Principled versus Piecemeal Approach: Repeal of AFSPA, Troops Pullout or Ending War against our People

November 2, 2010


On 2nd November 2000, Irom Sharmila Chanu of Manipur began a fast to protest against the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which allows the armed forces to repress the civilian population with complete impunity in the areas where the act is in force. Ten years down the line her fast still continues, though it is often interrupted by arrests on the grounds of ‘attempted suicide’ and ‘forced feeding’ through nose by the police. While Manipur has provided the stage for this struggle, Irom Sharmila has become a powerful symbol of protest against AFSPA and state repression all over the world. On the 10th anniversary of her heroic fast we salute her great courage and commitment to democratic rights with the following article in which Gautam Navlakha raises the debate whether our opposition should be limited to the repeal of AFSPA or the pullout of troops or should constitute a principled demand for the ending of all wars on our own people. – Ed.

Principled versus Piecemeal Approach: Repeal of AFSPA, Troops Pullout or Ending War against our People

By Gautam Navlakha

In order to understand the significance of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and our response we must understand the role of the armed forces of the union in wars of suppression. It is my contention that our opposition to AFSPA is not ONLY because it protects Armed Forces of the Union (which is how Indian constitution defines Army, Navy, Air Force and the Central Para Military Forces) but also because  we, in the Civil Liberties and Democratic Rights groups, oppose policy of military suppression of our own people in the first place (at least formally considered “our own”) because it is this that necessitates protection for military forces deployed to carry out the dirty task of brutally restoring state’s authority and in its turn creates the source of legitimacy for counter-violence.

Out of 626 districts in India, no less than 136 districts witnesses policy of military suppression. Of these 136 districts, 101 have been notified as “disturbed areas” where AFSPA and state level Disturbed Areas (DA) Act, either separately or concurrently, operate. In 35 of the so-called joint forces operations against “Left Wing Extremists” neither of these acts are invoked and yet the war continues. (Of course there could be some other act in operation indemnifying forces in Chattisgarh, Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal ). However, for all practical purposes, ground reality is no different in these 35 districts spread over nine state and the 101 districts where AFSPA is notified.

Second thing to note is that the central government has set aside Rs 40,000 crores for “internal security” (which falls under Ministry of Home Affairs) i.e. for wars in these districts where nearly 80% of the central paramilitary forces (whose strength is 900,000 plus 145 battalions of India Reserve battalion  or  150,000 personnel) and half of the Indian Army (337,000 in J&K, and 280,000 in entire NE) is engaged in counter insurgency. Were we to add to this Rs 40,000 cr allocated towards “internal security” with what Ministry of Defense spends on “internal security” (taking merely wages and allowances and pension of this  force) which comes to approximately Rs 29,000 cr the Indian government is spending a staggering sum of Rs 69,000 or say Rs 70,000 crores annually towards for these wars. This amount could suffice to pay for a universal food security Act in India. Significantly, the union finance ministry has cited paucity of funds to pay for an universal Food Security Act.  

There is another dimension to this which needs to be considered. In an interview to Tehelka (5 June, 2010) Union Home Secretary GK PIllai said that “Manipur has the highest police to population ratio in the country.” And yet Manipur is raising another four battalions of Manipur Commandos! Of course he did not spell out what the ratio was. Jammu & Kashmir (J & K), according to CM Omar Abdullah, has 5-7 lakhs troops (army, central paramilitary forces (CPMFs), state armed police, special forces), or say 600,000, for a population that is said to be 1.1 crore. This means a ratio of one armed soldier for 20 persons. Of course the ratio changes even more if we consider actual concentration of troops in the Kashmir valley and those districts of Jammu which have sizeable Muslim population. It could be approximately 1 armed soldier for 15 persons or even less. Recalling what the union home secretary said about Manipur, the ratio could be a lot worse. Such a heavy concentration deployed in a manner which monitors and controls the public and private lives of people creates impediments in the way for normal activities of people and causes a heavy loss of scarce human and material resources whose actual cost is yet to be calculated.

