AFSPA – SC ruling reignites debate
By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
Former Director General of Information Systems, Indian Army


Special Forces of Indian Army

Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and its removal come up periodically amongst protests and hot debates. The Act, which provides extraordinary powers of force to soldiers deployed in disturbed areas, has long been a bone of contention between human rights activists and those favouring a strong state response to terror and insurgency. Recently a bench of the Supreme Court ruled that indefinite deployment of armed forces in ‘disturbed areas’ under AFSPA “mocks at our democratic process” and symbolizes a failure of the state. The bench questions on the deployment of security forces in Manipur under AFSPA since 1958, the 85-page judgment pointed out that the purpose behind deployment of armed forces was to ensure normalcy would be restored within a reasonable period and that “normalcy not being restored cannot be a fig leaf for prolonged, permanent or indefinite deployment of the armed forces”.

The apex court also ordered a probe into 1,528 cases of alleged fake encounters in Manipur in the last 20 years. Taking first the human rights violations, the SC could have asked for details of the National Human Rights Commission, which examines each individual allegation and finds that some 96% of allegations are false (terrorist-insurgent propaganda and even politically motivated) while the Army ensures strict punishment to individuals found guilty. In the same contests, it is the Manipur State Government that should have been asked what have they done about these 1,528 alleged fake encounters. Ironically, every time there are protests for removal of AFSPA, the finger is pointed at the Army, the Army is asked why they need AFSPA, Army veterans are summoned for TV debates, there are shouts to ‘tone’ down AFSPA and the like. All this shows that the very background and basis of AFSPA are not understood in the first place. First and foremost, the deployment of Army in the hinterland and application of AFSPA comes only after the said area is declared as disturbed under the ‘Disturbed Area Act’. A Disturbed Area Act passed on September 11, 1958 was applied to the seven northeast states. A similar act passed in 1983 was applied to Punjab and Chandigarh, which was withdrawn in 1997. A similar act was applied to J&K in 1990 and has been in force since. So the SC bench could have asked the Manipur State Government why the Disturbed Area Act has not been removed from Manipur after so many years and why have they not asked the Centre to do so.

The above picture shows Mehbooba Mufti, when in opposition, is seen leading a protest march, herself holding a placard displaying ‘Down with AFSPA’. But now that she is Chief Minister of J&K can she afford to ask for removal of the 1990 Disturbed Area Act for J&K – obviously not. The second issue to be understood is that an area is declared ‘disturbed’ when the state machinery is unable to function and calls in the Army for support. The third issue is that neither the Army called for AFSPA nor drafted the Act. Instead, this was discussed and debated by various Parliaments and passed to ensure that the Army can function effectively in the designated disturbed area, when deployed. Therefore, any dilution of AFSPA then would mean diluted effectiveness of the Army in CI-CT and personnel getting involved in litigation consistently. The fourth important issue to be understood is that the Army can only keep violence levels at manageable levels whereas the balance must be taken on by the state administration; the problems being more of politico-socio-economic nature. The failure of the state to provide adequate governance has been the bane of continuing insurgencies – mostly due to endemic corruption and inefficiency. It may be recalled that when Army Chief General VK Singh (now MoS External Affairs) had stated that the Army can only manage violence levels and the state must do their bit, J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s father Farooq Abdullah took umbrage and said that the General was overstepping; truth is always bitter and this truth reflected on Farooq Abdulla’s tenure as CM as well. The fifth issue is that neither does the Army ask for such deployment nor does it enjoy when forced to act against its own Indian brethren when deployed in disturbed areas – its primary task being against the enemy and defending the borders. These issues must be understood across the board in the country including the public at large, notwithstanding the fact that some foreign funded NGOs, paid media and anti-national so-called activists would continue with their earlier rants.

Photo Credit: Indian Army