The Tripura government’s decision to withdraw the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958, because of ‘significant decrease in militancy’, has sparked off public clamour against the draconian law in other Northeastern States as well as Jammu and Kashmir. And once again the army top brass and Defence ministry mandarins are coming out strongly to bat for the so-called ‘ebling Act’, sounding dire warnings that any withdrawal or dilution of AFSPA will lead to an explosion of militant violence. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has straightaway called AFSPA ‘mandatory’ if the army is to operate in Jammu and Kashmir. He has also been at pains to point out that while enforcing interl security is not the army’s job — in case it is given that task, it needs to be armed with appropriate powers which only the AFSPA can provide. And what are some of these powers? The unlimited powers to shoot at sight, arrest without a warrant, enter and search premises or vehicles without consent. If the army officer or soldier does this in ‘good faith’, the Act guarantees full legal protection. There can be no prosecution, suit or other legal proceedings, unless the Central government gives permission. The Act is silent about how ‘good faith’ of an errant security personnel can be established in a legally credible manner. What is more, even the government’s judgment as to why it found an area to be disturbed to necessitate the use of AFSPA, is not subject to judicial review. The army has always maintained that battling rebels and extremists without a law like AFSPA is like being sent into the boxing ring with both hands tied behind the back.
But can there be any justification for a legislation to grant such sweeping powers if it does not at the same time give protection to citizens against its possible misuse? Not just human rights activists, the Justice N Santosh Hegde Commission too hammered upon this point after going into several instances of army excesses in areas under AFSPA. Earlier, the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee and Justice JS Verma Committee both found this Act too sketchy, bald and idequate to prevent misuse or abuse, and called for its review. As if fake encounters were not bad enough, the two committees were aghast at cases of sexual violence against women in disturbed areas. Citing the Supreme Court’s observation that security forces should not be able to take cover under AFSPA in cases of rape and sexual assault, the Justice JS Verma Committee noted in its report in 2013: “Systematic or isolated sexual violence, in the process of interl security duties, is being legitimised by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which is in force in large parts of our country”. In this context, the Committee had recommended bringing sexual violence against women by security personnel under the purview of ordiry crimil law, ensuring the safety of women who make such complaints along with witnesses, and setting up special commissioners for women’s safety and security in areas of conflict. This dark aspect of AFSPA came into countrywide focus when the suspected rape, torture and murder of Thangjam Manorama by security forces in Manipur, and the subsequent nude protest by women outside the Assam Rifles base in Imphal, hit the headlines in 2004.
Manipur has suffered terribly under AFSPA, with more than 1,590 cases of alleged extra-judicial killings and disappearances since the Eighties. The marathon fast by Irom Sharmila since 2000 demanding repeal of AFSPA would have stirred the government of many a country — but in India, Congress and BJP governments at the Centre have shown a remarkable convergence of views as far as this Act is concerned. Along with Manipur, large parts of galand and Assam, parts of Meghalaya bordering Assam and three districts of Aruchal Pradesh are the areas in the Northeast under AFSPA. There has been much misgivings in Aruchal which has recently come under this Act, and security forces can ill afford to commit the sort of mistakes in this State bordering Chi, as have been committed in Manipur and galand. As for Assam, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi may trumpet from the rooftops that the security environment in the State has much improved in the last ten years, but his government is yet to muster courage to recommend lifting of AFSPA from the State. Rather, there is a suspicion that keeping the militancy pot boiling in the State serves the vested interests of various quarters in the government and administration, with the Centre forced to dole out resources regularly. The Manik Sarkar government of Tripura has taken the welcome step to withdraw AFSPA because the activities of militant outfits like tiol Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) are on the wane with many cadres surrendering and getting rehabilitated successfully. This has come about thanks to the brave role of its police forces which took the lead in counter-terrorist operations and enforced their presence in all parts of the State. Tripura’ confidence in its peace dividend has been hard won, and much creditably on its own steam.