Why does Manipur continue to be on fire? Civil and human rights activists, social scientists and even the media would have you believe that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) is primarily responsible for this. Is that so? Why is this act necessary? What does it imply?
In early 1990, I was commanding a division that had troops deployed for counter-insurgency operations in Manipur, Nagaland and a part of Arunachal Pradesh. During the run-up to the Manipur assembly elections, a politician made removal of the AFSPA a major electoral issue. When he won the elections and became chief minister, I went to call on him. After congratulating him, I asked him what he planned to do about the AFSPA. He said that in view of the popular demand he would write to the home ministry and have it removed. I told him that it was okay by me. I would pull out our troops from the 60-odd posts in Manipur, concentrate them outside the state, and train them for their primary responsibility of fighting a conventional war.
“But you cannot do that! What will happen to the law and order situation?” he said. I appreciated his concern but told him politely but firmly that I couldn’t help him maintain that without proper legal cover. I said: “I can’t have my subordinates hold me responsible for giving them an unlawful command.” Then I added: “Sir, the best way out is to create conditions in the state wherein the AFSPA is not necessary. If you and the Centre do not consider and declare Manipur a ‘disturbed area’, it cannot be applied. Please do not blame it for Manipur’s problems. The fact is, we have not been able to create conditions so that this act need not be applied. The armed forces or Assam Rifles cannot create those conditions. These are primarily of a socio-political and socio-economic nature, under your charge now.”
It is a pity that after 57 years of independence and over 24 years of the application of the AFSPA in Manipur, we have not been able to create suitable conditions for its withdrawal. The administration and its civil and armed police cannot control the law and order situation in the state, even in its capital, and depend upon the armed forces and Assam Rifles to do so. There is little integration of the state with the rest of India.
The AFSPA, enacted by Parliament in 1958, gives legal authority for troops to operate in insurgency and terrorism affected areas of the Northeast. Let me briefly state its contents. Para 3 of the act defines power to declare areas to be disturbed areas. It states that for using armed forces in aid of civil power, the governor of that state/Union territory or the Central government must, by official gazette notification, declare the whole or affected part of the state/Union territory to be a “disturbed area”.
Para 4 states that “a commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank in the armed forces in a disturbed area” may: Fire upon/use force, even causing death, against any person contravening law and order or carrying weapons, ammunition or explosives, if in his opinion it is necessary for maintenance of law and order and after giving due warning. (The “opinion” usually has to be justified subsequently.) Destroy an armed dump or fortified position or shelter from which armed attacks can be made or can be used for training by hostiles, if necessary to do so. Arrest without warrant any person who has committed a cognizable offence and may use suitable force, if necessary to do so. Enter any premises without a warrant to arrest a terrorist/suspect, or to recover a wrongfully confined person, stolen property, or arms/explosives wrongfully kept.
Para 5 of the act lays down that the arrested persons will be handed over to the nearest police station with the least possible delay along with the circumstances of the report. This is notwithstanding the fact that most terrorists continue to languish in civil jails for years. Many either get away due to lack of evidence or simply escape.
The need for the AFSPA for counter-insurgency and anti-terrorist operations is unquestionable. However, it is desirable to review and amend the act slightly due to changed circumstances. For example, the authority in Para 5 can now be given to a junior commission officer instead of an NCO. We can also improve its application — for instance, make more judicial magistrates accompany military patrols, increase joint military-civil police operations in urban areas so that the police carries out arrests, and streamline early hand-over of arrested people when the police is not available with patrols.
I cannot perceive removal of the act altogether. In disturbed conditions, when there is a danger of ambush at every nook and corner, and the civil police is not available, the armed forces will not be able to perform counter-insurgency or counter-terrorist operations without legal authorisation of this nature. Those who consider the AFSPA to be “draconian” ought to compare it with home security laws of other nations, or operate with the military for a few days in the Northeast to realise their problems.
But defending the need for the AFSPA does not mean that I condone custodial rape and murder. Or for that matter any human rights violation. If any such acts are committed, it is in the interest of the armed forces to take disciplinary action against the offenders, as prescribed by civil and military laws. I am sure readers are aware that the military law is more strict, and prompt, in meting out punishment to the guilty. Let me also reiterate that the track record of our armed forces in observing human rights is second to none in the world. But like any other part of society, aberrations cannot be ruled out, particularly where troops have to operate under tremendous stress and strain, in isolation, for long periods. These aberrations invite deterrent punishment, often in an open court martial.
Let us not blame the armed forces, the Assam Rifles or the AFSPA for the problem in Manipur. The administration assisted by the Central government ought to create conditions so that armed forces do not have to be deployed for long durations to assist the civil administration to maintain law and order.
The writer is a former chief of army staff