Guwahati: Manipur based activist Irom Chanu Sharmila aka 'Iron lady', who solely held a 16-year fast protest against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA, seemed delighted when she heard that the Centre has decided to reduce the 'controversial' law in Assam, Nagaland and Manipur.
It was a partial victory for her. Her hope is that the AFSPA be abolished completely; she said can only be completely happy when that day comes. "It can be taken as a new beginning and a result of the decades-long fights of northeasterners. I want AFSPA to be abolished permanently from the entire northeast," said Sharmila.
From 2000 to 2016, Irom Sharmila was on a hunger strike pressing the Centre to repeal AFSPA and demanding justice for civilians killed by security forces in Manipur.
However, Sharmila's long struggle and her demand of repealing the law virtually lost their relevance, to the masses, when she decided to end her fast and contested the Manipur state elections in 2017. With the repeal of AFSPA as her main agenda in the elections, she faced a defeat.
Why Is AFSPA Called 'Draconian'?
The AFSPA is a successor to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance of 1942, enacted by the British to suppress the Quit India Movement. Post-independence, the Centre brought in the AFSPA in September 1958 to quell the disturbance in north-eastern states.
Termed draconian, the Act gives sweeping powers to the armed forces. Under the law, security forces are allowed to open fire, even causing death, against any person in contravention of the law or carrying arms and ammunition. It also gives them powers to arrest anyone and search premises without warrants, on the basis of reasonable suspicion only.
The Act even contains immunity clauses for the armed forces even if they are involved in violations of the right to life or torture.
The AFSPA was passed by the Indian Parliament on September 11, 1958. The Parliament was told it would last no longer than a year. It has been 64 years since then.
The debate over the law, once again cropped up recently, when a military operation, involving one of the most elite units of the Indian Army, led to the killing of seven coal mine workers in Oting in Mon District of Nagaland in December 2021 due to "mistaken identity". The incident sparked violent protests leading to more deaths - a total of 13- at the hands of security forces triggering a renewed demand for the repeal of AFSPA in the region.
Massive public outcry, both online and offline, broke against AFSPA and the governments in Assam, Nagaland and Manipur assured of reviewing the situation.
On Thursday, the Narendra Modi government significantly reduced the the footprnt of AFSPA, removing it entirely from 23 districts and one subdivision in Assam and partially from seven districts in Nagaland and six districts in Manipur.
Once notified in the gazette, AFSPA will remain in force only in parts of these three states, along with parts of Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir.
Why Was AFSPA In These States?
The state of Assam was declared as a 'Disturbed Area' in the intervening night of November 27-28, 1990 under Armed Forces (Special Power) Act, 1958 to combat insurgency in the state. Since the imposition of AFSPA, the validity of operation of this Act in the entire state of Assam has been extended 61 times, each time for a duration of six months.
With the reduction of AFSPA, around 60 percent of the state's total area will be now free from the controversial act.
Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said that now the entire lower, central and northern districts of Assam are free from AFSPA. "While United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) or ULFA (I) and a few tribal separatists groups continue to be active in Upper Assam districts and hill districts of Barak valley, the government will take some more time to review the situation in these areas. I am sure AFSPA will be lifted from these areas too in the coming days with peace negotiations taking shape," Sarma said.
From now, AFSPA will be in force in the districts of Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Charaideo, Sivasagar, Jorhat, Golaghat, Karbi Anglong, West Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao. Moreover, it will be in force in Lakhipur Sub Division of Cachar district.
The last extension declaring the entire state of Assam as "Disturbed Area" in exercise of powers conferred by Section 3 of the Armed Force (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) (28 of 1958) was issued on February 28, 2022 for a further period of six months.
The reduction will also impact the 'unified command' structure of security forces in the state where state police, paramilitary forces and army work together. It will also be restricted to the areas where AFSPA would be in force only.
In Nagaland, AFSPA was imposed on the entire state after the Naga nationalist movement kicked off in the 1950s. However, only after the Oting incident last year, the Nagaland Assembly passed a resolution for the first time for the repeal of AFSPA.
Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio said that the latest decision by the Centre was significant towards bringing stability, security and prosperity to the northeastern region.
Following the turmoil by Nagaland based insurgents; AFSPA was imposed in neighbouring Manipur in 1958 in the three Naga-dominated districts of Senapati, Tamenglong and Ukhrul. Subsequently, in 1960, it was imposed in Churachandpur district citing Mizo insurgency and then was extended to the rest of the state in 1979.
Before the recently concluded state polls, Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh, too, demanded to repeal the law.
It may be mentioned that UN Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay had asked India to repeal the AFSPA in March 2009. She termed the law as outdated and colonial-era law that breach contemporary international human rights standards. The UN in 2012 once again reminded India to revoke AFSPA saying it had no place in Indian democracy.
Can Removing AFSPA Be A Game Changer?
The announcement of reducing AFSPA in the three states has been welcomed by these three states.
Political experts believed that it would not only calm down the anger among commoners after the Oting incident but would also significantly help demilitarise the region.
Narendra Modi and several union ministers, in various speeches, have called the eight northeastern states as 'Astha Laxmi' (Houses of fourtune) due to its natural resources like oil, gas, coal, water and wildlife. The reduction of AFSPA, it is believed, will open a floodgate of opportunity for the region.
The PM has been assuring to make the northeast the gateway to Southeast Asia.
Assam chief minister Sarma termed Centre's decision as a pre-Bihu (spring festival) gift for the people of the state. He said that the reduction has not only established the fact that the law and order situation in the state has immensely improved but would also attract global investment.
According to union home ministry data, the northeastern states recorded a total of 824 incidents of insurgency when the Narendra Modi government came to power. It came down to 20 in the next five years. The data also highlighted that casualties of civilians, which were 212 in 2014, came to 2 by 2020.
"This will give a message that Assam is now ready for investment, industrialization, innovation, infrastructural development," he told the state assembly on Friday.
"This is a significant development towards bringing stability, security and prosperity to the northeast region," added Nagaland CM Rio.
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