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Insights into Editorial: Which States in the N.E. are under AFSPA?

Context:

The killing of 14 civilians in a botched military operation in Nagaland has led to fresh calls for repealing The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), a stringent law that allows the armed forces to use maximum force in an area declared as ‘disturbed’.

Following the incident, the demand for repealing the law has become quite vociferous. Among those calling for its withdrawal are the Chief Ministers of Nagaland and Meghalaya.

 

Historical Background of AFSPA:

  1. The AFSPA like many other controversial laws is of a colonial origin. The AFSPA was first enacted as an ordinance in the backdrop of Quit India Movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi in 1942.
  2. A day after its launch on August 8, 1942, the movement became leaderless and turned violent at many places across the country. Leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, VB Patel and a host of others had been put behind the bars.
  3. Shaken by the massive scale of violence across the country, the then Viceroy Linlithgow promulgated the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance, 1942.
  4. This Ordinance practically gave the Armed Forces a “license to kill” when faced with internal disturbances.
  5. On the lines of this ordinance, the Indian government promulgated four ordinances in 1947 to deal with internal security issues and unrest arising due to partition in four provinces Bengal, Assam, East Bengal and the United Provinces.

 

What is the origin of AFSPA?

In the wake of the partition riots, four ordinances were promulgated in 1947.

  1. The first was the Bengal Disturbed Areas (Special Powers of Armed Forces) Ordinance; this was followed by ordinances for Assam, East Punjab and Delhi, and the United Provinces.
  2. These were replaced by a common legislation, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1948. This was meant to be in force for one year, but was repealed only in 1957.
  3. Thereafter, the President promulgated the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Ordinance in May 1958.
  4. This was subsequently replaced by an act of Parliament. Initially known as the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act, 1958, it was subsequently adapted appropriately after the creation of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura.

 

Which parts of the country come under AFSPA?

  1. The AFSPA has been in force for decades in most parts of the Northeast States. Under this law, an area can be declared a ‘disturbed area’, bringing into play the protection it offers to the armed forces for use of force in the notified area.
  2. The notification is extended periodically, mostly for six months at a time.
  3. As of today, the whole of Assam and Nagaland are ‘disturbed areas’. The last six-month extension was made on August 28 and June 30 respectively.
  4. The whole of Manipur, with the exception of the Imphal municipal area, has been notified by the State government for one year from December 2020.
  5. In Arunachal Pradesh, the ‘disturbed area’ notification is confined to the districts of Tirap, Changlang and Longding, and the areas falling under Namsai and Mahadevpur police stations, bordering Assam.
  6. The AFSPA was revoked in Tripura in May 2015, after being in force since February 1997. It was revoked by a decision of the State Cabinet following substantial improvement in the ground situation.
  7. Meghalaya was under AFSPA for 27 years, until it was revoked from April 1, 2018. The Act was implemented in a 20-km area along the border with Assam.
  8. Jammu and Kashmir has a separate J&K Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1990.

 

What does the Act say?

  1. The Act empowers the Governor of any State, or the Administrator of a Union Territory, or the Central Government to notify parts of or the whole of a State or a Union Territory as a ‘disturbed area’, if they consider that the condition in such areas is so dangerous or disturbed that the use of the armed forces is necessary in aid of civil power.
  2. In such a notified area, any officer of the armed forces may fire upon or use force, even to the point of causing death, against any person for the maintenance of public order.
  3. This must be done after giving due warning as considered necessary, and the target must be a person who is contravening any law, or order prohibiting the assembly of five or more persons, and carrying weapons, firearms or ammunition.
  4. The Act allows arrest and search of any premises without a warrant in a notified area, and the recovery of any confined person, or any arms and ammunition stored unlawfully.
  5. The armed forces may also destroy any hideout, or arms dump or fortified area or shelter from which armed attacks are being launched, or any arms training is being carried out.
  6. No person can be prosecuted or subjected to any legal proceedings for action taken under the Act, without the Central Government’s previous sanction.

 

How has AFSPA been received by the people?

  1. Irom Sharmila, known as the Iron lady of Manipur, has been a towering figure who is well-known for her 16-year-long hunger strike against AFSPA.
  2. In November 2000, when Irom was 28-years-old, 10 civilians were allegedly gunned down by the 8th Assam Rifles at Malom Makha Leikai, near Imphal’s Tulihal airport. The infamous incident is commonly known as the ‘Malom massacre’.
  3. The massacre prompted Irom to begin a hunger strike against the atrocities in Malom, which later developed into a prolonged hunger strike against the AFSPA.
  4. Three days after she began her fast, Irom was arrested for “attempting suicide”. Thereafter, her hunger strike against AFSPA continued for 16 years.
  5. AFSPA was withdrawn from the Imphal Municipal Area in 2004 after several civil society campaigns — the hunger strike by Irom Sharmila being the most high-profile of them — and public mobilisations in Manipur.
  6. Over the years, Manipur has witnessed many protests against alleged extrajudicial killings by the armed forces.
  7. There was a huge backlash across the state in 2004 when the bullet-ridden body of Thangjam Manorama, who was raped and murdered, allegedly by a group of Assam Rifles men, was found at Bamon Kampu village in Imphal East district.

 

Recommendations:

  1. In 2005, a Government-appointed five-member committee headed by retired Supreme Court judge, P. Jeevan Reddy, recommended that AFSPA be repealed.
  2. It suggested that the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act could be suitably amended to deal with terrorism.
  3. It made this recommendation as it felt that the AFSPA created an impression that the people of the Northeast States were being targeted for hostile treatment.
  4. The Supreme Court was prompted to set up the Santosh Hegde committee following the petition filed by the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association of Manipur asking it to look into six charges of unlawful encounter killings in Manipur.
  5. The Santosh Hegde committee submitted its report in 2013, saying five of the six encounters were “not genuine”, that “disproportionate force” had been used against persons with “no known criminal antecedents”, and that AFSPA gave “sweeping powers” to men in uniform without granting citizens protection against its misuse.
  6. Further, the committee was of the view that if greater power was given then greater would be the restraint and stricter would be the mechanism to prevent its misuse or abuse, but this possibility was absent in the case of Manipur.

However, the Army has been resolutely opposed to the repeal of AFSPA.

 

Conclusion:

It is high time that sincere and concerted efforts are made continuously by the four stakeholders, civil society, the Armed Forces, the States and the Government of India to find a lasting and peaceful solution to the festering problem, with a little consideration from all quarters.

It is never too late to bring peace and harmony in society. The recent SC verdict is likely to have far-reaching consequences in places where security forces have been insulated by AFSPA to carry out counter-insurgency operations.

AFSPA should be amended to make it more comprehensive, with elaborate rules with respect to the manner of investigations of alleged human rights violations to reduce the possibility of it being abused.