It is learnt that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is likely to be withdrawn from all districts of Assam in the near future or as early as Aug 2019. The whole of Assam was declared disturbed on 27 Nov 1990 at the peak of the ULFA movement.
Last year, the central government had specifically empowered the state of Assam to recommend the continuation or revocation of the ‘disturbed areas’ status which enables AFSPA to be valid in a state, district or tehsil.
Based on this delegation, the state government has extended the status twice since Sep 2018 citing the publication of the final stages of work on the National Register of Citizens.
However, with that exercise out of the way from 31 Jul 2019 the ‘disturbed areas’ status will probably be revoked from all districts of Assam. The Army, it is learnt, has been asked to redeploy its forces, which had been moved for the conduct of counter-militancy operations. This is not a major problem as some of these were temporary billets and just a part of the forces responsible for border security with China are currently deployed for these operations.
What Is AFSPA, After All?
Three things here are important for public information and understanding. First, the rudimentary aspects of what AFSPA is all about. Second, the reasons why AFSPA is at all necessary in places such as Manipur, Nagaland, three districts of Arunachal Pradesh, and J&K. Third, why the Congress party as part of its manifesto is looking for its review.
AFSPA is a legal instrument to cater for a situation of breakdown of public order in a state/region. Through AFSPA the military can be empowered to conduct operations for the restoration of the situation without reference to civil authority and enjoy a degree of immunity from prosecution in the event of inadvertent mistakes in the course of duty.
In other words, AFSPA is an enabling instrument which permits the assistance from the Army beyond the normal ‘aid to civil authority’ which is restrictive and unsuitable for counter insurgency (CI) operations.
Under the latter, the Army can only perform its duties when requisitioned for specific actions and that too under the broad supervision of civil authority.
AFSPA becomes valid after imposition in a state only once disturbed areas are declared. If the entire state is declared a disturbed area then AFSPA is applicable to all the districts but the discretion to declare areas disturbed or not stays with the central government or is delegated to the state.
Why Manipur and Nagaland Still Need the AFSPA?
Assam’s security situation has improved very largely. Not only ULFA but also other groups have been decimated. Even more important, the potential for revival appears bleak in the light of a much improved relationship with Bangladesh and denial of any secure pastures for ULFA leaders. The financial conduits and networks have probably also been taken down. Thus, on the face of it a public order situation or threat does not seem to exist.
What is not entirely clear, however, is how the centre and the state governments are viewing the situation post 31 Jul 2019 when the NRC process will be complete. With utterances during the elections by political leaders of eviction of those not on NRC there is likely to be a piquant situation. Perhaps, the ‘aid to civil authority’ mode is being considered adequate to control any turbulence.
While Manipur, Nagaland and the three districts of Arunachal Pradesh continue to have AFSPA applicable (except Imphal in Manipur), its persistence by the Centre can easily be justified.
There is a ceasefire with NSCN (IM)—which is only one of the militant groups—but almost 34 militant groups exist in Manipur alone. There is unreliable ‘seizure of operations’ with some and active operations against others. Besides, the terrain is such that the border with Myanmar provides militants with access to safe havens in heavily forested areas across.
It’s only the presence of the Army which ensures conduct of full scale offensive counter insurgency operations. The Army’s garrisons and military stations need to be secured for which effective domination operations are required to be conducted extensively in civilian areas around them. Without AFSPA, the Army will cease to operate opening up enough space for the militant groups.
How AFSPA in Kashmir is Complicated by Local Politics and Pakistan
Coming to J&K, one of the most contentious and politicized issues is the presence of AFSPA which enables the Army to operate from the LoC to the deep hinterland and conduct counter terror (CT) operations.
Regional political parties find it difficult to face their electorate in the light of promises to revoke AFSPA. The Army’s large scale presence makes it vulnerable to manipulated accusations of human rights abuse.
However, it is also a truism that without the Army’s deployment the conduct of effective CT operations is extremely difficult.
The major difference in J&K is that Pakistan is involved in a focused proxy war through the employment of infiltration, local recruitment, extensive financial networks, and the use of radical ideology.
Despite effective CT operations alienation runs high and, therefore, the revocation of disturbed area status from even selected districts is difficult.
One example will illustrate this effectively. The Srinagar and Awantipora airfields have their security funnels extending into Badgam and Srinagar districts with scores of large villages present inside. These funnels need to be dominated 24x7 for the security of the airfields and the aircraft. Interestingly, these are the very districts that the politicians demand should have the disturbed area status revoked. A simple rule of CI operations needs to be brought home to the stakeholders – ‘the absence of violence is not normalcy’. Thus, until conditions in J&K are such that revival of insurgency/terror is no longer possible, AFSPA must remain.
Congress’s Promise of AFSPA Review Will Do Good in Fighting Perception Battles
The issue of the Congress party’s manifesto related promise of review of AFSPA and removal from some areas is an interesting one. However, it has played safe by adding that there will be no removal without consulting the Army. The latter is unlikely to be pressurized into any such thing unless clear indicators of change of Pakistan’s stance on proxy war are available.
While the BJP has been silent on any possible review of AFSPA prudent application of any analysis will point towards the need for an unbiased review by those fully conversant with the dynamics of the situation.
In actual effect AFSPA remains a very weak law with many flaws, which could not be perceived in 1990 when it was enacted for J&K.
At the same time it opens itself to all kinds of criticism and manipulation in terms of perception due to certain empowerment which, in effect, is not used. 30 years of experience has thrown up many contingencies which AFSPA does not cater to. The Congress’s promise makes it evident that the party hasn’t spent much time to understand the nuances fully. However, a review will do no harm. In fact it will do much good to fight perception battles and prevent Army personnel legally from awkward situations they are likely to find themselves in. These situations could never have been foreseen in 1990.
(The writer, a former GOC of the Army’s 15 Corps, is now the Chancellor of Kashmir University. He can be reached at @atahasnain53. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
This article was originally posted by The Quint. It was posted here with the author’s permission.
Photo Credit: National Park Service