To this one ought to add another dimension. As evident from the case in J & K, there is pressure on J & K to recruit and train quickly a force which can replace central forces. Thus accretion in strength of armed police gets compounded because apart from a bloated CPMF we now have bloated state level armed police formations. And like central forces protected by AFSPA these state forces have their own state level protection against prosecution for any act committed in course of “active service”.

In other words these conflicts become the occasion for stupendous augmentation of  personnel in existing armed formations (In 2007-08 Shivraj Patil, the then union home minister, spoke of raising 206 battalions of CPMFs over the next five years) and/or through creation of new force of either armed police battalions or forces such as Rashtriya Rifles, which was raised for fighting insurgency in J&K in 1993-94. It is also less known that armed police is trained along the lines of infantry formations of the Army.  Keep in mind also the fact since 1947 not a year has passed  when Indian State has not been engaged in waging an internal war (call it by any name war/armed conflict/military suppression)  against our own people in some part of the country or the other.  It can also be established empirically that almost all movements which picked up guns did so only after non-violent struggles were run aground by the Indian State one way or another or dismissed out of hand. In all these cases of internal wars, military (army and CPMFs in particular) is deployed for a prolonged period with enhanced powers to act on their own, i.e. minus civilian supervision. This is unlike their short term usage during riots etc where they operate under orders of the magistrate and are protected under Section 45 [Protection of Members of the Armed Forces from Arrest] of the CrPC. This is the context in which the campaign to repeal AFSPA is located.

When AFSPA was passed in 1958, after a truncated debate in the Parliament, the then Union Home Minister G B Pant had assured the members of parliament that the Act was temporary and only confined to fighting the “Naga hostiles”. What was temporary became a permanent feature and can now be imposed anywhere in the Indian Union. The Parliament also never saw it fit to debate/review this Act since its enactment. Prior to the UPA government instituting this review process the Indian Supreme Court had examined this Act. The judicial process had resulted in the Supreme Court in 1997 upholding the legal validity of AFSPA asserting that Parliament had the powers to enact such an Act. The review of the Act undertaken by the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee as per its terms of reference was not mandated to recommend its repeal. However, having decided to ask for its repeal it went onto to suggest that provisions of the Act could be incorporated in the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) 2004. Thus both the Supreme Court in its 1997 judgement, as well as the Justice Reddy Committee in its report, have upheld the need to empower the Armed Forces of the Union when they are deployed for prolonged period in an area declared to be “Disturbed”. The other drawback of the Reddy Committee was that the review and public hearings that followed were confined to the north east, particularly, Manipur and Assam. The conspicuous absence of J & K from its purview was most unfortunate.

It needs to be reiterated that the Armed Forces of the Union, empowered with AFSPA, is introduced NOT to curb armed militancy but meant to control the civilian population from extending support to secessionist activities. It thus antagonizes more and more people and swells the ranks of militants contrary to official pretence that they are fighting only armed groups. This is clear from the ground reality of J & K with a huge deployment exceeding 6 lakh troops (which comprises army, CPMFs, state armed police etc). Bunkers, checkpoint, road blocks are manned by CRPF/BSF in towns and Rashtriya Rifles (RR, army’s 66 battalion strong counter insurgency force) maintains vigil in rural areas. Virtually every neighbourhood in urban area boasts a camp of security forces and between every 4-5 villages there is a camp of RR. Just Srinagar town has 400 bunkers, thus removal of 16, under the current offer by the central government, is inconsequential. This level of deployment remains at a time when it is officially claimed that the number of militants is no more than 600-700, and no more than 250 remain in Kashmir valley. Movements of people on roads and bazar is regulated with frequent demands to show their IDs and frisking and searching of bags. It is a known fact that anyone in area declared “Disturbed” found without a ID can suffer anything from having to bribe his way to freedom to becoming a victim of enforced disappearance. Again the very deployment of security forces necessitates occupation of land and buildings. According to an estimate in J&K, Armed Forces of the Union occupy legally and illegally about 400 sq kms and occupy more than 1572 buildings which includes 98 schools. This impacts normal life and economic activities. However, all this is a quintessential aspect of counter-insurgency policy which is meant to break the link between armed groups with the people through recourse to force or threat of use of force.

