A petition has been filed by 356 army personnel, including 74 officers, in the Supreme Court against the alleged dilution of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) without specific amendment to that effect. The petition comes in the wake of the Court asking for the constitution of a Special Investigation Team by the CBI to probe 1,582 alleged cases of extra-judicial killings between 2000 and 2012 in Manipur and more recently, the Jammu and Kashmir Police filing an FIR against an army officer for firing at alleged stone-pelters leading to the death of three persons. The petition claims that army personnel are demoralized over the move to prosecute them under the criminal justice system for alleged human rights violations. The decision of the army personnel to take their concerns to court on this issue is ill-judged.
Be it the implementation or withdrawal of AFSPA from a particular terrain, or the specific structure and form it should take in its operation, these are political calls taken by elected governments. It does not behoove members of an apolitical institution like the armed forces to be seen to jump into the fray, acting as a pressure group, to influence policy. The filing of the petition could even be deemed to be a violation of the Army Act, which restricts serving personnel from being a part of collectives such as trade/ labor unions and from attending or addressing meetings or taking part in demonstrations organized by “any body of persons for any political or other purposes”. The AFSPA has provisions that provide immunity for armed personnel involved in counter-insurgency operations, but transgressions while in the line of duty are open to legal scrutiny. There have been extended debates on the efficacy and desirability of the AFSPA in a constitutional democracy and several commissions and panels have suggested changes and amendments. The concerns flagged by the armed forces, too, have figured in these deliberations.
It is not just that the army personnel going to court on AFSPA signals an awkward attempt to cross the line disturb the civil-military division of labor. The increasing propensity of army personnel to approach the courts for redress, on issues ranging from promotions to policy matters like AFSPA, also points to the failure of internal resolution mechanisms within the institution. The leadership of the armed forces must heed the warning, and reflect on this disturbing trend of their personnel not abiding by the restraints and limits imposed on them by their institution.