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India’s AFSPA Needs Nuance, Not an ‘Us vs Them’ Approach

The space is vanishing for contrarian perspectives, middle grounds, or informed debates.

6 min read
India’s AFSPA Needs Nuance, Not an ‘Us vs Them’ Approach
Hindi Female

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Political tribalism has led to a binary age where partisan zealots recognise only two colours, ie, black, and white. Evangelical proclamations (especially on the battlefield of social media) have made extremely complex issues unintelligently simple, and therefore, dangerously inadequate. The space is vanishing for contrarian perspectives, middle grounds, or informed debates. Instead, bivalence prevails – much like George Bush’s smug Texan drawl, “You’re either with us or against us”.

The world’s largest democracy is in the regrettable throes of polarised echo chambers, where rabidly partisan tribes adjudicate and issue certifications for right-wrong, good-bad, national-anti national, et cetera. Independent India’s short history is instructive of how binarisation of thought and expression has been at the heart of regional disaffections (often spiralling into secessionist movements). Whenever majoritarianism was insisted, seeds of societal dissonance (for example, the anti-Hindi movement in South) had been sown, whereas whenever attempts to co-opt the disengaged with genuine ‘inclusivity’ (for example, the Punjab Accord of 1985, the Mizo Accord of 1986, Vajpayee’s Insaniyat, Jamhuriyat, Kashmiriyat etc.) were made, portents of thawing had sprung forth.


All Elements of National Security Have Been Politicised

The conflation of the necessarily apolitical realm of ‘security’ with divisive partisanship for the optics of political muscularity has emerged as one such dangerous binary. All elements of national security, ie, the imagery of Indian soldiers, surgical strikes, the acquisition of weaponry, Chiefs or the CDS, border stand-offs, etc, are all par for the course for partisan appropriation, misuse and contextualisation.

This admixture is then given a lush coat of partisan paint with manufactured outrage and uber-nationalism to defend ostensible ‘causes’, without the institution seeking the same. This unilateral usurpation of the security ‘causes’ is often predicated on majoritarian-nationalism, even if it goes against the institution’s intrinsic identity, which is traditionally, culturally and proudly given to societal inclusivity and shuns polarising ‘divides’. The jarring self-righteous tone that accompanies this political rhetoric barely disguises the electoral utility of misusing the apolitical institution. In doing so, self-appointed guardians willy-nilly impose and inflict their own partisan colour and outlook onto an otherwise independent institution.

One such operational necessity that is susceptible to binary warriors is the special powers given to the military in areas declared as ‘disturbed’ by the civilian administration (not by the military), ie, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The perceptions thereof can be given a false spin of entitlement, coercive intent, or even a special privilege for the Indian military – it is none of this but an operational necessity, plain and simple.

At the same time, does it – or should it – absolve the military from all levels of accountability and reasonable questioning, even if it accompanies an insurgency-ridden environment?

The short answer is that it shouldn’t, as even the military constantly reviews its own conduct in operations to continuously improve its deliverables, efficacy, and shortcomings.


Army Has No 'Intent' of its Own

No institution trains as exhaustively as the military for all possible eventualities, as it believes that no operation can be perfect in every sense and that mistakes do happen, occasionally. Therefore, the Indian military remains the one of the most revered, efficient, and noblest of callings, but not beyond odd human errors – that presumptive pomposity is only for politicians, not the profession of arms.

Fundamentally, the military does not like to get involved in domestic strifes but does so as the ‘last resort’ of the sovereign, only when the civilian administration, the State Police and the Central Armed Police Services throw in the collective towel. Indian military is, by design, training and ethos, above ‘divides’ that galvanises the polarised politics. Its recruitment pattern exemplifies the diversity of the land with regiments like the Naga Regiment, the Assam Regiment, the Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry, etc., having combatants from ‘disturbed’ regions.

Just as political intrigues had inflamed the social temper in the 1980s in Punjab, it was the reassuring sight of gallant and thoroughly patriotic soldiers in Regiments like the Sikh, Sikh Light Infantry, Punjab, etc, that showed an alternative reality with the institution’s sacred covenant and anchorage, and which did not conform to discrimination or bigotry.

