It’s time for Parliament to review AFSPA

Laws are there for the people, not people for the law

Protests against AFSPA
Protests against AFSPA
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Herald View

That successive Governments have shown little interest in reviewing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is no secret. The present Government too does not expect the outrage over the killing by armed forces of 13 civilians in Nagaland on December 4 to last long; in fact, it seems to believe that the clamour for the withdrawal of AFSPA will die down soon enough. It did not therefore come as a surprise when the lone MP from Nagaland in the Rajya Sabha, KG Kenye, was not allowed to speak in the House and when he managed to speak during the Zero Hour the next day, his mike was switched off after three minutes. The Union Home Minister’s perfunctory statement, expressing regret at the killing, but claiming that special forces opened fire when the pick-up truck refused to heed warnings to stop, was described as misleading and offensive by civil society in Nagaland. The FIR lodged by Nagaland Police alleged that the army did not inform the police before the ambush or seek a police guide as was expected. The two survivors have claimed that the special forces opened fire without any provocation; that they were local villagers and miners, not insurgents, and that they were not carrying any firearms or explosives is also now known. It was after the eight miners were mowed down by the special forces that irate villagers attacked army personnel and in the ensuing clash, five more villagers and an army jawan were killed. Eyewitness accounts also claimed that special forces tried to hide the bodies and change the clothes of some of the deceased, adding to the mystery. Villagers recorded video clips of the army men trying to drive away with the bodies. Even more seriously, the two seriously injured survivors were left past midnight at a hospital in Assam by army personnel who left without completing the formalities of admission. This is certainly not the kind of professionalism for which the Indian Army is known. The incident therefore clearly calls out for an inquiry but the Government seems to be in no mood to oblige.

That the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) needs to be reviewed and revised appears fairly obvious. Despite states like Manipur, Nagaland, Assam and Kashmir declared perpetually as a ‘disturbed area’ and AFSPA renewed every six months, as many as 30 insurgent groups are said to be active in Manipur alone. The situation is no different in other ‘disturbed areas’. The Parliament needs therefore to look at how these renewals are recommended and why. The Parliament also needs to look at hard data and take into account the views of the armed forces. Arguably both insurgency and Maoist violence are rooted in poor economy, unemployment and injustice. But even if there is a consensus on the need to keep the drastic Act alive, and allow security personnel the power to search any place and arrest anyone without warrants and protect them from prosecution even when they kill, adequate provisions to ensure accountability, periodic audits, oversight and punishment need to be incorporated. It is time for Parliament to hear allegations of abuses. It is certainly time to take stock of five-decades old provisions which seemingly have not made much of a difference. If Parliament does not review the Act, the Supreme Court must. It is time to acknowledge that laws are meant to serve the people and not the other way round.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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