The Indian army needs to be commended for having meted out exemplary punishment to the officers and jawans involved in the fake encounter at Machil. As a former armyman, one can understand the anguish and soul-searching behind this necessary and hard decision. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which provides protection to soldiers in such circumstances, has come under scrutiny once again and calls for its repeal have reached a crescendo. There is merit in the argument that AFSPA has outlived its utility, and must go.
It is worth recalling that while AFSPA was introduced in 1958, the Assam Disturbed Areas Act was enacted in 1955 to provide a legal framework for security forces to deal with the Naga insurgency. When the army was inducted soon thereafter, the then army chief in a Special Order of the Day exhorted his troops, “…you are not to fight the people of the area but to protect them (from disruptive elements)… you must therefore do everything possible to win their confidence and respect…” It is a sad commentary that half a century later, AFSPA still remains in force in the Northeast and the clamour for its revocation has come from events in Kashmir, where it was imposed in 1990. It is sadder still that despite untold sacrifices, the army seems to have lost the “confidence and respect” of the people. If that is the case, then it is time that AFSPA went.
If the act is revoked, how will it affect the security of the country? First, the basics. Every Indian will agree that there can be no compromise on the territorial integrity of the country. It is the Constitution that provides that India will be a Union of States (Article 1) and it has no provision to cede territory (sub-Clause 3). Article 51 enjoins all citizens “to uphold and protect the sovereignty, unity and integrity of India”. So any demand for separation is to be resisted. Look now at the security aspects. Our executive machinery at the district level has always had the authority to use force, requisitioning troops if necessary, to restore law and order. So, whenever the armed forces operate, they are acting in aid of the civil authority. It follows that once the situation is brought under control, the civil administration re-assumes responsibility. If the government machinery in Kashmir is prepared to assume responsibility, the army would only be happy to go back to their task of protecting the Line of Control (LoC).
Is a via media possible? Yes, use AFSPA in selected areas and for restricted periods of time. For example, certain areas along the LoC could have AFSPA permanently in force. In other areas, let the police (with army in support) seek and impose AFSPA for a limited period of time. Agreed that AFSPA must go, but answer a basic question, who needs its protection more, the armed forces or the civil administration? There are no easy answers.
The writer is a retired brigadier