In other words, while atrocities may come down if the legal cover indemnifying the security forces is withdrawn. But it would be naïve to believe that atrocities will cease if this cover is withdrawn. This is because atrocities are inherent in the very nature of counter-insurgency, which is meant to coerce a people into submission.

Findings of civil liberties groups as well as official inquiries undertaken from time to time have also shown that once AFSPA comes into operation civil administration begins to play the second fiddle. Instead of “coming to the aid of civil administration” it virtually replaces them. Thus “law and order” which pertains to civilian domain and “internal security”, which is the raison d’etre of AFSPA, are difficult to keep apart. In real life the lines gets blurred to the point that even traffic management invites the over bearing presence of the Armed Forces of the Union. Lately, Armed Forces of the Union have been entrusted with running of schools, health centres, road building and now construction and management of micro hydel projects (as in J&K). Thus more and more of matters which were considered part of civil administration are becoming part of AFU activity all in the name of ‘operation sadbhavna’.

We have in recent times also witnessed the heads of coordination centres, invariably, corps commander belonging to the Army, intervening in public domain with their own assessment of the situation. The most reprehensible was the statement of the GOC-in-C of the Northern Command who characterized non-violent protests in Kashmir as being “agitational terrorism”. This amounted to declaring all protestors as “terrorists” and thus made them legitimate targets of the firepower of the Indian security forces. The J & K’s ‘elected’ government, let alone seek his immediate transfer, refused even to snub him for his outrageous statement. Between June 11, 2010 and October 15, 2010 110 civilians were killed (all victim of bullet, tear gas shell, of beating), 1500 cases of firearm/tear gas shell/pellet injuries, 500 cases of severe beatings and 38 instances of blindness caused by bullet or pellet or marbles used as projectile in slingshot used by CRPF. Despite these killings and serious injuries caused, just a single FIR has been filed in a single case against CRPF for unauthorized firing killing a youth, but no one has been arrested. In other words civilian protestors are easy pickings. Problem gets compounded because promotion and reward provide material incentive for extra-judicial killings.

Often the officers of the security forces adopt a position which is at odds with that of the political authority. The most recent example was witnessed in Assam where both the Corps Commander as well as the Governor (usually a retired general) came out opposed to a political initiative to begin dialogue with ULFA. This is direct fallout of employing security forces over a long duration in internal situations which creates a kind of vested interest and where they come to enjoy untrammeled power.

Arguably, as the situation worsens with recourse to military suppression, it throws up its own compulsions where some militant or renegade groups begin to browbeat civilians. There are times when inimical neighbours exploit this situation to fan the fuels of militancy. I believe that such a situation can be dealt with most effectively only when there is a political process and the government appears sincere and serious in addressing the legitimate grievances and takes recourse to democratic solutions. If it is respecting right of self-determination in Kashmir or Manipur or Naga areas, or pursuing the path of dialogue with the Maoists, to believe that problems get resolved when people are suppressed is contrary to ground reality. J & K ought to be the reminder that despite the most horrendous 20 years of repression and most extraordinary control that grips the lives of people in Kashmir, the demand for ‘Azaadi’ from India remains intact.

