Women hold placards during a protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). (Photo: Reuters)
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The Rhetoric, Reality, Needs and Concerns Around AFSPA

“Irom Sharmila is a god-given stooge in the hands of terrorists and anti-nationals.” At least according to an article in the RSS’ mouthpiece Organiser. Published last week, soon after the BJP’s victory in the Assam elections, the article is a garbled defence of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The article brings in JNU and Kanhaiya Kumar, and claims Human Rights organisations are in league with terrorists and so on.

It further claims that AFSPA and the protection it provides military personnel is essential for the armed forces to deal with insurgents, militants and terrorists in “disturbed areas”. On the other hand, both domestic and international human rights organisations have spoken out against the law, which was first used by the British to suppress the Quit India movement in 1942. There have been alleged violation of rights by the armed forces, including heinous crimes.

The RSS’ position comes as the BJP is trying to make inroads into the north-east, where AFSPA is in effect in many regions. The politics and rhetoric around the law is bound to cloud the debate around it. While one side is trying to paint the issue as a matter of nationalist pride, making it an army vs anti-nationals issue, others see it as the Indian state using the armed forces to suppress the fundamental rights of a large part of the population.

The Law, In a Nutshell

Snapshot
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  • State governments can declare a state of Emergency if the police cannot tackle local issues.
  • The military can use force, even kill people in a disturbed area for the maintenance of public order.
  • They can also stop and search any person/vehicle without a warrant if they are suspected of carrying weapons, or make arrests without a warrant.
  • Army personnel cannot be arrested for acts committed in the course of their duty except by the consent of the Central government.

A Defence Man’s Need for Protection

India’s Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers patrol along the fencing of the India-Bangladesh international border. (Photo: Reuters)
India’s Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers patrol along the fencing of the India-Bangladesh international border. (Photo: Reuters)

Traditionally, the army is not supposed to be involved in pacifying civilian populations or unrest. That’s the police’s job. When they are deployed though, soldiers require protection and immunity for incidents that may occur in the course of battle.

If soldiers are in a gun battle with terrorists or insurgents holed up in a village and civilians get caught in the cross-fire soldiers should not be held liable. In situations like that, there are often casualties. 
EN Rammohan, Former DG, BSF

Rammohan also insisted that there is no complete legal immunity under AFSPA – the Central government can initiate prosecution when it chooses to. However, the senior officer who has served in both Kashmir and the North-East did say that the army has protected its own in cases of heinous crimes.

There have been cases where the Army has protected its own when serious crimes have occurred. In the case of Manorama in Manipur, she was picked up from her village and shot dead. There were allegations of rape which could not be proved because of where she was shot. Yes, she was a former Peoples’ Liberation Army member, but that doesn’t justify her killing. The army claims she was shot while fleeing... how can you be shot multiple times in the genitals if you are running away?
EN Rammohan, Former DG, BSF

The case of Manorama shocked Manipur and continues to be a rallying cry against Indian security forces even today.

The army does hold soldiers accountable for criminal actions, but you have to understand what it’s like to combat insurgency. This is not a classic war like situation where the enemy wears a uniform. Terrorists can come from anywhere – a village, a crowd of students etc. In situations like that, soldiers can’t always be careful, or targeted. After all, we are only there because a civilian, elected government chose to deploy us. A law like AFSPA provides us protection while we are there.  
Army Officer, Served in Kashmir

“Are We Indians or Not?”

People pelt stones on an army vehicle a day after two people were killed in army firing in Handwara of Jammu and Kashmir, 13 April 2016. (Photo: IANS)
People pelt stones on an army vehicle a day after two people were killed in army firing in Handwara of Jammu and Kashmir, 13 April 2016. (Photo: IANS)

The Organiser article, tried to paint the complex debate around AFSPA as national/anti-national, and claimed the allegations against the excesses of the armed forces.

These terrorists in league with pseudo-human rightists try to implicate Army jawans on fake grounds, even sometime misusing girls for allurement.
Editorial in RSS Mouthpiece Organiser

For Ajmal (26), an MPhil scholar at the University of Kashmir, it is laws like AFSPA that take away his faith in the Indian state and nation.

There is a growing anti-India sentiment here and its understandable. We are not subject to the same laws, do not enjoy the same rights. If you say that our lives can be sacrificed for “security and strategic reasons”, you are saying that our security and freedom does not matter. We are searched without warrants, frequently live under curfews. If we are an integral part of India, why don’t I enjoy the same rights as you? What we know of India is through the security forces in our streets. 
Ajmal, Srinagar-based student
The deserted view of Lal Chowk after a strike call given by separatist groups against proposed plans of establishing sainik colony and settlement for Kashmiri Pandits, in Srinagar on May 26. (Photo: PTI)
The deserted view of Lal Chowk after a strike call given by separatist groups against proposed plans of establishing sainik colony and settlement for Kashmiri Pandits, in Srinagar on May 26. (Photo: PTI)

Ajmal, who had lived in Delhi for three years, thinks that protecting soldiers who have committed atrocities under the cover of AFSPA is only alienating more and more people. For him and his circle of friends, the issue isn’t just the alleged killings. It’s about being treated differently from the rest of India and being accused of being terrorists or anti-nationals when they protest.

The armed forces may well need certain liberties that go beyond the ambit of ordinary penal laws when dealing with insurgency. However, conversations about the people who have to live between insurgents and the armed forces can be carried out without resorting to name calling.