Tears of Agony- The Pitfalls of an Enduring AFSPA
Headquarters, 21 Para Regiment Assam Rifles, 4th December 2021.
'Yung Aung's men are moving around near Oting'
Soldiers, quickly rushing to their SUVs, headed towards the area. They took their positions in a stretch of road between the coal mines and Oting village, waiting to ambush the insurgent group.
A pickup truck was coming down the road, "STOP, Assam rifles",the driver either didn't hear or confused them for insurgents. Seeing no signs of regression, they misjudged them for insurgents, blazed fire from their guns, and six of the workers succumbed to death.
Disturbed by the unfamiliar sound of gunfire, a big group of knife and machete-wielding villagers ran towards the spot to find soldiers loading their dead brothers in the van. Enraged by the scene, they set fire to the SUVs and ensured that the army couldn't escape. The forces were taken aback, but couldn't restrict themselves from firing again to find a way out of the melee. Eight more deaths were reported including one of the soldiers. Further events increased the death toll to seventeen.
While wives want their husbands back, parents demand the names of the army personnel and justice for their sons, the bottom line is that no person can be prosecuted or subjected to any legal proceedings for action taken under the Act. Though the army has expressed its regret over the incident and called for a court of inquiry, these events break the trust of common people built with constant efforts and continued peace in the region and remind them, quite starkly, that they are living in a disturbed area under the threat of both insurgents as well as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
AFSPA, under its special powers gives any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent ranks in armed forces in a disturbed area to fire upon or otherwise use force, after due warnings as he may consider necessary, even to the causing of death, if he is of the opinion that it is necessary for maintenance of public order. He can prohibit the assembly of five or more persons or of carrying of weapons or of things capable of being used as weapons, firearms, ammunition or explosive substances. Under Section 6 of the article, no person can be prosecuted or subjected to any legal proceedings for action taken under the Act, without the central government's previous sanction. The Act in itself covers quite a larger ambit but it's these two parts that make it purportedly draconian.
While the massacre itself explains the reason for AFSPA being draconian, I would argue that it was AFSPA itself which made AFSPA draconian. It has been six decades since it was first introduced in the region with an aim to counter insurgency and the demands for a separate nation, Nagalim or the greater Nagaland. The region has undergone a massive change of belief and the Nagas now repose respect and believe in the army. In present times, the majority demands good education for their children, employment for the adults and a better development of their region.
Can AFSPA be repealed?
AFSPA violates Article(s) 21, 22 and 15 of Indian constitution i.e protection of life and personal liberty, protection from arrest and detention and prohibition of discrimination by state on any grounds respectively. We have witnessed a series of protests in the region over the issue of repealing AFSPA. The iron lady of Manipur Irom Chanu Sharmila went for a sixteen-year hunger strike (2000-16) against the Act after ten civilians were shot while waiting at a bus stop in Malom(Imphal) resulting in no response. Twelve mothers stood naked with banner stating "Indian Army take our flesh" after Thangjam Manorama was allegedly raped and killed. 'They had their guns, we only had our bodies' said one of them. A decade later, the apex court ordered the government of India to pay a compensation of ten lakh rupees to her mother but it has been unable to punish the culprits yet.
Yet, the Act exists
As per the data provided by Ministry of Home Affairs, in 2021, 187 insurgency related incidents, 20 civilians and 8 security personnel died until Nov 15 with an elimination of 39 terrorists. In November itself, we witnessed the death of col. Viplav Tripathi, along with his wife, son and four riflemen near Indo-Myanmar border led by terrorists from Revolutionary People's Front. We also lost 20 army men in June 2015 in the IED blast claimed by NSCN( Khaplang). So insurgency, albeit on a minimal level, still persists leading to the territory being notified as a disturbed area.
If the state or union government is of the opinion that the whole or any part of a state is in such a disturbed or dangerous condition that the use of armed forces in aid of civil power is necessary, the state or part is notified as disturbed area and armed forces are called in, which automatically gives them special powers. To address the key concern of the public, the state government of Nagaland has announced the establishment of a high powered panel headed by the additional secretary (MHA) northeast to look into the withdrawal of the act from the state. The committee will reconsider the territory notified as disturbed area and the possibilities of the withdrawal of the act from the same. But, if insurgency still continues in the region there's no point in repealing AFSPA, as it's the insurgency which comes first in the pecking order of priority.
With time, AFSPA has been repealed from states like Tripura, Meghalaya and parts of Arunachal Pradesh as the conditions improved, but it still covers complete areas of other sister states. I feel that if it's surveyed on the ground level, we'll find that most of the territory is calm and peaceful. So, if not repeal the Act at the moment, we can divide the disturbed areas in zones like red, orange or green and assess the progress and repeal it gradually, because it's the stagnancy of the Act that has caused it's abuse. We can also amend some of the sections of the Act and maintain it in a way to curb its abuses by the forces. Without AFSPA we can't ask the armed forces to operate in public areas but at the same time we can't let forces abuse the rights of the public at the same time. It's imperative that the government shifts its focus to development of the region, for only its education, employment and faith in the system will guarantee a decrease in insurgency, leading to an amicable relationship between the army and the public.
By Kumar Rajneekant