Days after rioting in Assam,questions are being asked of the Army and the Defence Ministry on whether bureaucratic red-tape prevented them from acting in time and controlling the clashes that left 40 people dead.
Sources said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had been informed about the sequence of events and the response of the Army to deal with the situation. The Home Ministry and the Defence Ministry are also believed to have had informal discussions on this issue. Once Home Minister P Chidambaram returns from his visit to the affected areas on Tuesday,more serious stock-taking is likely to take place on whether there was a delay in responding to the clashes.
The Army operates under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Assam. Some Army units were stationed close enough to be able to reach the affected areas within 3-4 hours. AFSPA empowers the Army to intervene in situations like these if it is necessary to do so to maintain public order.
In addition,the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) empowers civilian authorities to request the services of armed forces in a law and order situation,and the Army is legally bound to respond. Such requests were made by district authorities in this case. But a curious Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) laid down by the Defence Ministry apparently prevented the Army from responding in time.
The first request was from Kokrajhar on July 20 but deployment of Army took place only on the evening of July 24. Much of the violence took place during this time,claiming about 40 lives. The SOPs required that requisitions be sent to the Defence Ministry through the Home Ministry and only then the go-head could be given to local units to intervene. Crucial time was lost in attending to these formalities.
The Defence Ministry has maintained that it could not have moved on its own under AFSPA as it is only mandated to carry out counter-insurgency operations under this law while the current situation was a law and order problem. The AFSPA law itself,however,does not make any such distinction.
As for responding to requisitions from civilian authorities under CrPC,a Defence Ministry spokesperson admitted that SOPs existed for Army intervention in situations that had communal overtones. He said the terms of engagement of the armed forces are entirely different from the police or the central para-military forces like the CRPF.
The Army cannot be the instrument of first resort in law and order situations. It is the job of the local police and then central para-military forces. The Army is the last resort, he said.
But what the Defence Ministry is finding difficult to answer is how can a mere SOP override the provisions of the CrPC which is a law.
The relevant provision of the CrPC very clearly says that when a requisition is made by the civilian authorities,the Army shall not just may obey. There is no ambiguity here. SOPs are at best mere guidelines. They cannot take precedence over the CrPC, sources said.
The Home Ministry,it is learnt,wants this SOP amended and is moving for a discussion with the Defence Ministry on this issue.
Will do something about illegal arms
P Chidambaram Monday said the Centre was aware of the presence of a huge quantity of illegal arms in Bodo districts and would do something about it. The Home Minister,who is on a two-day visit to the riot-affected districts,said the displaced people should return to their villages as soon as possible. We will not only help them rebuild their houses,but also provide them security in their villages, he said.