I am sure that you have heard a great deal about Anna Hazare’s hunger strike for the Lokpal Bill. I am also sure that you have heard about Baba Ramdev’s bizarre fast and its fallout. However, does the name Irom Sharmila ring a bell? No? what about AFSPA? No idea? Get idea! You really need to read this post…
More than 10 years ago when Assam Rifles soldiers shot ten civilians in Manipur, a 28 year old activist decided to go on a fast. No drama, no press conferences, no rally at Ramlila Maidan or Jantar Mantar grounds, just a personal act of protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958 (AFSPA). Irom Sharmila,[wiki link] still on a fast, has not voluntarily consumed a single morsel of food in 10 long years.[news link] She has vowed to continue her fast till the day that the government repeals the draconian AFSPA law.
Living in the northeast means that you do not have ministers rushing to discuss your demands. Just three days after she began her fast the police arrested her and charged her with ‘attempt to commit suicide’, a crime under the section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. She is kept under arrest in a hospital and force fed through nasal tubes every day. Since the punishment for attempt to commit suicide is just imprisonment for a year, she is released and arrested again every year for ten years now.
She has lived this life of constant hospitalisation and force feeding of liquid food for almost eleven years now. Just imagine the resilience and the will power she must possess. Could you live such a lifestyle for even a week? It is a pity that the Indian media turned its spot light on Baba Ramdev but has largely forgotten Irom Sharmila. Here I shall try to shed some light on the issue of AFSPA.
What is wrong with AFSPA?
AFSPA gives the Armed Forces special powers when operating in areas which are declared as disturbed areas by the state or the Central government. This currently includes the whole of the north east. Some of these special powers include –
- The power to arrest without a warrant and using force if necessary, any person who has committed a cognizable offence or is suspected to have committed or about to commit an offence.
- The power to enter and search without a warrant any premises to make any such arrest.
- The power to fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law or order in force in the disturbed area prohibiting the assembly of five or move persons.
- The power to destroy property if it is suspected of being an arms dump or a fortified position.
- The Armed Forces personnel using these powers cannot be prosecuted unless a special permission is granted by the Central Government which rarely is.
I have summarised the powers mentioned in the act and expressed them in simple terms. You can read the original AFSP Act in full at the Ministry of Home Affairs website – http://bit.ly/AFSPAct
So, in short, the Armed Forces operating in the North East have vast powers to ‘tackle insurgency’ which the police and Armed Forces in other parts of the country don’t. However, over the past five decades there have been numerous instances of the Armed Forces abusing these powers. Every year there are multiple allegations soldiers raping or killing civilians which cannot be investigated thoroughly because of the AFSPA.
Why AFSPA needs to be repealed...
Is it alright for the government almost suspends all civil liberties during times of insurgency? Laws preventing assembly of five or more people were the laws many of our freedom fighters protested against. Do such regulations have a place in independent India? The right to life and personal liberty is fundamental and by simple common sense it should extend absolutely to all Indians. It is ridiculous that the citizens living in the northeastern states be liable to being arrested without a warrant while a warrant is necessary before citizens living in other parts of the country are arrested.
Secondly, many claim that the AFSPA is breeding separatism rather than helping to fight it. The South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre says –
“Government’s call for increased force exemplifies the vicious cycle which has been instituted in the North East due to the AFSPA. The use of the AFSPA pushes the demand for more autonomy, giving the people of the North East more reason to want to secede from a state which enacts such powers and the agitation which ensues continues to justify the use of the AFSPA from the point of view of the Indian Government."
Do you care?
Before you think about any problem associated with the North Eastern States, and criticise any of the stakeholders be it the army, the separatists or the civilians, do think about how much do you know about the North East? Can you put a finger on a blank map of India to show where Manipur is? Can you name a single chief minister of any of the North Eastern states? No laws or development projects can help to deal with separatism unless the rest of the country begins to consciously recognise the easterners as equal citizens. AFSPA causes much agony in the North East but not as much as being asked “Are you Chinese?” or “Are you Bhutanese?” when the northeasterners travel to Delhi or Bombay.