By Sushil Kutty
The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958’s killing spree continues, begging the question for the nth time whether it isn’t long overdue for its removal lock, stock and barrel? Thirteen Naga civilians cannot reply to that question. They were in coffins wrapped in colourful linen, killed in a “botched” army operation in a Nagaland district bordering Myanmar on December 4, 2021.
AFSPA has been in force in the northeastern states and Jammu & Kashmir for decades. It gives armed forces exclusive powers to shoot and kill, arrest and dismantle, without much ado. There have been insistent demands for dismantling AFSPA but to no avail. Civil society and human rights advocates have been at the forefront.
Saturday December 4, 2021, witnessed one more example of why AFSPA should go. The army has expressed “deep regret”, but that hasn’t made any difference. The silenced voices of the 13 civilian dead spoke volumes, but, as happens every time, what follows are voices in the wilderness. The Government of India has given AFSPA immunity
To add to Nagaland’s AFSPA woes, the entire state was declared a “disturbed area” in December 2020. This gave AFSPA further legitimacy, and the army reason to continue operations, detain/arrest any Naga. AFSPA and due diligence are complete strangers.
In fact, the Centre could slap “disturbed area” on Nagaland because of powers granted under AFSPA. Nagaland was declared an area in a “disturbed and dangerous condition”, ergo fit to use the armed forces in tandem with civil power.
The Union Home Ministry justified with the statement that “killings, loot and extortion” were going on in various tracts of Nagaland. Home Minister Amit Shah has been facing flak ever since. Today, after the latest civilian killings, Shah is in the eye of the Naga storm.
Christian-dominated Nagaland is seething at the sight of the coffins of the civilian dead, the crucifix on the coffins telltale that Hindutva doesn’t count for zilch in this state where insurgency refuses to give up, as also the counterinsurgency symbolized by AFSPA.
Demands from J&K and northeast organisations to give AFSPA an early burial were never brooked. If anything, such calls only strengthened the resolve of the Centre— irrespective of which party/front is in power—to continue with AFSPA and its “sweeping powers.” A framework agreement was signed on August 3, 2015 with Naga insurgent group NSCN-IM after over 80 rounds of negotiations spanning 18 years, but there was no dent on AFSPA.
Today, with the electioneering picking up in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh and four other states, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi attacked the Modi Government. Gandhi sought a “real reply” from the Centre, asking what the home ministry was doing when “neither civilians nor security personnel are safe in our own land.”
Police in Nagaland are investigating and the army— which tendered “deep regret”—ordered a court of inquiry into the killings of the civilians. The army said the operation was carried out based on credible intelligence and that the “incident” is being probed “at the highest level.”
The fact remains the Centre cannot afford to take action against the army for the “botched” operation. The Centre cannot risk “demoralization” of the soldiers, especially when Naga insurgency refuses to end on an accommodating note. The killings have put a question mark on “peace talks.”
The question is, why is the Modi Government shying away from surgical strikes into Myanmar? The Yung Aung faction of the banned National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) operates from within Myanmar. Home Minister Amit Shah was to make a statement in Parliament on December 6.
The paramilitary Assam Rifles, which was involved in the botch-up, operates under the control of Amit Shah’s Union Home ministry. “Whether Shah pronounced a verdict on AFSPA or would he dare do an Article 370 on AFSPA?” was difficult to say. Despite the “peaceful election in Tripura”, Amit Shah is up to his neck in northeast troubles.
The Modi Government will not intervene in AFSPA. The “special powers” of AFSPA do not give “total immunity” to the armed forces, but human rights have been rendered null and void by these very “special powers.” AFSPA gives armed forces the power to use force/open fire on lawbreakers on “reasonable suspicion.”
AFSPA is a special law for “disturbed areas.” It is in force in Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, 3 districts of Arunachal Pradesh and in Jammu and Kashmir. It does not give the army the license to kill, but “take any action” is taken for license to kill. The judiciary has intervened several times and said that immunity is not absolute.
Calls to repeal AFSPA have been regular and insistent. AIMIM leader Assaduddin Owaisi repeated the call on December 6, 2021. Earlier, Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio demanded the removal of AFSPA. Later, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, seconded. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool is unapologetic in its opposition. But it is unlikely that AFSPA will be kicked out anytime soon. (IPA Service)