What has time and again been referred to as a ‘draconian’ act by human rights activists, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, popularly known as the AFSPA, continues to exist in major parts of Northeast India and Jammu and Kashmir.
Extensive protests, agitations, discussions and debates later, the face associated with the anti-AFSPA movement in Northeast India, Irom Sharmila, today broke her 16-year-long fast against the act. Sharmila has announced her intentions to join politics to enable the repeal of AFSPA.
Called the Iron Lady of India, she had begun the fast in November 2000 following the killing of 10 civilians by the armed forces. She was soon arrested on charges of attempting to commit suicide.
The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which is also being vociferously fought in Jammu and Kashmir, was initiated in 1958 conferring special powers upon the Armed forces to deal with the ‘disturbed areas’ of Northeast India and later Jammu and Kashmir in 1990.
What defines disturbed areas?
If, in relation to any state or Union Territory to which this act extends, the Governor of that state or the administrator of that Union Territory or the Central Government, in either case, is of the opinion that the whole or any part of such state of Union territory, as the case may be, is in such a disturbed or dangerous condition that the use of armed forces in aid of the civil power is necessary, the Governor of that state or the administrator of that Union Territory or the Central Government, as the case may be , may by notification in the Official Gazette, declare the whole or such part of such a state or Union territory to be a disturbed area.
The isolation of the seven sisters
Geographically isolated from mainland India, the Northeast India has long been a victim of neglect. From identity crisis to the slow pace of economic advancement, the problems of the region are plenty.
Employment exchanges in the Northeast underestimate unemployment because they exclude the rural and the other informal sectors, since most unemployed people are not registered. As a result, despite high levels of education, land continues to be the main reason of livelihood with immigrants taking up some of it.
The youth of Northeast who are unemployed find it easier to join such insurgent groups. Unemployment in this region is also due to the lack of private investment, thus forming a vicious circle.
These conflicts also have a complex economic structure within the various insurgent groups that are active in the Northeast India, affecting the economy of the country as a whole.
Audited accounts of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) recovered by the Indian Army revealed that in 1998-99 the outfit collected Rs 10.5 crore, out of which Rs 9.83 crore were spent under various heads like goodwill mission, camp maintenance, travel and dearness allowance, clothing, arms and ammunition, bail amount, and family allowance. The total balance of this outfit on January 31, 2000 was Rs 77.52 crore.
A similar budget of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) recovered by the army showed that its budget for 2001-02 was Rs 25 crore. The ULFA had a cadre of 1,000 to 1,200 armed men who are paid a monthly salary of Rs 2,000.
A long-drawn conflict
A complex transition zone of linguistic, racial and religious streams, the Northeast, with its ‘indigenous tribes’ represents successive waves of migrants, both from East and West, with many entering the region as late as the 19th century. The cultural mosaic was made more complex as a result of the British policy of ‘importing’ large numbers of administrators, plantation workers and cultivators from other parts of India.
However, the British policies worsened matters for the region. They excluded the tribal areas from the pattern of administration that prevailed in the rest of British India as well as from the gradual ‘democratisation’ that was taking place through the nationalist and the independence movement.
The local populations came into increasing friction with migrant populations that were better adapted to the institutions and processes of the modern world, giving rise to a proliferation of conflicts throughout the region.
Partition was an extraordinary disaster for the Northeast in particular: the separation of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) resulted in the abrupt severance of inland water, road and railway communications, as well as the loss of access to the Chittagong port, crippling crucial economic linkages and driving up costs of all commodities. A survey on conflicts in the area suggests that partition also brought with it unceasing waves of unwanted migration that disrupted existing demographic equations. It was followed by the Chinese takeover of Tibet and the sealing of borders with Burma/Myanmar.
From secession to autonomy, from sponsored terrorism to ethnic clashes, the conflicts in this region are varied. Migrant ingress from across the international borders and from other states of the country and Islamic fundamentalist groups add a new dimension to the conflict dynamics here. The groups follow a similar pattern of terror.
An internal war for the armed forces
The fact that the Armed Forces, whose primary function is external security, are being employed for internal security, has been largely debated.
India has not fought a war in almost the last 12 years, since Kargil, but its Army is busy fighting internal wars. The 57th Mountain division along with the Assam Rifles and the Rashtriya Rifles are engaged in fighting more than 7,000 militants in Manipur and Nagaland.
The Jeevan Reddy Report
The Jeevan Reddy Report, 2005, by the Ministry of Home Affairs of the Government of India recommended the repeal of the controversial Act. The committee suggested the transformation of the AFSP Act into a more humane act.
“The Act is too sketchy, bald and quite inadequate in several particulars," the report states, adding that “the Act, for whatever reason, has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness."
The International Court of Justice, Amnesty International, and Asia Watch have also implored the Government of India to scrap the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. The Jeevan Reddy report also demands that the definition of key phrases, especially ‘disturbed area’ must be clarified. The declaration that an area is disturbed should not be left to the subjective opinion of the Central or state government, it insists. It should have an objective standard which is judicially reviewable. Moreover, the declaration that an area is disturbed should be for a specified amount of time, no longer than six months. Such a declaration should not persist without legislative review.
It says that it is equally the duty of the Union and the state to protect the fundamental rights conferred upon the citizens of India.
A different definition
While various sections of the society, the civil population, the armed forces and the government have their views of the conflict-ridden regions, what needs to be taken into consideration are the people - the people of the ‘disturbed areas’ who view the Act as a failure of democracy.
Today, a young boy in Jammu and Kashmir sees a normal day way differently than kids in other parts of the country do. Armed men patrolling streets is a sight he grows up seeing. It is this child’s perspective and future that needs to be addressed.