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17-min read

AFSPA lets the forces get away with war crimes: Sudeep Chakravarti

55 years of AFSPA in Manipur: what has it yielded?


Updated:May 23, 2013, 5:57 PM IST
AFSPA lets the forces get away with war crimes: Sudeep Chakravarti
55 years of AFSPA in Manipur: what has it yielded?

The controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act is in place in Manipur for the last 55 years. While the forces claim it is impossible to improve the security situation without it, its frequent abuse has led to the death and disappearance of many youths, it has led to rape of women by security force personnel. While Irom Sharmila's marathon fast has kept the focus on the issue, 55 years is enough time to take stock of what the imposition of AFSPA has yielded. Senior journalist and author of 'Highway 39' Sudeep Chakravarti joined IBNLive readers for an interaction on the issue.

Q. Hi Sudeep. two questions. First a hypothetical question. AFSPA has to go. But is there a plan how it should go? Gradual phasing out? Absence of AFSPA is essential for peace in Manipur but do you fear some kind of a vacuum once it goes? Second question: Example of any specific counterinsurgency operation that AFSPA has helped? Asked by: Arijit Sen

A. Good evening, everyone. Thanks for joining in...And hi, Arijit. As far as I know there is no active plan with Govt of India about how AFSPA should go. Manmohan Singh suggested replacing AFSPA with a more "humane Act" as far back as 2006. But nothing has come of it in spite of numerous committees suggesting AFSPA be repealed; and appealing that already several laws exist within the policing system and anti-terrorist regime for Govt of India and the states to tackle any all manner of activities perceived to be terrorist acts or inimical to the integrity of India. The Army and its near-rogue mirrors of Rashtriya Rifles and Assam Rifles can be tasked effectively even without AFSPA. My take is: either AFSPA is there or it is not. There can be no gradual phasing out. There is no question of a vacuum as and when AFSPA goes. It's just used at this time for immunity and impunity by the armed forces and its lackeys. In Manipur even the police have begun to behave they are above the law as they operate in an AFSPA-esque situation. They are all scared of prosecution. If international conventions can prosecute offenders as war criminals, and those guilty of Abu Ghraib can be tried and convicted in the US, what gives Indian forces a divine right to operate? As to your second question, counterinsurgency operations are conducted against Maoist rebels in several states of India without the active use of the Army and, therefore, without AFSPA. I would submit the problem is more acute in these parts than where AFSPA is actually in force. Who is going to mess with the army? Or Rashtriya Rifles? Or Assam Rifles? AFSPA is just a fig leaf that buys the other divine right: to generally not be prosecuted for war crimes.

Q. Irom sharmila's fast has not moved any one,outside NE. If such a thing had happened in Mumbai or Delhi it would be a 24X7 X 365 days coverage by media. Why this apathy? Asked by: sundar1950in

A. The North-east still remains a peripheral place in the 'Mainland' Indian schema, Sundar (and good to be chatting with you again). It's the same for small-town India, or village India, or Other India - call it what you will. The media is a reflection of society, and we're without question largely a government and society that quickly makes outsiders of those we have the hypocrisy to call our own! Our media is largely vulture-like, and driven by TRPs and mall-stupor. Who cares about the North-east? Indeed, who cares about anything outside metros and outside the ambit of immediate electoral politics?

Q. Instead of asking of a repeal, will not be prudent to get the government to act tough on misuse of this provision of law by the security forces? Asked by: sundar1950in

A. That's a toughie, Sundar. In a perfect world, violators can be prosecuted even under the umbrella of AFSPA, but it first needs govt clearance. But that rarely happens. If you check the statistics of incidents in AFSPA-imposed states/ regions, even acknowledgement of a misdemeanour or crime -- let alone permission to prosecute -- is rare. Better then, perhaps, to do away with it, and be at the mercy of laws that permit interdiction and lawkeeping and anti-terrorist moves, and yet leaves the window open for battling excesses by police, paramilitaries and armed forces.

