Time to Repeal AFSPA

On July 1, 2015, the human rights organization Amnesty International released a damning new report detailing the abuses carried out under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Kashmir. It is a difficult read: torture, rape, and extrajudicial killings are rampant and unchecked by a military that works to impede the implementation of justice. Unfortunately, accusations of abuse by Indian security personnel (with the protection of AFSPA) are not new. Since the 1990s, reports from human rights organizations and India observers have frequently pointed out the abuses carried out in Jammu and Kashmir, India’s Northeast, and formerly, in Punjab (where AFSPA was withdrawn during the 90s.) Despite these abuses, AFSPA remains in effect in several Indian states with no indication that it will be removed anytime soon. However the law remains a scourge on India’s democratic character, and ultimately fails to diffuse the insurgency.

AFSPA draws inspiration from similar ordinances passed by the British to suppress dissent during colonial reign. First implemented in 1958 to quell rebellion in some of the Northeastern states, the law was also applied to Punjab in the 1980s, and has been in effect in Kashmir since the 1990s. Tripura, which had AFSPA instituted in 1997, saw the law removed in May 2015.  

Officials in the Indian military (as well as some politicians) maintain that AFSPA is vital in “disturbed areas.” Writing in the Indian Defence Review, Lt. General Mukesh Sabharwal argued that AFSPA was an operational necessity for the armed forces operating in Kashmir, as it provides legal cover for military actions during a counterinsurgency. Unsurprisingly, Sabharwal opposes any removal of AFSPA in Kashmir despite the territory’s decreased level of violence, pointing to militant camps in Pakistan, the Kashmiri population’s agitation for independence, and the continued displacement of Kashmiri Pandits in the valley. A similar view is echoed by Army Chief General V. K. Singh, who argues that international events such as the US drawdown in Afghanistan require that AFSPA be kept in place.

Predictably, elements of the Indian public as well as government officials reacted negatively to the Amnesty International report. Critics accused Amnesty and other human rights organizations of unfairly targeting India and ignoring the abuses of the militants, despite the fact that many reports have indeed pointed out the abuses carried out by non-state actors and Pakistan’s role in the fighting (as well as human rights violations carried out in Azad Kashmir.) This does not excuse the ill-treatment of the Kashmiri population by the Indian armed forces— reports of which are hardly propaganda, but rather, well documented. Former soldiers and officers in the Indian military have discussed their experiences operating in Kashmir, corroborating some of the accounts of  abuses. Commissions carried out by the Indian government have also confirmed some of the accusations of maltreatment, yet no administration has taken action to repeal or even water down the law to prevent misconduct.

But the most damning fact about AFSPA is that is is ultimately ineffective. While violence has decreased in many of the areas in which it is implemented, the insurgencies have not gone away. Why? The Indian government is attempting to solve political problems through the use of military force. The damage caused by the Indian military only strengthen resentment towards the central government.

November 2014 saw five soldiers tried and convicted for killing three civilians in Maachil, Kashmir. The civilians were promised high paying work by the military men, who then killed the civilians and labelled the dead militants in hopes of gaining some reward. This conviction was a rarity, as soldiers who commit atrocities are often protected. Then-Chief Minister Omar Abdullah praised the decision, describing it as a watershed moment. The November conviction created hope that the Modi government would work to improve the human rights situation in areas under AFSPA. The removal of AFSPA from Tripura generated further optimism that other states would soon see the controversial law revoked. Yet so far officials in the Modi government have rebuffed public pleas to remove the law.

The Modi government should take this opportunity to repeal AFSPA from Kashmir and other ‘disturbed’ areas. Besides tarnishing India’s image, the law is ultimately ineffective at what it was designed to do. At the end of the day, it is important to remember that the people of Kashmir and the Northeast are Indian citizens. If India truly views Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast as Indian territories, their inhabitants deserve the same respect as citizens from other states.