In democracies like India, the ‘sword arm’ of the military is avowedly subservient to the civilian government and is allowed no ‘intent’ of its own beyond what is defined in the Constitution. So, to ascribe any extra-constitutional ‘intent’ or mandate (as often invoked by the Pakistani Military) onto the Indian military is factually wrong; however, individual acts of dereliction or commission/omission ought not to be beyond remit and blanket denial. That is the basic honesty with which the Indian military has earned its literal stripes in the hallowed imagination of the citizenry.


The Bane of Muscular Politics

Sadly, there have been odd operational instances that do not stack up to the military’s own exacting standards of discipline, restraint and selflessness, and to ‘protect’ such acts under the pretext of legalese can diminish its institutional credentials. Essentially, the Indian military is predicated on the inviolable concept of ‘Izzat’ (pride) that disdains ignoble, amoral, and unprofessional conduct – where ends don’t justify the means, as conduct is above all. Importantly, a soldier under the AFSPA cover is not entitled to an extra rupee in his or her emoluments, as it is not a personal, institutional, or pecuniary privilege.

AFSPA must be viewed as a necessary societal constraint, such as the imposition of Section 144 that debars the congregation of people to avoid mobocracy, which is withdrawn as soon as the situation normalises. Similarly, AFSPA is like a standard empowerment afforded to all professional militaries in ‘disturbed’ areas whenever sovereignty is threatened, with no moral case for its extension once the threat subsides.

For the aggrieved and disengaged citizenry in ‘disturbed’ areas, it is usual for them to presume, attribute and contextualise all unsettled issues onto the only visible arm of governance i.e., the military, with ‘malintent’, blame and even temporary distrust. This is sadly natural and needs to be gently allayed with a deliberate and conscious mix of assuaging political-administrative-developmental initiatives.

Over time, the military can convince the disaffected citizenry with its own soft-touch and agenda-less professionalism. But for that, the larger politico-administrative engagement remains key.

This latter piece has the single biggest lacunae in recent times, as the so-called ‘muscular politics’ has failed to genuinely reach out and reassure its marginalised diversities – the overuse of the military can never be a solution.


Blind Cheerleading Won't Help Us

India has ended insurgencies in places like Punjab and Mizoram, but that had involved both the security steel and the critical economic-social-political reach-out. That is missing now, with majoritarianism cocking a snook.

In such times, keyboard warriors do more disservice on complex issues like AFSPA to wound the perceptions of the already wary citizenry, and the military deserves to be spared the distrust and hate-mongering associated with partisan politics.

AFSPA is an unfortunate and perhaps even an imperfect necessity (hence, a case to constantly improve, adapt, and improvise with times). Each instance against its supposed misuse must be weighed with the necessary sensitivity (a dignity warranted onto our own citizenry, even if the same is temporarily disaffected with ‘Delhi’) and with situational context (as deemed operationally essential with the standard anti-insurgency procedures and safety of our professional soldiers). The pride and elan on the face of an Indian soldier – irrespective of whether they are from the Kashmir Valley, Mokokchung in Nagaland, Jodhpur in Rajasthan or Gurdaspur in Punjab – does not come because of the uber-nationalistic intolerance and binarisation of keyboard warriors. It comes only when the Indian military puts its constitutional values and inclusive culture to constantly improve themselves for the safety, dignity and security of all Indians, without discrimination.

‘Service before Self’ lays bare the ‘unlimited liability’ that the military undertakes for the citizenry, as a Naga, Kashmiri or any other citizen from any ‘disturbed’ area is considered as Indian as any.

The military’s legacy is burnished by its constitutional, apolitical and ramrod straight conduct, even on complex matters like AFSPA, which needs nuance, not echo-chamber cheering. Any soldier or civilian would rather not have AFSPA-warranting conditions anywhere in the country.

It is to be invoked judiciously and professionally for its earliest withdrawal possible, and to suggest otherwise does not make anyone more patriotic than the other. Nuance and perspective with dignity, as opposed to blind cheerleading, is more useful.

(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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