Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Withering Law: The Armed Forces Special Power Act

In a way I am jumping the gun here. We will talk about EVM misuse in another posting. Here I take the opportunity of sharing my views on the highly controversial Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFPSA), which is these days hitting headlines in the wake of a move by the Manmohan Singh government to withdraw it or to ‘weaken/moderate’ its influence to assuage the hurt sentiments of the people of trouble-torn Kashmir valley.

Before going into details on various facets of AFPSA and their use and abuse by the olive green forces, we need to examine certain things most vital in understanding the scenario either in Kashmir or in the northeast.

The natives, either in Kashmir or the northeastern states believe that Indian army is only “an instrument of expansionist designs”. This perception has only increased over the years due to plethora of factors. One of them being sustained campaign by the insurgent groups/militants with tacit and often open support by locals and human rights’ bodies. Then media plays its part by often blowing things out of proportion making a classic case of a mountain being made out of molehill. Thus, knowingly or unknowingly, the country’s biggest asset ‘ethnic pluralism’ turns out to be a great liability practically in all states.
Therefore, in Manipur the controversy over demand for scraping of the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFPSA) had local people’s sanction. After all, the army or para military forces like Assam Rifles are identified with the “outsiders”.
Similar is the case in Jammu and Kashmir. Now, the so called high-handedness of the forces has now made even children and women in Kashmir taking to the streets.

Now, what is the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act/

This piece of legislation was passed in 1958 and has been always bogged down in controversies with human right activists in the northeast already called it a ‘draconian’ law.
Under this Act, all security forces operating in trouble-torn areas are given unbridled power to carry out their operations in designated areas declared disturbed. In fact, sometime in the northeast, even the entire state, like Nagaland under Congress chief minister S C Jamir government in 1995 was declared ‘disturbed’ by enforcing the provisions of the Disturbed Area Act.
In fact, the saying goes well that AFPSA is meaningless in ‘peaceful situation’ and in effect it goes hand-in-hand with the Disturbed Area Act.

Under this law, even a non-commissioned officer (rank of havildars) is granted the right to shoot to kill based on mere suspicion in order to "maintain the public order".

No wonder, in the troubled region of Nagaland and Manipur often ministers are held up and ‘insulted’ for their alleged nexus with the militants. These charges are sometime true and sometime not.

Regarding “indiscriminate use of black laws”, the Assam-based potent militant organization ULFA charges the Indian state machinery with “continuously violating basic fundamental human rights of the people of seven sister region although India is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations”. The laws like the Armed Forces Special Power Act of 1958 and the Disturbed Areas Act “continue with the concurrence of Indian judiciary and are means of crushing dissent and struggles,” a popular ULFA leader had said once.

It is of much relevance here to take note of another test case in Manipur.
There is in fact a cycle affect involving governance, deployment of armed forces and opportunistic stand taken by politicians and so-called civil liberty activists.
We must examine how successive governments in New Delhi, in Jammu and Kashmir and in the north eastern states have relied heavily on the presence of the military to perform the basic functions of governance.
Former Army chief Gen (Retd) V P Malik also wrote in a piece to ‘The Indian Express’ (September 1, 2004), “The administration assisted by the Central government ought to create conditions so that armed forces do not have to be deployed for long durations”. In fact, Gen (Retd) Malik cited an illustration where in one Manipur Chief Minister while favoured revoking Armed Forces Special Power Act declined permission to withdraw armed forces from 60 odd posts in Manipur saying, “you cannot do that! What will happen to the law and order situation?”
This is the paradox.

(to be continued)

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