- GS-2: Federalism and Challenges
- GS-3: Internal Security
AFSPA and the Northeast
Context: The Nagaland Cabinet recently recommended that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958 be repealed from the state after the incident in the Mon district of the state in which security forces gunned down 13 civilians.
- This has been a long-standing demand in the North eastern states. After the firing, Nagaland CM and Meghalaya CM have both called for repeal of AFSPA
What is AFSPA?
- Colonial Legacy continued: The Act in its original form was promulgated by the British in response to the Quit India movement in 1942. After Independence, government decided to retain the Act, which was first brought in as an ordnance and then notified as an Act in 1958.
- Power of imposition: AFSPA can be imposed by the Centre or the Governor of a state, on the state or parts of it, after it is declared “disturbed’’ under Section 3. The Act defines these as areas that are “disturbed or dangerous condition that the use of armed forces in aid of the civil power is necessary’’.
- Special Power to Armed Forces: The Act, which has been called draconian, gives sweeping powers to the armed forces. It allows them to open fire’, even causing death, against any person in contravention to the law or carrying arms and ammunition. It gives them powers to arrest individuals without warrants, on the basis of “reasonable suspicion”, and also search premises without warrants.
- Immunity to Armed Personnel: The Act further provides blanket impunity to security personnel involved in such operations: There can be no prosecution or legal proceedings against them without the prior approval of the Centre.
- Areas of Operation: AFSPA has been imposed on the Northeast states, Jammu & Kashmir, and Punjab during the militancy years. Punjab was the first state from where it was repealed, followed by Tripura and Meghalaya. It remains in force in Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, J&K, and parts of Arunachal Pradesh.
Are there safety nets?
- Prior Warning: While the Act gives powers to security forces to open fire, this cannot be done without prior warning given to the suspect.
- In the recent firing in Nagaland, it has been an issue of discussion whether the security forces gave prior warning before opening fire at the vehicle carrying coal miners, and then later at a violent mob.
- Handing over to Local Police: The Act further says that after any suspects apprehended by security forces should be handed over to the local police station within 24 hours.
- Coordination with District administration: It says armed forces must act in cooperation with the district administration and not as an independent body. In the recent Nagaland operation, local law-enforcement agencies have said they were unaware of the operation.
What are the criticisms of AFSPA?
- Social Fallout: Nagaland and Mizoram faced the brunt of AFSPA in the 1950s, including air raids and bombings by the Indian military. Allegations have been made against security forces of mass killings and rape.
- The Malom massacre in 2000, and the killing and alleged rape of Thangjam Manorama led to the subsequent repeal of AFSPA from the Imphal municipal area.
- In 2012, the Extrajudicial Execution Victim Families Association of Manipur filed a case in the Supreme Court alleging 1,528 fake encounters between 1979 and 2012.
- Culture of Impunity: Activists note that AFSPA creates an atmosphere of impunity among even state agencies such as the Manipur Police and their Manipur Commandos, believed to be responsible for most encounters in the state, some of them jointly with Assam Rifles.
- Proliferation of militant groups despite act: Manipur had two groups when the State was brought under the Act. Today, Manipur has more than twenty such groups, Assam has not less than fifteen, Meghalaya has five of them and other States have more groups.
- Misuse of Act: Human rights activists have said the Act has often been used to settle private scores, such as property disputes, with false tip-offs provided by local informants to security forces.
- Federal Issues: The Centre had also imposed AFSPA in Tripura in 1972 despite opposition from the then state government. The Centre can take a decision to repeal AFSPA after getting a recommendation from the state government. However, Nagaland, which has freshly recommended a repeal, had raised the demand earlier too, without success.
- Creates Hurdles in Peace Process: Mr R. N. Ravi, former head of the Intelligence Bureau for the North East is on record that AFSPA is the biggest obstacle to peace in the region. Former Home Secretary Mr G. K. Pillai has come out openly against the Act. These statements come from persons who have worked in the system and know the dynamics of the Act and of running the Government.
What attempts have been made to repeal AFSPA in the past?
- In 2000, Manipur activist Irom Sharmila began a hunger-strike, which would continue for 16 years, against AFSPA.
- In 2004, the UPA government set up a five-member committee under a former Supreme Court Judge. The Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission submitted its report in 2005, saying AFSPA had become a symbol of oppression and recommending its repeal.
- The Second Administrative Reforms Commission, headed by Veeerapa Moily, endorsed Jeevan Reddy Commission recommendations.
- Former Home Secretary G K Pillai too supported the repeal of AFSPA, and former Home Minister P Chidambaram once said the Act, if not repealed, should at least be amended. But opposition from the Defence Ministry stalled any possible decision.
The problems in the North East and in Kashmir should be solved through a political process and not through a law that violates people’s right to life and dignity with impunity.
Connecting the dots:
- Asymmetrical Federalism
- Naga Peace Process