The decision of the Union home ministry to stop the operation of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), 1958, from most districts of the Northeast signals to the government’s assessment of the improved law and order in the region as well as the increased opposition to it from people.
As per the ministry’s decision, the law, at present in force in all districts of Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and some districts of Arunachal Pradesh, will be lifted in 36 districts of the trouble-torn northeastern states. This includes 23 districts in Assam, six districts of Manipur and seven districts of Nagaland. Only three districts in Arunachal Pradesh will continue to remain under AFSPA.
The law has its origins in the British era: the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance, 1942, was promulgated by then viceroy Linlithgow to suppress the Quit India movement. The ordinance was a virtual licence to kill. It had its rebirth in 1958 as a law to contain insurgency in Assam and Manipur; and was later extended to the other northeastern states as localised insurgencies gained strength. A version of the same law was introduced in Jammu and Kashmir in 1990 when Pakistan-backed terrorists made it a point to strike at will.
The law gives the Armed Forces the power to maintain public order in disturbed areas, which are declared so by the state or Union government. It empowers a non-commissioned officer or above to prohibit a gathering of five or more persons in an area and use force or even open fire causing death if warranted for the maintenance of public order. The Armed Forces personnel can also arrest a person or enter and search premises without a warrant.
While the security forces have been of immense help to the government in fighting insurgents in the Northeast, there have also been complaints of very serious nature about the gross misuse of this law. A public interest litigation filed in the Supreme Court in 2013 alleged that 1,528 people were killed in fake encounters and that the perpetrators had the cover of the AFSPA, forcing the Supreme Court to order an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the killings. The recent incident in which six coal mine labourers were killed in an ambush by the security forces in Nagaland, and the death of another eight more civilians in firing by security forces in their bid to contain the violence that broke out in protest against the killings, reignited the call for revoking the law in the region.
The Armed Forces are trained to fight, and kill, the enemy, and, as the Supreme Court pointed out in 2016, the “indefinite deployment of Armed Forces in the name of restoring normalcy under AFSPA would mock at our democratic process” and “would symbolise a failure of the civil administration and the Armed Forces”. It must be appreciated that the Union government has realised the import of the observation and acted with alacrity. It must now extend the process to rest of the areas in the Northeast as well as in the Union territories of Jammu and Kashmir which, as per the government’s claims, have returned to complete normalcy.