Now having gone through the debate over AFSPA for over three decade, our struggle saw the Supreme Court uphold the constitutional validity of the act (in NPMHR vs Union of India 1997), albeit suggesting some minimal safeguards in shape of six monthly review of its working or defined strictly what “shortest possible time” for handing over a person arrested by the Armed Forces of the Union to the police. Next round of our collective efforts saw appointment of Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee (2004-05) which called for repeal of AFSPA. Because, the erudite retired judge felt the title had come to acquire pejorative meaning, he suggested that AFSPA’s provisions should be incorporated in UAPA. And now even as the demand grows for repeal of AFSPA, to coincide with ten years of Irom Sharmila’s fast-unto-death, there are efforts afoot to persuade us that we become pragmatic/realistic and settle for  dilution of some provision or amendments to certain sections of AFSPA or for its step-by–step withdrawal from a state. Thus the struggle is not only confined to one part of the problem which was AFSPA, it now gets further weakened with call for being sensible and settles for dilution/partial withdrawal.

While it is correct that removal of AFSPA could mean withdrawal of the army, in particular from counter-insurgency duties (which forms part of its secondary role), since the army does not want to operate without indemnity against prosecution. But it is futile to believe that, in face of near unanimity in the parliament between the political parties, powers enjoyed by the Armed Forces of the Union in ‘disturbed’ areas will get curbed, and we will get only dilution/partial withdrawal of AFSPA. It would NOT mean an end to military suppression/ war/armed conflict per se. Because state armed constabularies too are deployed, and looking at the experience of Manipur or J & K and the role of the state level forces in the nine states where joint operations are going on against the Maoists, there is absolutely no reason to believe that they are any less brutish and dastardly. This is evident from the recent incidents in Manipur which were perpetrated by Manipur commandos, or in J&K large scale war crimes were committed by the Special Operations Group/Special Task Force of the J&K police or the horrendous record of state forces of nine states where anti-Maoist operations are going on. Thus, for one, we might get rid of AFSPA and the army partially. And secondly, we will see them get replaced by state armed forces and state level DA Act. In other words our major concern about ending the use of military suppression to resolve political problems will not be addressed. All in all, a piecemeal approach focuses on merely one aspect of the conflict.

The conventional wisdom is that this is better than nothing or that at least it can provide immediate relief for civilians in the conflict zone. While this appears attractive, it does not, unfortunately, resolve the predicament we face which has become worse now that there is near unanimous consensus among all the parliamentary parties, from left to right, ruling out the repeal of AFSPA, and there exists a fractured support even for pulling out army from the theatre of internal wars.

Indeed if one has to settle for a piecemeal approach why should we not replace the call for repeal of AFSPA with call for withdrawal of military forces? Because, if we have to have a piecemeal approach why not explore the possibility of achieving our objective by demanding withdrawal of Army and the CPMFs from counter insurgency? There are many retired and serving army officers who believe that army’s primary responsibility has been compromised and discipline has been affected by making Indian army focus more on its secondary role (of aiding civil administration in conflict or calamity). They also feel that while protection is essential if army is called in and therefore AFSPA should remain, they favour withdrawal of army from counter insurgency as being necessary. Besides, calling for repeal of AFSPA has been made complex with most political parties (including Left parties and Congress) in favour of pullout of army but they are not in favour of repeal of AFSPA or its revocation where army has been deployed.

However, even this leaves much to desire. There is another section of armed forces which favour Army’s induction in internal security affairs because power and pelf accompany such a role. They also happen to outnumber those who are against it. This view is not only the official position but the army is engaged in honing its counter insurgency skills as shown in army’s doctrine of sub-conventional warfare and doctrine of perception management (an important part of counter insurgency). Something unstated is also the fact that “disturbed areas” provide army an occasion to shake off civilian control and garner resources. Thus call for pullout of the army can and has been also countered by saying that Article 355 of Constitution read together with 2(A) of Union List empowers central government to deploy central forces in situations of internal security. And that whatever may have been the cause once there is rebellion it has to be put down, if need be by the Army. So a fait accompli is offered to us.

