Tripura has turned a crucial corner. Eighteen years after it was imposed in the state, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, will be withdrawn from the 26 police station areas where it was in force. Announcing the decision, Chief Minister Manik Sarkar said the law was no longer required since the insurgency in Tripura had waned. Indeed, Tripura’s effort to contain militancy has been one of the finer moments of counter-insurgency in this country. The state adopted a multi-dimensional approach, factoring in the need to fight the psychological hold of the militancy, provide jobs and basic services for people in affected areas and opportunities for surrendered militants to return to the mainstream. Most importantly, counter-insurgency was driven by a trained and reorganised state police rather than the army. As the police fanned into remote areas, establishing state presence, it was watched closely by government. As a result, there have reportedly been fewer complaints of human rights violation. Other states struggling with insurgency have good reason to go the Tripura way.
A counter-insurgency led by the police means the lines of accountability will not disappear into the opaque folds of the armed forces. Civilian oversight could act as a check on excesses by security forces. Afspa, on the other hand, gives army personnel powers to open fire if deemed necessary for “the maintenance of public order”, to conduct searches and make arrests without a warrant, and to do so with a degree of legal protection. The licence and immunity granted by Afspa have been held responsible for thousands of alleged extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances and other human rights abuses. The Santosh Hegde commission, set up by the Supreme Court in 2013 to look into six cases of alleged extra-judicial killing in Manipur, found the use of disproportionate force in encounters that were “not genuine”. It also observed that while Afspa gave the armed forces “sweeping powers”, it did not grant “protection to the citizens against its possible misuse”.
A draconian law enforced in exceptional circumstances does not, in many cases, speak to changing ground realities. Across states, insurgencies seem to be winding down, registering lower levels of violence and fewer fatalities in recent years. In J&K, reports indicate the toll has come down from 4,507 in 2001 to 42 till May 2015. Militancies across the Northeast claimed 717 lives in 2005, a number which has reduced to 122 in 2015. Areas once notified as “disturbed” have seen relative calm for years now. Meanwhile, civil society disquiet over Afspa has only grown. Unless the government scales down military presence, it risks alienating the large number of people who must live daily with Afspa.