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31 October, 2011

Civilian supremacy at stake

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

A proposal to withdraw the Armed Forces Special Powers Act from some areas of Jammu and Kashmir, mooted by chief minister Omar Abdullah, was last week as the military brass opposed it and the civilian leadership stood deeply divided. The chief minister’s suggestion was eminently reasonable. But he made the mistake of airing it publicly without prior consultations with the Congress party, the National Conference’s junior partner in the government.

State Congress president Saifuddin Soz opposed the suggestion. He may have seen Omar Abdullah’s statement as part of an attempt to shore up the National Conference’s sagging image by appealing to Kashmiri sentiments. He probably had another reason also to shoot down the proposal. The Central government is unable to formulate a clear position on the issue.

It is for the Central government to take a view in the matter after considering the situation on the ground. There are reports that the Home Ministry is in favour of partial withdrawal of AFSPA but is not able to go ahead because of the Defence Ministry’s opposition.

AFSPA is a colonial-era law re-enacted in 1958 to deal with insurgency in the predominantly tribal states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, all in the northeast. It confers special powers on armed forces deployed in designated “disturbed areas”. To begin with, the power to declare an area as “disturbed” vested exclusively in the state government. In 1972, this power was vested in the Centre as well.

The law gives the military wide powers of arrest and the right to shoot to kill and occupy or destroy property in the course of counterinsurgency operations. Although Kashmir has witnessed internal and external challenges from the dawn of Independence, AFSPA was extended to the state only in 1990 when foreign-backed terrorist groups wrought havoc.

National and international human rights organisations hold that the immunity the law grants to the security forces has led to human rights abuses such as torture, extra-judicial executions and unexplained disappearances. They believe widespread abuse of powers has helped the insurgents by aggravating the sense of alienation of the people.

The Indian Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, which has studied the working of AFSPA, has stated that there have been many instances of violence by security forces against civilians in Manipur. In one of the diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks, the US Consul General in Kolkata remarks that Manipur appears more like a colony than an Indian state. He also says the governor admitted to him that there have been human rights violations under cover of AFSPA.

On Nov.2, 2000, Irom Sharmila, a young Manipuri woman, began an indefinite fast demanding withdrawal of AFSPA. Eleven years later, she is still on fast in a hospital where she is kept alive through forced nasal feeding in police custody.

A campaign mounted by local civil society groups after the death of a woman in custody in 2004 forced the Centre to appoint a committee headed by BP Jeevan Reddy, a former Supreme Court judge, to review AFSPA and examine the possibility of amending it.

The committee, in its report submitted in 2005, recommended that AFSPA be scrapped as it had become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness. The government ignored the recommendation. Later, under pressure from domestic and foreign human rights groups, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised to amend AFSPA to eliminate its draconian provisions. The promise remains unfulfilled.

The government’s inaction stems from successive defence ministers’ unqualified support for the army’s stand that it cannot operate except under conditions of impunity. Their position puts at jeopardy the principle of civilian supremacy which underlines the provision in India’s Constitution that vests the powers of the commander-in-chief of the defence forces in the elected president.

While the Bharatiya Janata Party, in keeping with its jingoistic line, supports continuance of AFSPA, the Left parties want it to be repealed. Civil society groups are now striving to broadbase the anti-AFSPA campaign, which has been confined to the affected areas so far. In March 2010 a group of activists from Kerala took out a march from Cherthala, home town of Defence Minister AK Antony, to Manipur to express solidarity with Irom Sharmila. Last week a people’s caravan that set out from Kashmir reached Manipur after covering 4,500 kilometres.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 31, 2011.

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