Q. North east has been completely cut off from the mainstream. All the seven sisters have some problem or the other. but none of the governments have shown any interest. Army will indeed use one pretext or the other to keep the special powers with them. Its time, a white paper is published about the accomplishments of AFSPA. Asked by: SE

A. Dear SE, I couldn't agree more. But as it happens, not just a white paper, but an entire committee researched and published a report on the "accomplishments" of AFSPA! As I have mentioned in my book 'Highway 39' and elsewhere in the media, the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee conducted numerous interviews and sought representation all across North-eastern India from all players-victims to security forces-and submitted its report on 6 June 2005, suggesting AFSPA be repealed. The government buried it. If it were not for The Hindu, which posted the report on its website, nobody would have come to know. In 2007, the influential Administrative Reforms Commission headed by veteran Congress party member Veerappa Moily also suggested the repeal of AFSPA; suggesting instead that the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act be bolstered, with a provision to enable the armed forces to operate in conflict zones. The government ignored it. The Governor of Meghalaya, Ranjit Shekhar Mooshahary (who was earlier director of the elite National Security Guards, and Border Security Force) actually said in public in 2009-he has said several times since-that AFSPA should be removed from North-eastern India in general and Manipur in particular. "If the Act is removed," Mooshahary said, "I think the situation would not worsen. In fact it will improve...The Act has made the people vulnerable. The Centre should think of doing away with the Act or applying it in a modified way." The government ignored him. Representatives of Nagaland's bureaucracy and police officially told the Jeevan Reddy Committee that the "Act should be replaced with a more humane legislation since it has generated suspicion between the Nagas and others." Plea ignored. The Home Secretary of Mizoram officially wrote to the Jeevan Reddy Committee: "For the people of Mizoram, the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act, 1958, leaves a scar on their minds, and all sections of people regardless of political parties to which they belong are against this particular Act." The sentiments were ignored. Unfortunately, the North-east is still controlled by those who benefit from the economy of conflict, not the economy of peace. I hope people of the North-east gather the courage to rapidly effect a change in this equation.

Q. Hi Sudeep, There's no denying that Insurgency is the biggest business in the northeast region today and several militant organizations, which local people says are formed by the Indian security forces with the knowledge of the state, to carry out forced extortion from the civilians, human rights violations and individual terrorism under the protection of AFSPA. Please share some lights here? Asked by: John Hingkung

A. Hi John, so good to see you here. And, as ever, you are bluntly perceptive. There are all manner of organizations: some rebels are ideologically "pure", others are increasingly warped, and yet others -- as you correctly suggest -- are formed with the active and covert impetus of central and state government intelligence outfits. Manipur is a classic example of this merry-go-round of the economy of conflict. Away from this, I have even heard some senior army officials say that if conflict disappears in the North-east then the army's budget will be reduced. So the "brass" are happy to keep the conflict going to protect budgetary allocations when it could actually wrap up most insurgencies (with the help of civilian peace deals) in a matter of months.

Q. I feel that Armed Forces act such as AFSPA is dividing the country and increasing anti-India elements. What's the main reason why the government is hesitating to repeal it? Asked by: Kuba Jonah

A. Hi Kuba, I agree with you. (Moreover, I have never understood why the Govt of India and its agencies have worked so hard since 1947 to so ill-treat people that it wants so badly to make its own! Kill-burn-rape-maim is hardly the perfect formula to make 'target' groups and regions wallow in patriotic feeling...) The government (rather, successive governments) have always given in to the demands of the security establishment to maintain AFSPA. It is a figurative and literal racket on which sick minds and budgets thrive. The paranoia that afflicted India in its immediate post-Independence years when the parent of AFSPA was first enacted in 1958 (Nehru and his colleagues felt any and all use of force in the Naga wars, for example, was justified to keep India intact; political processes could come later) continues in its 2013 avatar. Only the paranoia now is quite false. I agree with the MP from Manipur who was among a few in Parliament who initially opposed the Act that today has become AFSPA. He called it a "lawless law". He couldn't have been more correct.

