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15 June, 2008

50 years of Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Northeast

by Tom Mangattuthazhe

Fifty years ago, on 22nd May 1958, in the face of rising political dissent in the Northeast, India decided to add to its laws -the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Though enacted only for a year, it has continued since.

Provisions of AFSPA:

Section 1: This section states the name of the Act and the areas to which it extends (Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram).

Section 2: This section sets out the definition of the Act, but leaves much un-defined. Under part (a) in the 1972 version, the armed forces were defined as "the military and Air Force of the Union so operating". In the 1958 version of the Act the definition was of the "military forces and the air forces operating as land forces". In the Lok Sabha Debates which led to the passing of the original Act, Mr Naushir Bharucha commented, "that probably means that the Government very mercifully has not permitted the air forces to shoot or strafe the area ... or to bomb." The Minister of Home Affairs did not confirm this interpretation, but certainly "acting as land forces" should rule out the power to resort to aerial bombardment. Nevertheless, in 1966, the Air Force in Mizoram did resort to aerial bombardment.

Section 2(b) defines a "disturbed area" as any area declared as such under Clause 3 (see discussion below). Section 2(c) states that all other words not defined in the AFSPA have the meanings assigned to them in the Army Act of 1950.

Section 3: This section defines "disturbed area" by stating how an area can be declared disturbed. It grants the power to declare an area disturbed to the Central Government and the Governor of the State, but does not describe the circumstances under which the authority would be justified in making such a declaration. Rather, the AFSPA only requires that such authority be "of the opinion that whole or parts of the area are in a dangerous or disturbed condition such that the use of the Armed Forces in aid of civil powers is necessary." The vagueness of this definition was challenged in Indrajit Barua v. State of Assam case. The court decided that the lack of precision to the definition of a disturbed area was not an issue because the government and people of India understand its meaning. However, since the declaration depends on the satisfaction of the Government official, the declaration that an area is disturbed is not subject to judicial review. So in practice, it is only the government's understanding which classifies an area as disturbed. There is no mechanism for the people to challenge this opinion. Strangely, there are acts which define the term more concretely. In the Disturbed Areas (Special Courts) Act, 1976, an area may be declared disturbed when "a State Government is satisfied that (i) there was, or (ii) there is, in any area within a State extensive disturbance of the public peace and tranquility, by reason of differences or disputes between members of different religions, racial, language, or regional groups or castes or communities, it may ... declare such area to be a disturbed area." The lack of precision in the definition of a disturbed area under the AFSPA demonstrates that the government is not interested in putting safeguards on its application of the AFSPA.

The 1972 amendments to the AFSPA extended the power to declare an area disturbed to the Central Government. In the 1958 version of the AFSPA only the state governments had this power. In the 1972 Lok Sabha debates it was argued that extending this power to the Central Government would take away the State's authority. In the 1958 debates the authority and power of the states in applying the AFSPA was a key issue. The Home Minister had argued that the AFSPA broadened states' power because they could call in the military whenever they chose. The 1972 amendment shows that the Central Government is no longer concerned with the state's power. Rather, the Central Government now has the ability to overrule the opinion of a state governor and declare an area disturbed. This happened in Tripura, when the Central Government declared Tripura a disturbed area, over the opposition of the State Government.
In the 1972 Lok Sabha debates, Mr S D Somasundaram pointed out that there was no need to extend this power to the Central Government, since the President had "the power to intervene in a disturbed State at any time" under the Constitution. This point went unheeded and the Central Government retains the power to apply the AFSPA to the areas it wishes in the Northeast.

Section 4: This section sets out the powers granted to the military stationed in a disturbed area. These powers are granted to the commissioned officer, warrant officer, or non-commissioned officer, only a jawan (private) does not have these powers. The Section allows the armed forces personnel to use force for a variety of reasons.

The army can shoot to kill, under the powers of section 4(a), for the commission or suspicion of the commission of the following offenses: acting in contravention of any law or order for the time being in force in the disturbed area prohibiting the assembly of five or more persons, carrying weapons, or carrying anything which is capable of being used as a fire-arm or ammunition. To justify the invocation of this provision, the officer need only be "of the opinion that it is necessary to do so for the maintenance of public order" and only give "such due warning as he may consider necessary".

The army can destroy property under section 4(b) if it is an arms dump, a fortified position or shelter from where armed attacks are made or are suspected of being made, if the structure is used as a training camp, or as a hide-out by armed gangs or absconders.

