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It's time to rethink need for draconian measures - Deccan Herald
It's time to rethink need for draconian measures
M Amarjeet Singh,
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In the 'disturbed area' of the Northeast, the armed forces enjoy 'special powers', derived from the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. In such a situation, a conflict between the democratic rights of the local people and the national security interests of the State is inevitable.

At least officially, there is a rationale behind this. The Northeast's strategic location matters for the security of the country, and yet most of the region is wracked by different forms of insurgencies and insurgent groups. Unfortunately, as a result, even peaceful areas in the region continue to be designated 'disturbed areas' and the national security interests of the state prevails over the rights of the people.

Since the members of the armed forces enjoy enormous powers while operating in a 'disturbed area', several instances of human rights violations occur regularly. The elected governments of the states concerned are virtually helpless when the armed forces misuse powers.

As a result, the civil society has become more active and prominent, protesting against these abuses, since the 1980s. Their efforts have drawn the attention of the highest court of the country. This has further strengthened their argument, denouncing AFSPA as 'counterproductive' and a draconian law that has created a vicious cycle of violence.

Recently, the Supreme Court issued notices to the Centre and the Manipur government on a petition seeking a probe into cases of extra-judicial killings in that state.The civil society involvement varies from one state to another, with Manipur leading from the front. In the wake of the widespread protest movement in 2004, the then prime minister Manmohan Singh rushed to Imphal. A committee was appointed to review AFSPA and Singh promised to consider replacing it with a more humane law. The Assam Rifles, accused of the most egregious violations of human rights, was shifted out of Kangla Fort in Imphal. The 'disturbed area' status was removed for the Imphal municipality area.

The movement against AFSPA has united the people of the region. But the level of resentment varies from one place to another. For instance, it is largely not a matter of concern in Sikkim, the Northeast state that is not affected by insurgency. At the same time, sustaining the movement is a difficult task. It is confined to states that are affected by various insurgencies.

The fact that even peaceful areas continue to be designated as 'disturbed areas' implies that this region is being treated differently. There is an influential lobby that wants AFSPA to remain, and the political class is reluctant to confront this lobby. This lobby insists that it is absolutely necessary for the armed forces to have special powers to be able to maintain law and order, protect the border areas, uphold the nation's territorial integrity and fight and end the region's many insurgencies.

But since insurgency has been contained in several places, the time has come to reassess the approach towards this region. It is understood that the armed forces will remain deployed, whether with special powers or not. The removal of AFSPA will be regarded as a moral victory for the people, even if nothing changes on the ground.

Manipur and Irom Sharmila

The demand for the withdrawal of the 'disturbed area' status and AFSPA from Manipur has been an emotive issue for long. It is not just about the excesses of the security forces, but it is also a symbol of political suppression. Despite ups and downs in their struggle against it, the civil society is not giving up. On the other hand, the government has also been unrelenting. The movement has not attracted much attention from local political parties because their leaders cannot afford to be seen as disloyal to their national leadership.

For nearly 16 years, civil rights activist Irom Sharmila singlehandedly spearheaded the movement against AFSPA, remaining on hunger-strike throughout (the world's longest such protest). Sharmila began her fast on November 5, 2000, three days after the Assam Rifles gunned down 10 civilians who were waiting at a bus stop in Malom, Manipur. Among the dead in what came to be known as the 'Malom Massacre' were a 62-year-old woman and Sinam Chandramani, an 18-year-old boy who was a National Bravery Award winner in 1988, and his brother Sinam Robinson.

The State has been unrelenting, though, and Sharmila finally ended her fast in August 2016. But her decision to enter mainstream politics as a means to achieving the end of AFSPA, and even more so her decision to marry and lead a normal life, was seen as a betrayal by the people of Manipur. She received just 90 votes when she stood for assembly elections.

(The writer is Professor, Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi)