Critics Clamor For Repeal of India’s Special Powers Act

By Rohit Wadhwaney and Amin Ahmad

2015-06-10
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150610-IN-irom-620 Manipur activist Irom Sharmila, on a hunger strike since November 2000, arrives at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, March 3, 2013.
AFP

A decades-old military emergency law is perpetuating violence in Jammu & Kashmir and the northeastern Indian states where it is in force, activists say.

The critics are calling on the Indian government to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958, which gives security forces sweeping powers, including allowing personnel to make warrantless arrests, to enter and search any premises, and shoot any suspect.

AFSPA, which is in force in J&K as well as the conflict-torn northeastern states of Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Nagaland, also provides immunity from prosecution for soldiers who conduct counterterrorist operations.

Irom Sharmila, a 43-year-old activist from Manipur who has staged a hunger strike of nearly 15 years to protest AFSPA, said the controversial law was “solely to blame for the June 4 attack” on an army convoy in Manipur’s Chandel district in which 20 soldiers were killed.

“Only when the AFSPA is repealed will such attacks stop. If the government removes excessive forces from the region, there won’t be any targets or reason for such attacks,” Sharmila, known as the Iron Lady of Manipur, told BenarNews in New Delhi.

She was in the Indian capital last week as part of an ongoing court case against her dating to 2006. She faces charges of attempted suicide – a crime in India.

Sharmila began her protest two days after members of the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary unit, allegedly shot dead 10 civilians waiting at a bus shed on the outskirts of Imphal, Manipur’s capital, on Nov. 2, 2000.

She has since refused solid food or water but has been force-fed at a hospital in Imphal, where she is jailed.

Cross-border raid

In retaliation for the June 4 killings, the Indian Army and Air Force on Wednesday jointly raided two insurgent camps inside Myanmar territory along the border with Manipur, killing up to 50 rebels, the NDTV reported, quoting official sources.

Officials in Myanmar denied that Indian forces had crossed the border, but said they would not tolerate rebels using their territory for cross-border attacks, Agence France-Presse reported.

"According to the information sent by Tatmadaw (Myanmar army) battalions on the ground, we have learned that the military operation was performed on the Indian side at India-Myanmar border," AFP quoted Zaw Htay, director of Myanmar’s presidential office, as saying.

"Myanmar will not accept any foreigner who attacks neighboring countries in the back and creates problems by using our own territory," he added.
Tripura example

On May 27, the state government in Tripura, another state in India’s restive northeast, lifted the controversial law. It had been in place for 18 years but state officials decided it was no longer needed because an insurgency in the state had ebbed.

Rights groups hailed the move in Tripura and called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to repeal the act.

“The people of the northeast are strongly opposed to the Act. The fact that the government is refusing to even consider its repeal has turned the people against the government. It has led to the common perception that whoever is an enemy of the state is a friend,” Kolkata-based activist Saswati Ghosh told BenarNews.

Such calls were made as far back as nine years ago.

“The Act, for whatever reason, has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high handedness,” a judicial committee, headed by Justice Jeevan Reddy, recommended to the government in 2006.

“It is highly desirable and advisable to repeal the Act altogether.”

The committee was established in 2004 following the rape and killing of Thangjam Manorama, a Manipuri woman and alleged member of an insurgent group, while she was in the custody of the Assam Rifles.

Modi’s government appears reluctant to abolish or consider diluting the act any time soon. In March, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said the government was not considering repealing it.

“The situation is not conducive to ending AFSPA now,” he said then.

Resentment in Kashmir

The government’s pronouncement appears to have inflamed passions in Kashmir, where AFSPA has been in force since 1990 after an insurgency broke out there in opposition to Indian rule.

Both India and Pakistan claim the Muslim-majority region as part of their own territory. Since 1947, the neighbors have fought three wars over Kashmir.

With a comparative reduction in violence in recent times, many Kashmiris say the government should repeal AFSPA in the state soon.

“The authorities should follow the move in Tripura and withdraw the act, as peace is gradually returning to Kashmir,” Advocate Ghulam Nabi Shaheen, chairman of the Kashmir Council for Justice, told BenarNews.

“The revocation of the controversial act will help restore complete normalcy and strengthen democracy in the state,” he added.

Who has the final say

Meanwhile, the state’s ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and its coalition partner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), disagree over the issue of withdrawing the act. The parties are expected to meet next month to discuss the issue.

The PDP advocates its withdrawal in phases, whereas the BJP says the security services should have the last word.

“Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed recently made it clear that the PDP was committed to abolish the act,” Abdul Haq Khan, state minister for Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, told BenarNews.

“Senior security officials from the army, police, Central Reserve Police Force and government’s top brass will hold the meeting in another six weeks to discuss if the act needed to be revoked from certain areas,” Ashok Koul, general secretary of the state BJP, told BenarNews.

Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar said recently that AFSPA had to be in place if the army was deployed in any state for internal security reasons.

“The army’s job is not internal security. But if I am given a task for internal security, then there have to be appropriate powers. Those powers come to me throughAFSPA,” Parrikar told the Press Trust of India on May 29.

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