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AFSPA: Time To Ink Its Epitaph

Ideally this question should not have come up in the first place, especially in the land of the Buddha and Gandhi and which has the distinction of being the largest democracy in the world. Not only this, India is also one of the few countries of the erstwhile British Empire, where democracy has succeeded, with no tin pot dictators dictating terms, a la Pakistan. Given such a background and the present political climate, why should there be a heated debate over the imposition or revocation/repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act? Why should a democracy like India feel the need to adopt an Act framed by her former ruler (the slight modifications here and there should not fool us), which was a manifestation of the divide between a colonial power and a colonized people?

The answer is both simple and at the same time extremely difficult and dicey. It is only expected that Delhi should keep National integrity as its first priority but simultaneously democracy should also have no room for any provisions that give unbridled powers to the military to deal with internal issues. Okay there are some who belong to the school of thought that the armed movement in the North-East should not be viewed as an internal matter, but an issue between two distinct entities, with Delhi taking on the role of the colonizer, after the British left. We will deal with this issue when the time comes, but for the moment, let’s concentrate on the imposition of the remnants of an Act which was primarily formed to keep the colonized people collared and tethered.

At the moment the focus is on Kashmir, following the civil unrest for over two months which has claimed the lives of more than 60 people, mostly teenagers. Normalcy is far from over and it is against this backdrop that AFSPA has once again come to the forefront triggering off a debate. Kashmir is the centre of attention and according to what we have been hearing and reading as well as listening, the debate seems to be tilting towards some adhoc measures, such as repealing it from some parts of Kashmir, like it was done in the seven Assembly segments lying within the Imphal Municipal Council.

We do not know how the Kashmiris will respond to this, but we are firm in our belief that such piecemeal approach cannot bring any solution. By this we are not saying that Kashmir should burn and the kids should go out on the streets again to engage the security personnel with catapults and other ingenious ‘˜weapons’, but voicing our stand that a thorough discussion and debate, without any strings attached and with no political vote banks in mind, is urgently needed. The only point is, is Delhi or India ready for this? Also let’s not forget that in the enthusiasm to defuse the crisis in Kashmir, the same Act has been enforced in the North East region since the armed insurrection was launched by the Naga National Council way back in the 50s.

The Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission, which was instituted to look into the provisions of the Act and see what can be done to make it more humane, is understood to have put in certain suggestions and points. This is one part of the story and the other part of the story is that the Government of India has been sitting on it all these years. The Commission was instituted following the prolonged agitation after the arrest, ‘˜rape’ and brutal murder of Th. Manorama, way back in 2005. That the Manorama case is back in the public domain, thanks to the ruling of the Principal seat of the Gauhati High Court on August 31, at this juncture may be dismissed as a co-incidence, but no one can write off the significance of not only the ruling of the High Court but also the time and situation under which it was pronounced.

As we had said, it is now left to the State Government to go through the report submitted by the C Upendra Commission and accordingly take appropriate action. This is not an attempt to link the present nationwide debate over AFSPA following the civil unrest in Kashmir, with the case of Th. Manorama, but there is no denying the fact that the common thread that runs through these two cases is the said Army Act. The question, which everybody should be asking and which should be the focus of everyone, is whether AFSPA is indispensable for the integrity of the country or not. Is it really important to give the license to shoot and even kill a suspect by an official of the rank of a Non-Commissioned Officer, in areas that come under the protective umbrella of the said Act?

From Delhi’s viewpoint, these provisions are necessary and hence its enforcement in States or areas, which come under the Disturbed Area Act. That the provisions of AFSPA are there primarily to enable the soldiers to carry out their duties, cannot jell with the civilized world today, is a given. It would have been more appropriate if the said Act had been associated with radical groups like the Taliban. Mass massacre, women raped and killed, forcing expecting mothers to give birth in the open fields, custodial killings, disappearing after being picked up by security personnel under the immunity granted to them under AFSPA.

These are facts, which the people of the North East and Kashmir have been forced to face in their daily lives for decades. The question is, are all the examples, which we have just quoted, really connected to the security and integrity of the country? By itself, AFSPA, if used judiciously may be turned into a trump card for the security personnel, but history and the present tell us that far from being the trump card, it has become a source of embarrassment to the military establishment. In short, the time is ripe to write the epitaph of AFSPA or else the epitaph may be written for the Indian Union, if not in the sense of its real disintegration but at least at the mental level, where the disconnect between peoples and regions will be loudly pronounced.

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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