The Centre is reportedly considering the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act from parts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. This step is long overdue. The law and order situation in both these states, once majorly impacted by insurgencies, no longer warrants the Act. For nearly a decade, both these states have successfully contained the many violent separatist movements that had devastated the region. The time has now come for the AFSPA to be lifted and for authority to be fully restored to the civil administration.
The AFSPA, derived from the colonial era Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance, 1942, was first introduced in 1958 to counter the Naga rebellion in Assam and parts of Manipur. Over the years, it has provided legal cover to military operations in “disturbed areas” in the entire Northeast, including Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. Security personnel operating under the AFSPA have powers that override the civil administration.
This was deemed essential to counter the numerous well-equipped militant groups which threatened the sovereignty of the Indian state and disturbed public order in the region. Over the years, a judicious use of military might and negotiating skills has enabled the Indian state to subdue them and, in many cases, convince their leaderships to join the political mainstream.
But the AFSPA has survived these insurgencies. At various moments, the constitutionality of the law as well as human rights violations by the armed forces operating under its cover have been questioned by the judiciary, state commissions and civil society. The courts and commissions have suggested procedural checks, but ducked disturbing questions about the extra-judicial powers the security establishment assumes under the Act and its consequences. The onus, hence, is now on the political establishment to reward peace in the region by repealing the law.
Two years ago, the Manik Sarkar government in Tripura repealed the Act after 18 years on the ground that militants are no longer active in the state. A similar situation prevails in Assam and Arunachal, where in the past decade or so, many militant groups, including the most influential of them, the ULFA, have negotiated peace with the state and joined the electoral process. Barring a handful of groups, like the Paresh Baruah faction of the ULFA, the threat from militancy is minimal in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Any further continuation of this law will only undermine the argument that the AFSPA is a contingency measure to counter insurgency, and not an essential feature — or scar — of the Indian state’s democratic imagination.