Q. Hi Sudeep.Why is the north east states always neglected by the media, the govt and by the mainland people? Irom sharmila is charged under suicide attempt case and arrested,for her democratic protest.yet our supreme court doesn't do anything and just simply watches.but the same Supreme court interferes for Anna Hazare, just because there were so many crowd gathered and he is from mainland India. Doesn't this mean even Supreme court shows partiality? Asked by: Nelo

A. Hi Nelo. Thank you for dropping by. First, I think the Supreme Court hows partiality to India's citizens -- thank heavens. But you are right in that the Supreme Court is perhaps less quick to react to great issues and feelings related to the North-east. Perhaps the Court needs to be emphatically alerted with public interest pleas... Meanwhile, let me address your larger point, in the manner I did recently in another media interaction. While I empathize completely with your consternation and hurt, we need to face facts about India and this sub-continent. We live in one of the most racist regions in the world on account of great lack of exposure combined with deep-rooted prejudices. You and numerous others have encountered such sick minds. Some from the northeast have recently lost their lives to such prejudice and cruelty in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and places in southern India. Look around you. You are not alone. (And here, for a moment please leave aside those from north-eastern India). Have you heard/ seen how an ordinary Nepali person is addressed/ treated in India? Is it any wonder there is great resentment against India in several parts of Nepal? I am furious each time I hear so-called cultured Bengalis make fun of the Assamese language because of some differences in pronunciation of similar words; or hear Bengalis dismiss those from Odisha as 'Urey" or those from Bihar as "Khatua". In Assam, "Bongali" is often a term of derision. Those from northern and southern India are these days institutionally and politically reviled in Pune and Mumbai. I live in Goa, so I know first-hand the resentment against "bhaille" or outsiders who are even blamed for vagaries in the weather! Or, ask a Mussalman who these days goes looking for accommodation in a predominantly Hindu area anywhere in India. As I like to say, I love the idea of India, but perhaps Indians need to actually work at the idea too. As we know well, anything can trigger a reaction: insecurity about livelihood, deep-rooted bias, so many things. But I will also say this: Deeply tragic though the apathy continues to be, it is not as if the entire country is against NE. And here perhaps lies a partial solution. As more Mainlanders -not armed forces sorts or bureaucrats, but non-government professionals and tourists-travel to north-eastern India, the perception they bring back is going to change the perception towards those from north-eastern India in the Mainland. This is an ongoing process, slow but welcome. But the major boost will probably come from those who belong to the north-eastern India and travel to the Mainland for study, work or tourism. Many north-eastern communities (and as you know, specific tribes) already have very strong networks in several Indian cities and towns-especially university towns. They come to the aid of newcomers, as it were, by holding orientation meetings and generally supporting those of the community both in times of celebration and trouble. I hope though the Supreme Court moves with favour to the NE much before this process truly kicks in!

Q. Can United Nation help us to repeal dis act? Asked by: Sunder thounaojam

A. Hi Sunder. I don't think the United Nations can immediately help with AFSPA. For starters, there is not enough momentum against AFSPA outside India -- in that, it is not internationalized enough as, say, the situation in Tibet, or earlier in Serbia, or at present with the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka (over which the UN largely voted for censuring Sri Lanka). Getting the UN involved is a complex process, and one that cannot work unless enough international pressure is built against AFSPA and, more importantly, pressure that makes India look like a complete Banana Republic. India has to want to retain its reputation badly enough in balance for international pressure to succeed against AFSPA/India. (Separately, in one position paper I wrote a few years back I proposed that Manipur, at least Imphal valley - you know what I mean - may in future request the UN to become its protectorate. It may seem like kite-flying, but it's not impossible. Who expected East Timor to arrive? Via the UN, no less!)

Q. How much do you think AFSPA's presence is due to the China factor and how much due to the home grown insurgents. Asked by: Dev

A. The army does not require AFSPA to contain China in the Northeast, or anywhere else for that matter, Dev. It needs manpower, training, equipment, and political and diplomatic will in New Delhi. Is there AFSPA in West Bengal to contain Bangladeshi jihadi elements? And, anyway, what is the reason for imposing AFSPA in Mizoram for decades after the rebellion actually -- and formally -- died down? AFSPA just leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Q. Removing AFSPA totally from northeast India will only create much more violence then present by anti-Indian organisatations supported by China,why can't you think as being indian, armed forces mens are also human, you people only see that part which is wrong in Indian defence forces? Asked by: aj from teju

A. Hi, AJ. Of course armed forces folks are Indian! And they are patriotic Indians, the same as I am. Where is the dispute there? But surely, in 2013, we can act a little mature about our hard-earned democracy, and be open-minded to discuss the negative aspects along with the positive. Why do the armed forces expect rampant support even when some of its personnel commit ills -- crimes under any court of humanitarian law in most civilized countries of the world? Are our armed forces as insecure as that of Pakistan? Or are our armed forces a proud part of a robust democracy with a democratic heart? Patriotism and patriotic duty is one thing, AJ, and deliberate butchery on civilians and non-combatants is another thing altogether. (And I have friends in the armed forces posted in Kashmir and NE who are ashamed of AFSPA).

Q. One aspect of the entire AFSPA affair which is surprising, to say the least, is the meagre attention paid by the rest of the world, especially when you compare it to the humanitarian crises in Tibet or Sri Lanka. What can we, as Indians, do to exert pressure on the Government ourselves? How can we make sure that the rest of the world follows suit? Asked by: Aditya Mani Jha

A. Hi Aditya, good to meet you here. I've attempted to answer this query elsewhere (and 'elsewhen'!) in the chat. I think you've answered your own query. We simply do not (and here, I mean people of the states where AFSPA is in force as well as, say, you and I who are presumably liberal, democratic patriots who see ill in AFSPA)have enough momentum against AFSPA. As I said elsewhere, AFSPA has not been adequately internationalized. There needs to be a PR/lobby mechanism put in place to create local and global public awareness against AFSPA in a manner that hurts India's grandstanding at the UN and other fora, it's global ego if you will, in substantive ways. No loans for this or that unless human rights records (AFSPA included) is improved. So and so pension fund will not invest in Indian equity or bonds or treasury instruments unless it cleans up AFSPA/human rights. And so on. We don't yet have anti-AFSPA leverage. But I believe it will come. (And I hope AFSPA is itself repealed before we get there!)

Q. Why govt keep making false promises regarding AFSPA? Why AFSPA is not replaced or atleast amended till now? Why AFSPA is still present in the same manner when it was first introduced? If something does not work then govt. should change to something else what is the need for sticking with the old law which violates human rights in every possible way and manner? What are the alternatives to counter the Insurgents and terrorists except AFSPA? How repealing the AFSPA will help our nation especially in NE India? Asked by: Deep Saran Bhatnagar

A. Hi Deep. As I mentioned elsewhere in this chat, numerous security experts and legal experts believe enough provisions exist within Indian law administered by the Centre and various states to handle every aspect of security, internal or external. More than anything else, AFSPA is today also a measure of distrust that 'Mainland' India has against several states in the Northeast. This I believe to be absolutely true. Get rid off AFSPA and see how public reaction in NE India turns to India's favour. Any hypocritical and fraudulent insurgent group will be swept away by this positive wave. If we want people in NE to feel like they belong to India, belong in India, why persist with a law that treats them like dirt?

Q. Is AFSPA not completely necessary to allow security forces to do their job. When situation deteriorates so much that army comes in Army cannot fail.And we have the human rights waddis who behave as a fifth column for terrorists. If situation is so good pull army out. In 1960 general Thimmaiah warned of the dangers of china occupying Tibet.He was ridiculed in 1962 we were humiliated in war. General Sundarji saved India's face in Sumdorung Chu by acting professionally against civilian orders.He wanted to attack Pakistan in brasstacks we did not now Pakistan has nuclear weapons and gets away with 26/11. Historically India has paid for not listening to the professionals. The same mistake must not be made now. These decisions should be taken by the army.Your take on this. Asked by: supratik

A. Hi Supratik. You've answered yourself! The points you raise have nothing to do with AFSPA! The 'parent' of AFSPA was already in place (and the Nagas were being brutalized)by the time China walloped India in 1962. Nehru's heartbreak or Gen. Thimmaiah's warning had nothing to do with AFSPA. For Nehru it was a denial of geopolitical truth which Gen. Thimmaih saw so clearly. Sumdorong Chu and Gen. Sundarji had nothing to do with AFSPA. Our wars and near-wars with Pakistan has nothing to do with AFSPA. 26/11 has nothing to do with AFSPA (is there AFSPA in Mumbai?). If the Indian army has to depend on AFSPA to protect India, then we are truly weaker than we are. In mind, body and soul. God help India and our vaunted democracy.

Q. AFPSA exists in Kashmir also? The army's claim on security concerns may be genuine? Asked by: sundar1950in

A. Hi Sundar, my views about a variation of AFSPA in Kashmir mirrors my views about AFSPA in NE India -- aired severally during the chat. My apologies for not elaborating, but the moderator tells me we're way over time. A thousand thanks to all of you for posting questions and joining in the chat. Jai Democracy!

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