On March 31, the central government announced its decision to remove the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act – AFSPA – from certain parts of the Northeast. According to the official announcement, “entire 23 districts and partially one district of Assam, 6 in Nagaland and 6 in Manipur” would be kept out of the jurisdiction of AFSPA.
The government’s announcement came after massive protests in Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and other states of the North East, against the brutal army killing of 13 coal mine workers in Oting village in Mon district of Nagaland in December 2021. Everywhere, masses of people came out onto the streets demanding punishment of the guilty and repeal of AFSPA.
Immediately following the announcement, the government has tried to spread a false narrative through the media that it is fulfilling the demands of the people and that it is ending the reign of terror under AFSPA in the Northeast. The reality is that the demands of the people have not been fulfilled. The guilty have not been punished, and AFSPA has not been repealed. The removal of certain select areas from AFSPA will not end the unbridled terror of the armed forces in the Northeast.
A day after the government’s announcement, two youth returning home after fishing, were shot dead as “suspected terrorists” by an Assam Rifles soldier, in Tirap district of Arunachal Pradesh, where AFSPA remains in effect.
Just a little over a month ago, on February 28, 2022, AFSPA was extended over the entire state of Assam for 6 months. Earlier, it was extended from August 28, 2021, for 6 months. The AFSPA was imposed in Assam in November 1990 and has been extended every six months since then. The fact that the Central government has removed some districts from AFSPA in Assam just one month after it was extended to the entire state of Assam, shows that there was no justification at all in the first place for imposition of AFSPA in these districts!
At the same time, even after the recent government announcement, several districts of Assam including Tinsukia, Karbi Anglong, Golaghat, Dibrugarh, Charaideo, Sivasagar, Jorhat, West Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao will continue to remain under AFSPA.
The entire state of Manipur, except for 15 police stations, across six districts spread in the valley areas, will continue to remain under AFSPA. Most of these police stations come under the Imphal East and West districts. AFSPA had already been removed from some of these places following the massive popular protest of the people of Manipur against AFSPA in 2006. AFSPA will remain in force in all the hill districts of Manipur.
Even after the March 31 decision, AFSPA will effectively be present across all districts of Nagaland, including the Mon district where people were shot dead by the army in December 2021. There is no change in the status quo in Arunachal Pradesh, with respect to AFSPA.
AFSPA is based on a law first promulgated by the British colonialists in August 1942, to crush the rising tide of the anti-colonial freedom struggle of our people. In 1958, the Central government passed the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958)to legalise the use of the army against the Naga people who were waging a struggle for their national rights. Since then, successive central governments have invoked AFSPA to crush people’s struggles in Manipur, Assam, Mizoram, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Punjab and Kashmir. Everywhere, the Indian state has refused to deal with political problems, and instead converted them into “law and order problems” and unleashed state terror against the people.
AFSPA gives the armed forces complete power to carry out search operations anywhere, at any time, and to arrest persons without any warrant. It gives the armed forces the authority to ‘shoot at sight’ and kill innocent, unarmed people on grounds of mere suspicion, to carry out fake “encounters”, torture, rape and destruction with impunity. It provides the armed forces complete immunity from prosecution in a court of law.
AFSPA has been periodically extended or withdrawn by the central government from one or another area, , in an entirely arbitrary manner. Entire regions of the Northeast are declared “disturbed areas” to justify imposition of AFSPA there, and all human rights and democratic rights of the people are brutally crushed.
Whenever mass protests take place against some brutal army killings, a big show of “concern” is made by the Supreme Court and some partial withdrawal of AFSPA takes place, only for it to be re-imposed soon afterwards. The central government has refused to withdraw AFSPA even when the Legislative Assemblies of Manipur and other North eastern states have voted for its withdrawal.
It may be recalled that the Supreme Court had issued a ruling in July 2016, against the legal immunity of the armed forces under AFSPA. The Supreme Court ruling was in response to a petition filed in 2012, by the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association, representing family members of those killed by security forces in fake encounters in Manipur. The petition had documented 1,528 deaths in fake encounters in Manipur since the 1970s and pointed out that action had not been taken against the army personnel involved in even a single case. The Central Government has taken no action to punish those members of the armed forces guilty of these heinous crimes.
AFSPA has been in force in Jammu and Kashmir since 1990 and unspeakable tortures, disappearances and killings in fake encounters by the armed forces continue to be a permanent feature of life there.
The demand for the repeal of AFSPA has been a persistent and long-standing demand of the people of the Northeast and Kashmir, and of all democratic forces in the country. However, each and every government at the centre, regardless of which political party it has been led by, has consistently refused to fulfil this just demand. The Indian state has consistently justified the rape, torture and murder of innocent people by the armed forces under AFSPA, in the name of “defending national unity and territorial integrity” and upholding the “morale of the armed forces”.
There is no justification for the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The political problems facing the people in different states demand political solution. The struggle of the peoples of different regions of our country for their human, democratic and national rights is entirely just. AFSPA must be repealed and the armed forces must be withdrawn to their barracks. It is the necessary first step towards a lasting solution to the problems of the peoples of the Northeast and Kashmir.