If there is one law that causes the maximum discomfort to people in India’s borderlands, it is the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA as it is more popularly known. Any discussion on Jammu & Kashmir or the northeastern states normally ends up as a debate on whether AFSPA is draconian or justified. The Act gives sweeping powers to the armed forces in these regions to quell insurgency.
What is AFSPA?
Passed in 1958 by Parliament, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act was initially imposed in the Northeastern region and Punjab to tackle insurgency in what are called disturbed areas. Most of these border Pakistan, China, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Where is AFSPA applicable?
AFSPA can be invoked anywhere the government certifies as a ‘disturbed’ area due to “differences or disputes between members of different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities”.
What are the powers under AFSPA?
The Act gives absolute powers, in other words legal immunity, to Army personnel to crack down on insurgents in conflict areas. These powers include shooting to kill those believed to be acting against the Indian state. They can search and detain anyone on the mere basis of suspicion. The law assures them that there won’t be any legal backlash for such actions. The law also allows the Army to launch targeted strikes in areas declared “disturbed” under the Act
How is AFSPA officially declared?
Section (3) of the Act empowers the governor of the state or union territory to issue a notification in The Gazette of India, following which the Centre can send armed forces to the state for civilian aid. The grey area, however, is whether the Union government sends the forces on its own or only after the Governor’s request.
A state government can also suggest if the Act needs to be in force, though it can be overturned by the Governor or the Centre.
- Jammu and Kashmir
- Manipur (except the Imphal municipal area)
- Arunachal Pradesh (Tirap, Changlang and Longding districts and a 20-km area bordering Assam)
- Meghalaya (a 20-km belt bordering Assam)
How Tripura bested AFSPA
AFSPA was initially imposed in Tripura in 1997 when militancy was at its extreme. That the State shares an 856-km border with Bangladesh did not help the situation much. The National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) wanted the State to secede from the Union. However, almost two decades later, with the situation remaining calm and less reports of terrorist incidents, the Act was finally lifted on May 28, 2015. It was in force for 18 years. The proof of decline in terrorism and separatism is usually attributed to the high voter turnout in the 2014 Assembly polls, which witnessed 84% of voting. Though earlier also there were efforts to repeal the Act, voter anger seemed have nudged the government to lift it.
Question of alienation
The armed forces believe the AFSPA helps it in counter-insurgency operations effectively, but the local populace in the ‘disturbed areas’ is usually alienated due to the incursive nature of the Act Manipur and AFSPA Deeming Manipur to be a ‘disturbed area’, the government imposed the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in the State in 1980.
Formed in 1949, the State has a long history of insurgency. The trouble that was rampant during the British rule intensified after Independence with at least 30 insurgent groups laying down different claims. Most of the rebel groups have their base in Myanmar.
Violence peaked during the 1990s with armed conflict among ethnic as well as infighting among the predominant Naga groups.
Where do the ultras get their funds?
They generate funds by imposing illegal taxes on National Highways in the State. Their other key fund source is drug trafficking.
What was the Malom Massacre?
Things came to a head on Nov. 2, 2000, when 10 civilians were killed by Assam Rifles personnel while waiting at a bus stop at Malom in the Imphal Valley. The security forces had opened fire indiscriminately after they heard an explosion which damaged one of the vehicles in their convoy. The deceased included a 62-year-old woman, a National Child Bravery Award winner and a a boy who was waiting to go to Imphal for his tuition. Later, 42 people were dragged out of their houses and severely beaten up by the personnel. The Army personnel had reportedly believed that they were being ambushed and thought the residents of Malom were protecting the insurgents.
That the security forces had the authority to shoot to kill on mere suspicion and conduct invasive searches, highlight the over-arching powers vested on them by the AFSPA.
Enter Irom Sharmila
Following the killings, activist Irom Chanu Sharmila, then 28, began a hunger strike demanding that the government repeal the draconian act. She was arrested and re-arrested several times over her 16-year-long hunger strike that she decided to finally end on August 9, 2016. However, even this superhuman effort by a woman of modest means who survived just on fluids given through the nasal passageway failed to make the government yield.
After she ended her hunger strike, Sharmila announced her intention to join politics and floated her own Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance party. She contested against what many believed to be a formidable opponent - erstwhile Manipur CM Okram Ibobi Singh.
Ironically, the ‘world’s longest hunger striker’s’ activism went in vain, as she got only about 90 votes in the recently-concluded Assembly election.