In a democracy, armed forces aren’t above the people

If it is only in the scale of the firepower that we will dominate the terrorists and not in the ethical or moral values, then there is no difference between them and us.

Published: 19th December 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th December 2021 10:43 AM   |  A+A-

AFSPA, army, armed forces, Indian Army, soldiers

What differentiates us from terrorists is the humanitarian values we follow.

Fourteen Indian civilians were ‘accidentally’ shot dead in Nagaland a few days ago by the security forces. On the evening of December 4, the Army’s 21 Para Special Forces had opened fire at a pick-up van carrying coal miners in Nagaland’s Mon district. Six miners were killed on the spot. A crowd of protesters set fire to the Army vehicles. And the Army opened fire again, killing seven more civilians. The violence spread, and locals attacked the camp of the Assam Rifles, and one more person died in the firing. A soldier also tragically lost his life in the unrest.

This has naturally led to protests in Nagaland. The Opposition has sensed an opportunity to put the government on the mat and demand the retraction of the dreaded Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). It smacks of the opportunism to demand the retraction of this absurd law now when the law came in force in 1958. The AFSPA gives the armed forces absolute power over civilians. The Act allows the Army to prohibit a gathering of five or more persons in an area. The Army can use force or even open fire after giving due warning if they feel a person is in contravention of the law. The Army can arrest a person without a warrant or conduct searches without a warrant. Army officers have legal immunity for their actions. There can be no prosecution, suit, or other legal proceedings against anyone acting under that law without the written permission of the Central Government. 

The Central Government or the Governor of the State or administrator of the Union Territory can declare the whole or part of the State or Union Territory as a disturbed area. The government’s judgment on why an area is found to be disturbed is subject to judicial review. Though the Act came into force in the context of unusual violence in the Northeastern States, it owes its origin to the colonial era Ordinance. The Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance of 1942 was used extensively by the British government to suppress the Quit India Movement. 

Ironically, the law used to brutally stop the Indian freedom fighters by a colonial government was reused by Independent India to act against its citizens. There can be no argument on the need to protect the nation’s integrity, but it should not be at the cost of losing one’s humanity. The Army and its personnel deserve every respect for their exemplary service. However, in a democracy, nothing, including the armed forces, is above the country’s people. The Army is for the people and not the other way round. If Army persons have committed the mistake of killing innocent civilians, they need to be held responsible for the error. If any law prevents that, that law has no place in modern society. The insurgents and terrorists have the advantage of not worrying about human and civil rights.

The answer to the mindless violence of terrorists can’t be in the same coin by the Army of a government elected by the people. Such draconian laws that give the absolute power of life and death over civilians with no fear of repercussions can only give birth to trigger-happy soldiers. The excuse that holding those responsible for firing at civilians would bring down the morale of the armed forces isn’t acceptable. What trust do the victims’ family members have in our nation’s institutions if we don’t value civilian life? The Army is an honourable institution. In all probability, it would conduct a fair enquiry and take appropriate action if any of its officers are found guilty of wanton misuse of power. But the issue isn’t about how honest the Army is, but the draconian nature of this law. 

It isn’t that the nature of this Act hasn’t disturbed the authorities before. On November 19, 2004, the Central government appointed a five-member committee headed by Justice BP Jeevan Reddy to review the Act’s provisions in the Northeastern states. The committee submitted its report a year later. It recommended the repulsion of AFSPA and urged to set up grievance cells in each district where the armed forces were deployed. The 5th report of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission on public order also had recommended the repeal of the Act. But none of these recommendations has been implemented. What differentiates us from terrorists is the humanitarian values we follow. If it is only in the scale of the firepower that we will dominate the terrorists and not in the ethical or moral values, then there is no difference between them and us. 

Anand Neelakantan

Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy

India Matters


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  • Sankaramani

    Army is above other citizens. We all enjoy in our comfortable homes
    1 year ago reply
  • Deena Dayalan

    The article sounds good only in theory. Nobody talks about the sacrifices the Armed Forces do everyday. Nobody talks about the families' grief of a young soldier or an officer who lost their lives in protecting the people of their country and what they go through to do it. Army is not immune to mistakes but, it is very rare. They also have investigative and punishment process which is not known to general public as it is not published (rightfully so). There is a lot more to say. In short, no one in the Army is trigger happy, as author claims, against their own people. Things happen when you want to maintain the order. The law doesn't come into picture, generally speaking.
    1 year ago reply
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