The army can arrest anyone without a warrant under section 4(c) who has committed, is suspected of having committed or of being about to commit, a cognisable offense and use any amount of force "necessary to effect the arrest".
Under section 4(d), the army can enter and search without a warrant to make an arrest or to recover any property, arms, ammunition or explosives which are believed to be unlawfully kept on the premises. This section also allows the use of force necessary for the search.

Section 5: This section states that after the military has arrested someone under the AFSPA, they must hand that person over to the nearest police station with the "least possible delay". There is no definition in the act of what constitutes the least possible delay. Some case-law has established that 4 to 5 days is too long. But since this provision has been interpreted as depending on the specifics circumstances of each case, there is no precise amount of time after which the section is violated. The holding of the arrested person, without review by a magistrate, constitutes arbitrary detention.

Section 6: This section establishes that no legal proceeding can be brought against any member of the armed forces acting under the AFSPA, without the permission of the Central Government. This section leaves the victims of the armed forces abuses without a remedy.

This legislation has been used as an instrument to deal with the people of the North-east militarily and not politically. While the people of Punjab had a brief taste of the Act in the 1980s, the people of Kashmir continue to be subjected to the same Act since 1990.

AFSPA violates Indian law

Violation of Article 21 - Right to life
Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the right to life to all people. Under section 4(a) of the AFSPA, which grants armed forces personnel the power to shoot to kill, the constitutional right to life is violated. This law is not fair, just or reasonable because it allows the armed forces to use an excessive amount of force.
Protection against arrest and detention - Article 22Article 22 of the Indian Constitution states that "(1) No person who is arrested shall be detained in custody without being informed, as soon as may be, of the grounds for such arrest nor shall he be denied the right to consult, and to be defended by, a legal practitioner of his choice.

Violation of Indian Criminal Procedure Code ("CrPC")
The CrPC establishes the procedure police officers are to follow for arrests, searches and seizures, a procedure which the army and other para- military are not trained to follow.

Military's Immunity / Lack of Remedies
The members of the Armed Forces in the whole of the Indian territory are protected from arrest for anything done within the line of official duty by Section 45 of the CrPC. Section 6 of the AFSPA provides them with absolute immunity for all atrocities committed under the AFSPA. A person wishing to file suit against a member of the armed forces for abuses under the AFSPA must first seek the permission of the Central Government.

AFSPA violates international law
Under relevant international human rights and humanitarian law standards there is no justification for such an act as the AFSPA. The AFSPA, by its form and in its application, violates
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the "UDHR"),
the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (the "ICCPR"),
the Convention Against Torture, the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials,
the UN Body of Principles for Protection of All Persons Under any form of Detention, and
the UN Principles on Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra- legal and summary executions.

The UDHR articles which the AFSPA violates are the following:
1 - Free and Equal Dignity and rights,
2 - Non- discrimination,
3 - Life, liberty, security of person,
5 - no torture,
7 - equality before the law,
8 - effective remedy, 9 - no arbitrary arrest,
17 - property.

AFSPA violates international customary law
The UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, the UN Body of Principles for Protection of All Persons Under any form of Detention, and the UN Principles on Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal and summary executions all form part of international customary law because they were passed by UN General Assembly resolutions. They lend further strength to the conclusion that the AFSPA violates basic human rights standards.

AFSPA violates international humanitarian law
The four Geneva Conventions of 1949 along with the two optional protocols, constitute the body of international humanitarian law. These provisions are suited to human rights protection in times of armed conflict. Under these conventions the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is given access to all international conflicts. In non-international armed conflicts, the ICRC can only offer its services.

The way forward
The only way to guarantee that the human rights abuses perpetrated by the state and non state actors in the North East is to repeal the AFSPA.

If the Indian Government truly believes that the only way to handle the governance of the Northeastern States is through force, then it must allow the UN bodies to intervene. This can only have a calming influence. Acceptance of UN services would demonstrate that the fighting parties want to bring an end to the violence. The UN involvement could help protect the residents of the North East who are currently trapped in the middle between state and non state actors.

The author, Tom Mangattuthazhe, is Secretary of Diphu Citizens Peace Forum, Secretary of United Christian Forum, Rector of Mission Home, Manja, and Principal of Little Flower School, Manja.
His address:
Diphu - 782460
Ph.03671- 275003

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