Indian Army soldiers with the 99th Mountain Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Gurkha Rifles
In a controversial policy move this week, the Indian Home Ministry extended the notorious Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) to 12 districts of the far-flung Northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, giving the military untrammelled power in the region. Regional political and civil society leaders have roundly criticized the move, with the opposition party Chief Minister, Nabam Tuki, complaining to the Home Ministry that the state government had not been consulted on the decision. If his claims are valid, the unilateral nature of the decision undermines the model of co-operative federalism that the Narendra Modi led government has promised to institute. Further, AFSPA is a highly contentious piece of legislation and the decision to impose it in Arunachal Pradesh reflects a worryingly heavy-handed and illiberal approach to quelling social unrest.
A legal relic of the colonial era, AFSPA provides sweeping powers to the armed forces, allowing them to arrest suspected militants and enter and search any premises without a warrant, using “such force as may be necessary.” In addition, the armed forces are provided with indemnity from prosecution for any actions that use the powers conferred by the Act. Thus, the imposition of AFSPA results in a situation where there is a glaring lack of checks and balances on the power of the armed forces. In the Northeast of the country, this has led to extrajudicial killings, civilian disappearances, and the creation of a veritable police state.
AFSPA first came into effect in the Northeast in 1958, when an insurgency began in the state of Nagaland, which borders Arunachal Pradesh. Since then, New Delhi has repeatedly imposed AFSPA during times of disturbance, when secessionist and militant movements have rocked various states in the Indian Union. AFSPA has remained prevalent in the strife-torn Northeast of the country almost since the inception of democratic India; it was also imposed in Punjab during the Sikh secessionist movement that began in 1983 and has been enforced on the troubled state of Jammu & Kashmir since 1990 as well. This regular utilization of a draconian law that places the army beyond civilian oversight impedes India’s progress towards a robust liberal democracy. In the interests of law and order, New Delhi has been happy to forgo the inalienable natural rights of Indian citizens to life, liberty and property.
The Northeast has borne a disproportionate brunt of the brutality enjoined under the Armed Forces Special Provision Act. This is primarily because AFSPA has been continually implemented in at least one of the seven states of the Northeast since 1958, due to the myriad insurgent groups operating within the region. The Malom Massacre of 2000 in Manipur state is a prime example of the atrocities suffered by civilians living under AFSPA. The incident involved the shooting of ten civilians at a bus stop, allegedly by the Assam Rifles, one of the state’s paramilitary forces present in the region. The brutal nature of the shooting inspired Irom Sharmila, a local civil rights activist, to undertake a hunger strike in the hope of pressuring the government to repeal AFSPA in Manipur state. Staggeringly, Irom’s hunger strike is still ongoing and she has spent the last 15 years ensconced in a hospital ward, force-fed by the state to keep her alive.
In addition, the Assam Rifles have also been implicated in the rape and murder of Manorama Devi, a suspected member of the People’s Liberation Army, an insurgent group working to free the state of Manipur from the yoke of New Delhi. In 2004, Manorama was captured from her home and raped and killed while in state custody. The outrage surrounding this killing led to Manmohan Singh, then Prime Minister of India, agreeing to a review of AFSPA. The Jeevan Reddy Committee was established to review the Act and its report in 2005 recommended that AFSPA should be repealed, while a strong army presence should still be maintained to foster law and order in the Northeast.
However, the recommendations of the committee are yet to be implemented. In fact, New Delhi has made its intentions clear by expanding the ambit of AFSPA to Arunachal Pradesh, a state that ironically has no homegrown secessionist movement. The decision to extend AFSPA is rooted in fears that militants operating in neighboring Assam are using Arunachal Pradesh’s territory as a base from which to launch their activities. Thus, New Delhi clearly sees AFSPA as an invaluable aid that will help security forces subdue the various insurgencies that threaten the integrity of the Indian Union.
Yet, the high-handedness and human rights violations caused by unchecked military power has alienated the population of the Northeast and built resentment towards New Delhi. Further, the utility of AFSPA also appears to be negligible from a security standpoint. When the Act was first instituted in the state of Nagaland in 1958, there was one insurgent group in the region. Today, there are more than twenty such groups in Manipur, fifteen in Assam, five in Meghalaya and more in the other states that constitute the Seven Sisters. This is despite introducing AFSPA in each of these states at various times over the last 50 years in order to help the army maintain national security. The rapid proliferation of terrorist organizations suggests that even the sweeping powers granted by the Act have not been sufficient to ease the situation. Thus, a strategy that relies upon brute force is not going to help New Delhi secure peace and security in the Northeast.
With India looking to emerge as a global player and exert moral authority on the world stage, New Delhi needs to switch strategies and talk the language of economic development to co-opt disenfranchised and restive populations throughout India. Extending AFSPA merely fuels state-sanctioned oppression of local populations, ultimately only serving to distance them from the Indian nation-building project.
Rutvij Merchant is a senior at Northwestern University, studying Political Science and Economics.
Image Attribution: “Yudh Abhyas 2013, 2nd Batallion, 5th Gurkha Rifles” by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod, licensed under Public Domain