The revocation of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act from Meghalaya and parts of Arunachal Pradesh has created quite a stir because this draconian law has been a subject of intense debate across the country for decades.
This writer has been a member of the National Security Advisory Board for two terms. A question I have repeatedly posed is why the Act is necessary to contain insurgent activities in the North-eastern states when similar anti-state movements by forces aligned to the Maoist ideology operate with impunity in Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, parts of Maharashtra and earlier in Andhra Pradesh,
But the Centre never considered it necessary to impose this Act or to even label these troubled zones as “Disturbed Areas?”
Why are certain regions of the country considered as security threats to the country? Are there precedents anywhere in the world, including the most troubled spots of the Middle East, where different laws are invoked to contain internal rebellions? The AF (SP) Act dates back to the colonial period and flows from the Rowlatt Acts of February 1919. The objective was to replace the repressive provisions of the Defence of India Act (1915) by a permanent law. The Act was hastily passed by the Imperial Legislative Council, the legislature of British India.
The Rowlatt Acts allowed certain political cases to be tried without juries and permitted internment of suspects without trial. The Acts empowered the British to thwart the Indian dream of an independent country. That an Act drawn premised upon a colonial law should be used by the state against its own people should actually have created a national uproar years ago.
But since the Act is used selectively to contain the peripheries of this country, such as the North-eastern states, which are perpetually suspected to be closer to China than to India and for Jammu and Kashmir where a proxy war by Pakistan has been raging since 1947 is also an indicator that the Indian population too believes that such laws are needed to win the loyalties of the people of these “troubled” peripheries.
That the Army and para-military forces operate to contain the internal strife in these regions and that they often use tactics of war against their own people (that is if the people of North-east India, are considered Indian enough) has been highlighted time and again even in international platforms, but to no avail.
As far as AF (SP) Act and Meghalaya are concerned, this law has never been used in the state hence there is a subdued response to its revocation recently. In Meghalaya, it was invoked in 1991 along a 20-km stretch of the Assam- Meghalaya border.
The intent was to prevent the prominent militant outfits from Assam such as the Ulfa and National Democratic Front of Bodoland from operating freely across the two states. Although Meghalaya is buffeted by insurgency since 1994, it is the state police that have handled the
situation. Only in 1998 was there an Army operation – Operation Birdie – in the areas adjoining West Khasi Hills and East Garo Hills, when the 59 Mountain Division was deployed. But that operation was short-lived as the Army was out of depth in that terrain.
Hence the people of Meghalaya were not impacted by the draconian clauses of AF(SP)Act which allow the security forces to operate with impunity, including shooting to kill anyone suspected to be a militant. Meghalaya was never declared a “Disturbed Area” which is the forerunner to the invocation of the AF(SP)Act
The argument put forth by the Centre in revoking the Act is equally interesting. The prime reason for removing this law from Meghalaya and parts of Arunachal Pradesh is because of the decline in the number of violent incidents in the two states. The rational adopted is essentially the decline in the number of dead militants, security forces and civilians (non-combatants) who lose their lives in collateral damage.
The South Asia Terrorism Portal points to “relative peace” in Manipur and Assam too since 2017. So why, are the chief ministers of the two BJP-ruled states, not demanding the revocation of this Act? Isn’t that one of the important pre-poll promises?
As far as Arunachal Pradesh is concerned the story is appalling. A central team has assessed the security situation in Tirap, Changlang and Longding, and accordingly 1,570 police personnel were appointed out of 1,949 sanctioned posts under the Centre’s special package for insurgency-hit districts. These posts were sanctioned for opening 11 new police stations and upgradation of nine existing police stations in the districts.
But those in the know say that those appointed were very soon used for personal security of VIPs. Many of those appointed asked to be posted to other districts closer to their homes. Hence the whole purpose of appointing additional forces to tackle extortion and violence unleashed by the NSCN (IM) and (K) groups remains unfulfilled. Whenever there is a public outcry against the NSCN in Arunachal Pradesh the easiest way out is to extend the AF(SP)Act. The state government remains unaccountable for the security and safety of its own citizens.
Very few question like how AF (SP) Act was lifted from Tripura in 2015, by then chief minister, Manik Sarkar, 18 years after its invocation. Sarkar argued then that the security situation in Tripura had improved. But there is the politics of AF(SP)Act which is not spoken or written about.
Sarkar was able to contain law and order in Tripura using the state police. Why are the chief ministers of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur and Nagaland unable to do the same despite the improved situation? Let me repeat the question asked earlier.
Since the AF(SP) Act is ostensibly invoked to deal with armed insurgency why is the same Act not invoked in the Maoist hits areas in the heart of the nation? Interestingly no one has raised this issue in Parliament.
In 2004, the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee visited the North Eastern states and given its recommendation for revocation of the Act. The UPA Government sat on it and the NDA government in 2015 rejected the Committee’s recommendations in toto. Assam, Manipur and Nagaland can, on their own, assess the security situation in their states and revoke the Disturbed Areas Act following which the AF(SP)Act can be withdrawn. But state governments have become too reliant on the Centre for maintenance of law and order. It is also a convenient excuse to blame the Centre for any act of insurgency in their states. In one sense the states are admitting that their police force is either incompetent or incapable of maintaining law and order or the state governments don’t care about the impunities visiting their own people via the AF (SP) Act.
The flip side about the AF (SP) Act other than the regular complaints of excesses by security forces is also that it has encouraged several subversive activities within the military. Drugs are peddled not just by nasty smugglers but also by defence officers operating in the “Disturbed Areas.” Teak from Myanmar regularly crosses the borders and reaches Delhi to adorn homes of serving and now retired Army officers. And this is not just a figment of my imagination.
A regular scanning of news reports will inform us of the deviant behaviour of men in uniform when they are appointed in so-called “troubled areas” where militant activities have come down. Making the Assam Rifles – a para-military force that is largely populated by army officers – the sentinel of the North East has its own connotation. Is the North East unsafe without these sentinels? Are the people unable to sustain peace on their own merit?
Is the military culture of gun-carrying, uniformed guys in bandana sought to be embedded in our psyche forever? Food for thought.
The writer is Editor of the Shillong Times and can be contacted at [email protected]