Unwanted AFSPA
For how much longer can the Army, and the effete defence minister who backs it on this score, continue to trample over public opinion, remain immune to the plight of suffering people, and thrive on a cocktail of unbridled power, false prestige and pique? Terribly damning is the report of the Supreme Court-appointed commission that probed the misuse of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Manipur. Personalities as eminent as Santosh Hegde, AK Singh and JM Lyngdoh have added authenticity to the lament/condemnation from a host of civil rights groups ~ the long-fasting Irom Sharmila has attained iconic status worldwide, though Raisina Hill is unmoved ~ over the application of the draconian law these past several years. The more recent high-decibel protest from the Kashmir Valley must also “register”. While the Army has succeeded in resisting calls for diluting/modifying AFSPA, the Law Commission is among those advocating amendments, the findings of the Hegde panel could change the equation. The Constitutional validity of AFSPA had earlier been upheld by the apex court, now much importance will be given to whether the manner in which it has been enforced musters judicial approval. While the panel dealt with Manipur, a key observation has relevance to J&K too: “It would appear that the security forces believed a priori that the suspects involved in their encounters had to be eliminated and acted accordingly”. After deeming “not genuine” six encounters it examined and that “maximum force” had been used, the panel noted that while the forces were shielded, the people enjoyed no protection. “Normally the greater the power, the greater the restraint and stricter the mechanism to prevent its misuse, abuse… but in the case of AFSPA in Manipur this principle appears to have been reversed.” If any further “evidence” were needed, the comments on AFSPA of the Verma committee on violence against women provides it: there is no place in democratic India for AFSPA in its present configuration. By refusing to acknowledge its transgressions the Army could be painting itself into a corner ~ necessitating remedial directives from the Court.
It is true that the Army does not relish internal security duties, is deployed after the police/paramilitary prove inept. It is equally true that AFSPA was legislated to meet temporary, emergency situations: the larger failures of the government have resulted in its being in force for 55 years in Manipur, 23 in Kashmir. Yet the Army&’s contention that it cannot undertake counter-insurgency operations without oppressing the local folk turns upside down that celebrated exhortation at Chetwode Hall.
90 years for 91!
A 91-year-old Bangladeshi Islamist has been sentenced to 90 years in jail. Monday&’s verdict against Ghulam Azam, one of the key collaborators with Pakistan in the 1971 genocide, has been greeted with a measure of shock and awe on both sides of the political and religious divide. Indeed, the reaction mirrors the sharply polarised society that Bangladesh showcases today. While the Islamist fringe deems the sentence, handed down by the War Crimes Tribunal, as too harsh, the perceived secularists, most importantly the post-’71 progressives, reckon that it is “too weak” as it falls short of the death sentence. In a sense, therefore, neither side has got what it wanted and the tribunal, faced with the war-cry at Shahbag Square, appears to have effected a balancing act, as emotive as it is delicate. Critically enough, the tribunal concluded that a death sentence would have been appropriate for the charges, but instead handed down what is effectively life in prison. Azam may be grateful for the minor mercy, having been convicted of crimes during the country&’s liberation struggle, indeed the fifth such conviction in course of the war-crimes trial. On the face of it, the fury that has marked the Shahbagh upheaval may have attained fruition. The Awami League&’s judicial reprisal against the “collaborators” may also have reached its logical conclusion with the sentence. Equally, it shan’t be easy for the Awami government to countenance renewed backlash by the fundamentalists, now emboldened with the serial victories of the BNP in a string of  civic elections.
The establishment is on a sticky wicket and the victory at the tribunal could well be offset with the surge in fundamentalist fury. It is a measure of that simmering fury in the year before the national elections that Monday&’s shutdown in Dhaka was called by the Jamaat-e-Islami in advance of the expected verdict. The fact that at least one person was beaten to death by political activists for failing to heed the strike call reaffirms that Bangladesh is on a powder-keg. The strike had its echo in large parts of the country, notably Barisal, Chittagong, Rajshahi, Comilla and Bagerhat. Notably once more, most of these cities had recently elected the pro-Islamist Bangladesh Nationalist Party to power in the civic elections. The Jamaat is a key entity in the Opposition coalition. And the claim that the tribunal proceedings represent a politically-motivated persecution of the Jamaat leadership is bound to present Begum Khaleda a readymade campaign plank against Begum Hasina in the months ahead of the elections. The plot thickens with more such verdicts expected in the months ahead. The loop of convictions has now been extended with the death sentence awarded to Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed, the secretary-general of the Jamaat-e-Islami. The leadership of the fundamentalist entity has reached its nemesis.