Thus it is abundantly clear that a piecemeal approach, either demanding repeal of AFSPA or withdrawal of army, are not without problems and do not adequately address the issue. I am reminded of what happened when POTA was revoked. We were told by many a progressive commentator to be happy at a half victory since confession to police, while in their custody, was dropped. What these progressives failed to realize was that rest of POTA got incorporated in Unlawful Activities Prevention Act 1967 (which got further strengthened in 2008) and which by now has become ever more lethal a threat than TADA or POTA.

Take another example. Indian government offered a sop to people of Manipur after the rape and murder of Manorama Devi by the Assam Rifles in shape of withdrawal of AFSPA from Imphal. The result was that instead of the Assam Rifles now Manipur Commandos carry out killing in Imphal (and elsewhere too) since they enjoy protection provided by the state government. Thus AFSPA may not be in operation in Imphal but conditions in Imphal are no different, and no better than elsewhere in Manipur, point being that very often a half measure ends up biting us and leaves us worse off than before.

Will this mean that non-state groups can continue fighting while state demilitarises? I doubt it. No to war against our own people robs even non-state actors of their source legitimacy. If the state does not wage war, i.e. there is no prolonged deployment and empowerment of military forces against our own people, why would people or any political group take up arms? If there is a possibility of non-violently resolving matters, including possibilities of transforming state and society, why would anyone take to armed resistance? There is no natural propensity of people to opt for armed resistance. Indeed the prospects of people taking to arms is directly linked to Indian state’s propensity to use military suppression as “mother of all policies” against popular movements demanding either right of self-determination or radical transformation.

But are there not groups which possess weapons or believe in armed resistance? Mere possession of weapons does not mean declaration of war against the state. Also opting for armed resistance is never an automatic choice rather it is a proposition which is contested and debated within revolutionary parties and liberation groups prior to decision being taken. In an interview given to The Hindu (April 14, 2010) Cherukuri Rajkumar aka Azad had reminded that it was the “imposition of the ban (against the CPI(ML) (PW) that had led the Party and the mass organizations to take up arms in the first place…….What shook the rulers at that time (in 1978) and compelled them to declare Jagtyala and Sircila taluks in Karimnagar district of North Telengana as disturbed areas in 1978 was not the armed struggle of the Maoists (which had suffered a complete setback …by 1972) but the powerful (movement against) anti-feudal order in the countryside….” Were the State not to wage war against people, the chances of the debate veering towards armed resistance gets reduced.

It is also worth remembering that there are, according to International Action Network on Small Arms, an estimated 40 million private weapons in India. It does not require rocket science to believe that these tens of millions of weapons are mostly in the possession of those classes and castes in Indian society who wield power and are privileged. This reality, and an India, which for all its verbosity about non-violence, is one of the most heavily armed state both in terms of accumulation of destructive power of its arsenal as well as size of its military force, which gets force-multiplied by draconian laws, and thus enables the ruling classes to practice ‘slow genocide’ against its own people. Therefore, I believe we should be pitching for something that helps us focus on the fundamental concern and not its symptom, ( militancy being in essence a manifestation against oppression) to enable us to argue for peaceful and democratic way out. Therefore, we should say ‘No to War Against Our Own People’.

In other words, ten years of irom Sharmila’s heroic fast and more than four decades of struggle against AFSPA should convince us that the time has come for us to demand an end to war against our own people as the principled and realistic stance. Once we accept legitimacy of wars against our own people we enable the state to argue for AFSPA, DA Act etc. Of course those who believe that AFSPA alone should be repealed but wars against our own people should carry on will oppose this because they believe that no state can allow any non-state group to overthrow it. But they must have the courage of their conviction to come out and say so rather than hide behind the façade of being “pacifist” while intellectually supporting the policy of military suppression and the blood-letting that ensues. But those of us who argue that the State must give up prosecuting wars against our own people must seriously consider a course correction, lest we are led to the ‘desolation row’ through a piecemeal effort.

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