The Arms Forces Special Powers Act against which, noted activist Irom Sharmila carried out the world’s longest hunger strike, now has been lifted from entire Meghalaya and parts of Arunachal Pradesh. In the light of it, will the same be withdrawn from Sharmila’s land and other Northeastern states is a hopeful thought for many in the region.
It was way back in 1857 that the British Crown took over India from the East India Company following the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. But it was not until 1942 when in the face of Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India Movement the British Indian Administration under Lord Lillingthow felt compelled to invoke the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance empowering personnel of the British Indian Army holding the ranks of Captain and above with draconian powers, including shooting to kill with full legal immunity. India became a republic in 1950 and it took just eight years to enact the Armed Forces(Assam-Manipur) Special Powers Act 1958 (AFSPA), the only improvement being the powers that was hitherto bestowed on officers of Captains and above was now given to Non-Commissioned Officers(Havildars) and above with other provisions like search and destroy, arrests without warrants and others, all remaining intact.
This draconian Act was first invoked in 1958 in the then Naga Hills district of Assam and the Naga areas of Manipur to quell the Naga uprising led by the grand patriarch of all insurgent groups in the region namely Angami Zapu Phizo. It was the Centre’s answer to Phizo’s demand for an independent Nagaland
The tragedy is that while in 1958 the Centre only had the Nagas to deal with, by 1980s and 90s, it had to deal with the Manipuris, Assamese, Mizos, Bodos, Khasis, Garos, Kukis, Paites, Hmars and the Tripuris so much so that areas under the AFSPA began to encompass all the seven states that comprises the North Eastern region. And, of course following the amendment in 1972, the Centre too now has the powers to declare any area in the Northeast as disturbed and invoke the AFSPA.
Human Rights activist Babloo Loitongbam said that the spread of areas under the AFSPA is a broad indicator that the Armed Forces is not the solution to the problems of the Northeast.
The legal challenge to the AFSPA began in 1980 when the Manipur Human Rights Forum first filed a writ petition before the Supreme Court, challenging the Constitutional validity of the AFSPA. This was followed by yet another petition filed by the Delhi-based People’s Union for Democratic Rights. In 1984 the Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights also filed the third petition in the form of a letter addressed to the Chief Justice of India. It took 17 long years for the Supreme Court to issue a verdict on the case.
On one hand the apex court upheld the Act and on the other, having taken cognizance of the fact that the Armed Forces operate in the region, issued a series of “Dos and Don’ts” to members of the Armed Forces empowered and operating under the Act. That was in 1997 and since the Centre was beginning formal talks with the Naga rebels, it was perhaps administrative prudence that led the case to be referred to as the Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights Vs Union of India.
In the meantime, movements against the Act intensified with Irom Sharmila having embarked on her marathon 14 years long hunger strike, demanding repeal of the Act following the killing of 10 persons by the 8th Assam Rifles in 200. Then, in 2004, when Manipur erupted after personnel of the 17th Assam Rifles arrested, raped and shot dead a lady named Manorama Devi. Twelve elderly women leaders stripped naked and stood before the gates of the 17th Assam Rifles holding afloat a festoon that simply read “Indian Army, rape us”.
That picture went viral worldwide and the then Chief Minister of Manipur Okram Ibobi Singh was faced with a revolt from his legislators and was compelled to lift the Disturbed Area tag from seven of the Assembly Constituencies in Imphal area.
Then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that perhaps the AFSPA needs to be replaced with a more humane Act and formed the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee to look into the matter. The Committee submitted its report, but the Home Ministry never officially made public the report of the Committee apparently from pressure from the Army.
But now, with the Supreme Court of India having taken cognizance of the killings of 1,528 persons in fake encounters at the hands of the Army and the Police and having goaded the Central Bureau of Investigation tasked with inquiring into a select 90 cases out of the total to name officers involved in the cases, the heat seems to be on the army and the police. And the Union Home Ministry having recently informed the concerned states that it was up to them, either to continue to deem their states as Disturbed or not, the ball seems to have been thrown into the respective state’s court.
Now with the Disturbed Area tag being totally removed from Meghalaya and a considerable part of Arunachal Pradesh, the move to have the same removed from Manipur, Nagaland and Assam will follow suit according to Babloo Loitongbam. But the problem is that all political parties worth their salt except the Congress have put removing the Disturbed Area tag prominently on their election manifestos but once elected to power as in the case of the BJP, they seem to shy away from implementing the same. It is as if the state governments are using the AFSPA as a fig leaf to cover their naked self, according to an activist who had been fighting against the AFSPA since 1980.
The writer was responsible for filling the first case against the AFSPA in the Supreme Court of India in 1980. A former Member and Chairperson in charge of the State Human Rights Commission of Manipur. Currently the Special Representative of The Statesman and based in Imphal.