gfiles magazine

December 5, 2011

Does the army need AFSPA?

j&k debate
Does the army need AFSPA?
In 21 years, the draconian Act has done more harm than good, and failed to check insurgency
STATING that “The Indian Army is the land component of the Indian Armed Forces which exists to uphold the ideals of the Constitution of India,” the Army Doctrine - 2004 clearly lays down its roles – Primary: Preserve national interests and safeguard sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of India against any external threats by deterrence or by waging war; Secondary: Assist government agencies in coping with “proxy war” and other internal threats and provide aid to the civil authority when requisitioned for the purpose.
The secondary role of “aid to the civil authority” comes up only during internal threats, if requisitioned by that authority, and not otherwise. This role comes up in different forms – short intervention during severe riots and breakdown of law and order, and a medium-term role in counter-insurgency operations against terrorists or secessionists. By its very definition, it cannot be long-term.
But this is what it has become in Jammu & Kashmir, given the pathetic state of civil governance,  corruption and inefficiency of police forces. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 (AFSPA) is one of the more draconian pieces of legislation that Parliament has passed in six decades.
Under this Act, all security forces are given unrestricted and unaccounted power to carry out their operations, once an area is declared disturbed. Even a non-commissioned officer is granted the right to shoot to kill, based on mere suspicion!
AFSPA was first applied to the Northeastern States of Assam and Manipur, and was amended in 1972 to extend to the other States of Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland. Its enforcement has resulted in innumerable incidents of arbitrary detention, torture, rape, and looting by security personnel. The amendment was justified by the Government of India as being required to stop the Northeastern States from seceding from the Indian Union.
During my brief stint in the Indian Army (Infantry) in the 1960s, I had two opportunities to be involved in operations to “aid the civil authority”. One was in Tamil Nadu, to quell the violent anti-Hindi agitation, and the other was in Nagaland, against insurgency. While the former was short, lasting just about a week, the latter went on for years though I was part of it for about a year before leaving the Army to join the IAS. During the counter-insurgency operations, we came face to face with heavily armed “underground hostiles” moving to and fro from China and lost several men. We had no AFSPA protection and our orders were to capture hostiles and weapons, and not to kill. And we did conduct several operations successfully, doing exactly this, and felt no need of AFSPA.
The Act was extended to J&K in 1990 and has now become a subject of intense controversy. Uncharacteristically, the Army top brass has gone overboard in clinging to this law as if it is a matter of survival. The Army’s top commander in J&K, Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, who commands the Srinagar-based XV Corps, has gone to the extreme of suggesting that the country could be compelled to grant the State independence by 2016 if AFSPA is lifted from some areas. He also reportedly asserted that “while the State people were seeking bijli, sadak, pani [electricity, roads, water], calls for lifting AFSPA were coming from four categories: Pakistan, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, terrorists and secessionists.” How na├»ve can an Army Commander be?
Tongue-in-cheek, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah asked the General as to where he fitted in – Pakistan, ISI, terrorists or secessionists! One also wonders in which category former Supreme Court judge Jeevan Reddy falls because a Committee headed by him, in its report submitted in June 2006, had recommended repeal of the Act as it was considered unconstitutional. “The Act, for whatever reason, has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and highhandedness,” the report said. “It is highly desirable and advisable to repeal the Act altogether.”
The Act gives security forces unrestricted and unaccounted power once an
area is declared disturbed. An NCO is granted the right to shoot to kill,
based on mere suspicion!
What game is the Indian Army up to? To be perpetually “in aid of the civil authority” and imbibe all the characteristics that go with it – sloth, sleaze and slumber? Whatever has happened to Army chief Gen VK Singh’s quote when he commenced his innings: “The Armed Forces have their own value systems, which have to be different from civil society.” Does this value system envisage the Army hanging on to the coat-tails of the “civil authority”, enjoying all power, pelf and the right to kill civilians at will and thus becoming a “symbol of oppression and an object of hate”?
It is nearly a quarter-century since the bombing that signalled the beginning of the murderous insurgency in J&K and 21 years since AFSPA was clamped in the State. Does the refusal to withdraw AFSPA mean that in these long years, India’s strategic establishment as well as the Army has failed to contain insurgency and restore peace? It is ironical that, while the civilian head of the State government has acknowledged the return of peace and the clamour for the withdrawal of AFSPA from parts of the State, the Army has steadfastly rejected this.
And, while the Union Home Minister, representing the “civil authority”, is supporting Abdullah, the Defence Minister, who represents the Armed Forces, is opposing him. It looks as if the Army Doctrine-2004 is being turned on its head, with “aid to the civil authority” assuming a primary role and pushing external threats to the secondary position!
SPURIOUS arguments are being put forth to justify this reversal of role. First, the Army contends that the situation across the Line of Control needs a robust military presence. But Abdullah isn’t proposing removing a single soldier. His proposal would only lift AFSPA from a few districts where the Army in any case has no security responsibilities. If things went well, troops would be freed for deployment along the LoC, leaving the State and Central police forces to deal with the degraded insurgency.
Second, it is claimed that, without AFSPA, the Army will not be able to stage counter-terrorism operations in an emergency. This is an absurd argument. Finally, some argue that the AFSPA-free enclaves will be magnets for terrorists. This, too, makes little sense, since the Army is not present in the enclaves anyway —and it is improbable that terrorists have not established themselves there for
fear of a mere law.
Abdullah’s proposals do entail risks. Yet, not taking those risks involves heavy costs – key among them the creation of a cauldron of frustration and anger with the people perceiving the Indian Army as an instrument of discrimination and highhandedness that will undermine the hard-won peace that so many Indian soldiers gave their lives for.
Voltaire famously said: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” This may be true in war. Does the Indian Army want to do this in the case of the civilian population under cover of AFSPA? The jury is out and the ball is in the Army’s court. g

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