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AFSPA: Over to the states?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 23-08-2017 Sudeep Chakravarti

I came by a curious article in The Hindu a few days earlier, which quoted an unnamed home ministry official as saying that the ministry had “decided to rescind the power to invoke” the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 or AFSPA, in Manipur and Assam.

That’s lovely, but the validating bureaucratese—such phrasing is the lifeblood of government—requires interpretation.

Don’t get me wrong. Revocation of such powers would be great, but it should not be misconstrued as the revocation or repeal of AFSPA itself, the long-time demand of human rights organizations and activists, and several government committees, most notably the Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy Committee in 2005, and in 2007 by the Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) headed by Veerappa Moily.

Little has moved to temper the law that permits the armed forces impunity and immunity and massive extrajudicial reach. It is now quite clear that any central government—led either by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Congress, or any other party—will be reluctant to repeal AFSPA. The piece of legislation is simply too attractive a device of command and control. (It is currently applied in all of Manipur except the municipal limits of the capital Imphal, to the entirety of Nagaland, parts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, and a sliver of Meghalaya along its border with Assam. An AFSPA cousin, if you will, is applied to Jammu and Kashmir.)

The mention of Manipur and Assam is interesting as the BJP is in the government in both the states, and for all practical purpose a straight line of security diktat extends from New Delhi to Imphal and Dispur, Assam’s administrative capital.

Moreover, for the central government to devolve the power completely to states, the Act may need to be amended.

To apply AFSPA, a particular area has to first be declared “disturbed”.

Section 3 of the Act defines the “powers” to declare it so, if the area “is in such a disturbed or dangerous condition that the use of armed forces in aid of the civil power is necessary, the governor of that state or the administrator of that Union territory or the Central government, as the case may be, may by notification in the Official Gazette, declare the whole or such part of such state or Union territory to be a disturbed area”.

To technically “rescind” its power, the words “Central government” mentioned twice in that particular section, will have to go. Will it?

And, even if it does, will state governments really be free to extend, limit or jettison AFSPA as they wish?

As far as Manipur goes, BJP chief minister Nongthombam Biren Singh chaired a cabinet meeting in late May, a little over two months after taking office, and extended the state’s “disturbed area” status quo by another six months—the time limit for periodic review. As AFSPA is already in force, it becomes a procedural matter of a bureaucrat issuing an order of extension.

But the decision is, in reality, taken by the chief minister in consultation with his cabinet colleagues and administrative, police and intelligence officials; and not infrequently in consultations with the commanding general or senior officer of the local armed forces garrison.

It is no different for Singh’s colleague in Assam, chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal.

Such consultation is precisely how Tripura jettisoned AFSPA. On 27 May 2015, the state cabinet led by Communist Party of India (Marxist) chief minister Manik Sarkar decided to remove the Act from the state, after consultations with central government agencies—significantly, a central government run by political opponent BJP—and the armed forces.

Tripura’s decision to remove AFSPA was practical and integrationist. The state’s rebellions, like most rebellions in north-east India, were and are a direct consequence of political and administrative apathy—which fuels wars for identity, dignity and development.

Brutal policing, deft politics, and some development reduced insurgency in Tripura to a trickle. Over the years, the state has also seen itself as a regional geo-economic player. AFSPA, a brutal, alienating law, detracted from such a future.

It would detract from the future of Manipur and Assam too, because by themselves, more than as pieces in India’s Look-East or Act-East jigsaws, the people of these states wish to ditch the economy of conflict and embrace the economy of peace.

More than Assam, I would watch which way the AFSPA winds blow in Manipur.

It remains the state with the greatest number of rebel groups, mostly resident in Myanmar, and with a flourishing narcotics food chain linking security personnel, politicians, administrators and rebels that thrives on violence and cynical practice.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.

Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com.

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