicly prosecuted unless cleared by the government.

AFSPA derivatives have, over the decades, led to gross abuse of power in Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, and elsewhere, especially with non-combatants—written off as collateral damage in the greater interest of the nation.

And this aspect, more than any other, has ironically triggered arguably the greatest erosion of national integrity or thoughts of belonging with India. What a member of Parliament from Manipur, L. Achaw Singh, termed a “lawless law" during its birth in 1958, has emerged as a symbol by which India brutalizes the very people it claims as its own.

The CBI has, since 2017, pursued the matter of extrajudicial killings in Manipur under the oversight of the Supreme Court. The charges brought against the major are on account of a public interest litigation, or PIL, in the Supreme Court by the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association, Manipur, and the Imphal-based Human Rights Alert, a watchdog. The PIL alleged 1,528 extrajudicial killings between 1980 and 2011. The allegations were against the Indian Army, Assam Rifles, several central paramilitary forces, and the Manipur Police.

While Manipur Police are not protected by AFSPA, they piggybacked on the practice of security forces to conduct their own campaigns of interdiction and intimidation. At a hearing in April 2017, the Supreme Court bench directed that cases of the army and Assam Rifles, and those of the police, be segregated for investigation and judicial process.

It also significantly dismissed a plea that internal inquiry of several incidents by the army was adequate.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.