Context: The Union Home Minister has said that the Centre has decided to “reduce the disturbed areas” under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in Nagaland, Assam and Manipur.
Decoding the News
- AFSPA law has already been withdrawn from one district of Assam, and within the limits of four police stations (Wangoi, Leimakhong, Nambol and Moirang) in Manipur.
- A few days back, the law was withdrawn from the jurisdiction of three police stations in the Wokha and Zunheboto districts of Nagaland, while one police station in Arunachal Pradesh — Chowkham — was declared a “Disturbed Area” under the Act.
What is Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958?
- Origin: The Act in its original form was promulgated by the British in response to the Quit India movement in 1942.
- After Independence, the act was retained, first brought in as an ordinance and then notified as an Act in 1958.
- Objective: The act provides certain special powers to armed forces members operating in disturbed areas in the State of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura.
- It is enforced by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
- Reasons for Imposition:
- Tackle secessionist movements: The north-eastern states of Nagaland, Mizoram, Assam, Manipur etc. witnessed a rise in secessionist activities, aiming to break away from India.
- The law aimed to overcome these movements by giving extraordinary powers to the armed forces.
- Naga movement: The initial aim of the AFSPA was to overcome the Naga movement. The law was passed in Parliament, and subsequently imposed on the entire state. It was subsequently extended to other disturbed areas.
- Disturbed Area: A disturbed area is declared under Section 3 of the AFSPA.
- An area can be disturbed due to differences or disputes between members of different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities.
- The Union Government or the Governor of the State or administrator of the Union Territory can declare the whole or part of the State or Union Territory as a disturbed area.
- Powers under AFSPA:
- Firing: The armed forces and the Central Armed Police Forces deployed in specified “disturbed areas” can fire and kill anyone acting in accordance of law.
- Arrest and detention: Arrest anyone based on suspicion, without a warrant.
- Individual arrested and taken into custody under this act has to be handed over to the officer in charge of the nearest police station.
- Search: Security forces can search any premises without a warrant. They can stop and search any vehicle based on suspicion.
- Protection from prosecution: Security forces are given protection from prosecution and legal suits. The Central government’s sanction is required for prosecution.
- Destruction: Destroy any arms dump, hide-outs, fortified shelter from which armed attacks are carried out.
- Judicial review: There shall not be any judicial review of the government’s judgment on why an area is found to be disturbed.
- The act was amended in 1972 to give powers to the Central government, along with the States, to declare an area as “disturbed”.
- Based on the mandate, the Home Ministry issues periodic “disturbed area” notification, to extend AFSPA for the states of Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.
- The notification for extending AFSPA in Manipur and Assam is issued by the respective State governments.
Judicial Committees to review AFSPA
- The Justice Verma Committee: The committee aimed to review the laws against sexual assault. It mentioned how the Armed Forces Special Powers Act legitimizes the immunity against sexual violence against women.
- The Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee: The committee observed that the law had become “a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high headedness. It had suggested that the act should be repealed.
- Justice Hegde Commission: The commission observed that there was a lack of enforceable safeguarding rights at the root level against the “sweeping powers” given to the armed forces.
Significance of AFSPA Act
- Effective Counter-Insurgency: The fighting capability of the militants in the North-East and J&K has improved considerably.
- Hence, with the powers given by AFSPA, the armed forces have been able to protect the borders of the country for decades.
- Operational Hurdles: The Armed Forces are required to operate in hostile terrain, facing an unfriendly population environment exposing themselves to grave dangers.
- Legal Battles: Working under a challenging environment requires a protective law otherwise the forces get embroiled in legal battles and their effectiveness is reduced.
- Effective Law and Order: The provisions of the AFSPA are invoked only when the State Government is unable to maintain peace and tranquility.
Success of AFSPA
- Decline in extremist incidents: Compared to 2014, there has been a 76% reduction in the extremist incidents in the year 2022.
- Decline in fatalities: Deaths of security personnel and civilians have reduced by 90% and 97% respectively during this period.
- Decline in areas under imposition: The improvement in security situation has allowed Disturbed Area notification under the AFSPA to be completely withdrawn from Tripura in 2015 and Meghalaya in 2018.
Criticism of AFSPA
- Alienating people of north-east: The use of force to overcome popular movements has further alienated people of north-east.
- Many families have lost their loved ones to military actions. People of the region feel alienated from India.
- Violation of human rights: India’s judicial organs and other international groups have described AFSPA as a symbol of oppression.
- There are widespread instances of extended custody and torture by the security forces. Innocents have suffered under the draconian law.
- Misuse by armed forces: Security forces have used the law for their own personal benefits. There were instances of them carrying out kidnapping and extortion under the protective veil of AFSPA.
- Encroaching upon the powers of the state governments: Security personnel operating in AFSPA areas work parallel to the state security forces. Their actions sometimes encroach upon the jurisdiction of state security agencies.
Incidents of Misuse of AFSPA Law
- The Mon incident
- Armed Forces fired upon a group of civilians returning from work in 2021, assuming they were members of the banned outfit NSCN (K).
- Civilians lost their lives owing to the firing but Armed Forces Personnel responsible for the incident were not charged due to immunity under AFSPA.
- The Malom Incident
- In 2000, 10 civilians waiting at the bust stop were killed by the 8th Assam Rifles at Malom town, near Imphal’s Tulihal airport. It was alleged to be a fake encounter.
- Following the incident, Irom Sharmila went on a hunger strike, demanding complete withdrawal of AFSPA.
- Tinsukia Fake encounter
- In 1994, 18 Punjab regiment picked up nine youths from their homes following the death of a Tea estate manager, who was allegedly killed by members of ULFA.
- Following a Habeus Corpus petition, 4 of them were released while the rest of them were shot dead in a remote location.