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28 January, 2014

Beyond issue of security

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

As India stepped into its 65th year as a sovereign, democratic republic on Sunday, with the traditional display of military hardware, some relics of the colonial era were still haunting it. Among them is a notorious law which shields men in uniform guilty of atrocities against civilians.

The law was introduced by the British during World War II to crush the Quit India movement of 1942, the last major campaign of the freedom struggle. It permitted security personnel to conduct raids and make arrests without warrant and granted them immunity from prosecution for acts committed in the course of operations.

Free India’s government re-enacted the law as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in 1948 to protect security personnel dealing with post-partition riots, and extended it annually till 1957.

A year later the law was revived to deal with tribal insurgency in Assam and Manipur. It is applicable only in an area declared as “disturbed”. Initially the power to declare an area as “disturbed” vested in the state government but later the central government was also empowered to do so.

AFSPA has now been in force in the northeastern states continuously for more than a half-century and in Jammu and Kashmir for close to a quarter-century. Punjab, where it was introduced in 1983 in the wake of the Khalistan movement, was freed from its grip in 1997.

The people of Manipur demanded withdrawal of AFSPA in 2000 after personnel of the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force which traces its origin to 1835, fired on an unarmed crowd at Malom, near Imphal, killing 10 persons, including a 62-year-old woman and an 18-year-old National Bravery Award winner.

The Centre’s tough stance forced the state government to abandon its plan to withdraw AFSPA. Irom Sharmila, a young poet, began an indefinite fast demanding its withdrawal. More than 13 years later, the fast is still on. She is kept alive through forced nasal feeding in custody.

After five young men were killed in an alleged encounter at Pathribal, near Anantag, in 2000 the Jammu and Kashmir government asked the Centre to withdraw AFSPA or at least curtail its operation.

The Army claimed those killed were mercenaries responsible for a massacre. However, the Central Bureau of Investigation, which probed the incident, concluded it was a case of cold-blooded murder. It charge-sheeted five officers, including a brigadier, a lieutenant colonel and two majors, in a criminal court.

In 2004, the Centre, taking note of the Manipur agitation, appointed a five-member commission, headed by former Supreme Court judge BP Jeevan Reddy, to review the working of AFSPA. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said later the law would be amended to make it “humane” in keeping with the commission’s recommendations. However, there was no action.

The Executive’s helplessness in the face of the Army’s obdurate stand was revealed when Finance Minister P Chidambaram, who was earlier in charge of the Home Ministry, said, “If the Army takes a very strong stand against any dilution or any amendment to AFSPA, it is difficult for a civil government to move forward.”

The Judiciary stepped aside when the Pathribal encounter issue was raised before it. The Supreme Court asked the Army to decide whether the indicted officers should be tried by an army court or the regular criminal court. The Army, which opted for the court martial route, closed the case last week saying the recorded evidence did not establish any case against the officers.

The Army’s self-serving finding, arrived at in closed-door proceedings, has raised doubts about the ability of the system to deal with offenders in uniform.

Chief of Army Staff Gen Bikram Singh recently acknowledged that terrorist infiltration into Kashmir dropped from 1,852 in 2001 to 90 in 2013. However, he said, AFSPA cannot be withdrawn as it is a strategic imperative.

The AFSPA issue is not one of national security alone. It also has a bearing on rule of law. Both in Kashmir and in the Northeast, security personnel have attracted charges of rape. The Justice JS Verma Commission, which looked into the issue of women’s safety a year ago, suggested that armed forces personnel accused of sexual offences should not be given AFSPA protection. The Centre ignored the suggestion.

The National Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court appointed Justice Santosh Hegde commission, which separately studied many alleged encounter deaths in Manipur, reported that all the cases they examined were fake encounters. Such widespread abuse of power will only make resolution of political problems difficult. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 28, 2014.

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