AFSPA: who actually wants it?


By Patricia Mukhim

The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958) is closely linked to Irom Sharmila's fast. There are fears that the issue would get deflected now that Sharmila has decided to call off her fast and launch herself into electoral politics. The jump from social to political activism is not such a distinctive one considering that nearly all politicians in the North East have been youth or students leaders or have led pressure groups of all hues. The hope we nurture is that AFSPA becomes an issue that the Manipur Assembly decides to revoke. Lets us be clear here that the state governments have a key role to play here. Once they decide that law and order or counter-insurgency is a task they can take on without the help of the armed forces (meaning the Indian army), the Central Government would have no hesitation in pulling out those forces.  However, the state governments must also remove the Disturbed Areas tag from their states so as to facilitate the revocation of AFSPA.

While we can continue to tear ourselves apart and get all blue in the face about AFSPA being a colonial act and one of the most pernicious laws applied in a democratic state. And while we can cite hundreds of reasons why this law is antagonistic to our democratic ideals and principles, the Raksha Mantralaya of this country will continue to take a stand that it cannot send its forces into "Disturbed Areas" with their hands tied.  It is important at this time to change tack and to hold our state governments responsible too.

The news that several civil society groups from Nagaland, including the Hoho and Naga Mothers' Association, Naga Students; Federation etc had recently  met the Union Home Minister to impress upon him the need to revoke AFSPA, is interesting. My question to these groups would be whether they first tried to engage with the Nagaland Government on this issue. Nagaland must be the state with the highest number of police personnel per citizen. A populace of 19 lakh has 28,000 police personnel. Quite a good number of those police personnel including those recruited under the Indian Reserved Police Battalion (IRBN).  A good number of police personnel from the IRBN are posted to contain Maoist activities in Chattisgarh and Jharkhand and they do quite well there.

A pragmatic view of the situation in Nagaland would inform us that the number of killings (fratricidal or otherwise) have come down drastically. Naga national workers (insurgents to the rest of the world) barring the NSCN (K) have joined the peace process. At least explicit violence as in killings, gun shots and dead bodies etc has gone down but the implicit violence such as extortions (ostensibly called taxes) still carry on but stopping that is hardly the task of the armed forces. It's a societal call that needs to be taken and one that the ACAUT is taking head on and good for them!

The point here, therefore is that the state government owes an explanation to the people of Nagaland. They cannot absolve themselves of responsibility by stating that the since NSCN(IM) and other groups are in talks with the Government of India and therefore the state government  has no role in anything concerning the revocation of AFSPA. That is too easy an alibi. The people of Nagaland should now actively engage with the state government in a dialogue based on good reason and not rhetoric.

As far as Manipur is concerned, the Kuki and other groups are on suspension of operations (SOO) mode and the Naga occupied hills are also relatively peaceful. It is the Imphal valley and its surrounding districts that experience violence every now and again. Besides, none of the Meitei outfits have signed any kind of truce with the Centre. Also the border between Myanmar and Manipur is porous and allows free movement of militant groups in and out of the Indian territory. Hence within a 20 km distance of the border there is need for the armed forces to police the borders.

The Assam Rifles loosely called a para-military force but manned largely by men drawn from the Indian army is securing the eastern porous borders. AFSPA there would have a different connotation since violence has not come down and the state is in a permanent boil. But even there if the chief minister decides to take a call and revoke the Disturbed Areas Act showing reasons why it has to go then I don't believe that the central government would have any quarrel with the demand.

India is a federal republic. States have their own functions and responsibilities and maintaining order is one of them. Ironically, most states of the north east have outsourced this important task to the Centre so they can get away with saying they have no role in maintaining peace. Besides they don't have to pay the central forces. Tomorrow if the states decide that they want the army out and can deal with the situation using only the CRPF, I am sure that the GoI would be only too glad to comply.

Let us therefore not take all our problems to the Centre and absolve the state governments of their primary responsibilities. In doing so we are, ourselves weakening the federal structure of the country which is implied in the Constitution.