The Supreme Court ruling on the petition filed by the Extra Judicial Execution Victims Families Association, a representative platform of people in Manipur whose kin have allegedly been summarily killed by security forces, is a strong critique of the manner of deployment of the Armed Forces Special Powers’ Act (AFSPA). The petition had alleged that there have been over 1,500 extra-judicial killings in the state and pleaded for the court’s intervention to deliver justice.
The state and its agencies, under the cover of AFSPA, had sought immunity from legal scrutiny. The SC order has refused to be imprisoned by the state’s security-centric framework and the resultant curtailing of the citizen’s fundamental rights.
The validity of the AFSPA, first introduced in 1958, has periodically come under scrutiny. A constitutional bench had upheld the act in the Naga People’s Movement of Human Rights , the Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy committee advised the government to repeal it. Last week’s order does well to outline three crucial principles: One, the “order situation in Manipur is, at best, an internal disturbance. There is no threat to the security of the country or a part thereof either by war or an external aggression or an armed rebellion”; two, “for tackling the internal disturbance, the armed forces of the Union can be deployed in aid of the civil power. The armed forces do not supplant the civil administration but only supplement it”; three, “the deployment of the armed forces is intended to restore normalcy and it would be extremely odd if normalcy were not restored within some reasonable period, certainly not an indefinite period or an indeterminate period”. The court has refused to accept the state’s plea that the extra-judicial killings, which took place in “a war-like situation”, need not be investigated. The pointed reference to “restoring normalcy within some reasonable period” has particular resonance in Manipur, a state where the AFSPA has been in force for nearly six decades.
The AFSPA provides the framework for the armed forces but the law clearly lays down the operational procedure which is more often violated than followed. The court has made it clear that the state is bound by the direction of the Constitution bench that “every death caused by the armed forces” should be thoroughly inquired into if there is a complaint or allegation of abuse or misuse of power. In so doing, it disabuses the state of the notion that the AFSPA provides a blanket immunity to army personnel in anti-insurgency operations. To argue that the absence of such immunity could demoralise the forces, the court says, “unsettling and demoralising, particularly in a constitutional democracy like oursh. Commendably, the court has laid the ground for a framework of accountability that the state needs to adopt in its responses to insurgency.