After the event in Mon district, in which security personnel killed 13 civilians, the Nagaland Cabinet proposed that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958 be repealed in the state. In the northern eastern states, this has long been a desire. Both Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio and Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma have urged the AFSPA to be repealed in the aftermath of the shooting.
According to Nagaland authorities, the executions have the potential to sow distrust in the Indian administration and undermine the ongoing peace talks between the Centre and Naga rebel groups.
What is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958?
The British passed the Act in its original version in response to the Quit India campaign in 1942. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru opted to keep the Act after Independence, which had been introduced as an ordinance and subsequently notified as an Act in 1958.
During the militant years, AFSPA was implemented in the Northeast states, Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab. The first state to abolish it was Punjab, which was followed by Tripura and Meghalaya. Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, J&K, and portions of Arunachal Pradesh are still under it.
After a state or portions of it are declared “disturbed” under Section 3, the Centre or the Governor of a state may impose special powers for the armed forces on the state or parts of it. According to the Act, these are places that are “in such a disturbed or dangerous state that the use of military forces in the assistance of civil power is essential.” AFSPA has been used in places where there has been a lot of militancy.
The Act, which has been dubbed “draconian,” provides the military with broad authority. It authorises them to open fire, potentially killing anybody who is breaking the law or carrying weapons and ammunition. It grants them the authority to arrest people without warrants based on “reasonable suspicion,” as well as search people’s homes without a warrant.
The Act also grants security personnel participating in such operations blanket immunity: no prosecution or legal action can be brought against them without the prior consent of the Centre.
Are there any safeguards in place?
While the Act grants security officers the authority to shoot, they cannot do so without first warning the suspect. It has been debated whether security personnel offered prior notice before opening fire on a van transporting coal workers, and subsequently on a violent crowd, in the Mon shooting.
According to the act, all suspects arrested by security agents must be turned over to the local police station within 24 hours.
It states that the armed forces must work in tandem with the district government rather than act alone. Local law enforcement officials said they were unaware of the operation on Monday.
What efforts have been made in the past to abolish AFSPA?
Irom Sharmila, a Manipur activist, initiated a 16-year hunger strike against AFSPA in the year 2000. In 2004, the UPA administration established a five-member committee chaired by a former Supreme Court Justice. In 2005, the Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission issued a report declaring AFSPA to be a symbol of tyranny and urging that it be repealed. These suggestions were adopted by the Second Administrative Reforms Commission, which was led by Veeerapa Moily.
Former Home Secretary G K Pillai has also advocated for the abolition of AFSPA, while former Home Minister P Chidambaram has said that the Act should be reformed if not abolished. However, objections from the Defense Ministry put a stop to any decision.
The UPA formed a cabinet sub-committee to examine the topic further. The NDA administration then disbanded the subcommittee and dismissed the Reddy Commission’s conclusions.
How many times have state governments objected to it?
While the Act gives the Centre the authority to apply AFSPA unilaterally, it is normally done informally in consultation with the state governments. After receiving a recommendation from the state government, the Centre may decide to abolish AFSPA. Nagaland, which has just proposed repeal, has previously raised the demand too, without success.
AFSPA was similarly implemented by the Centre in Tripura in 1972, despite objections from the state administration at the time.
In 2012, former Congress Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh of Manipur said that he opposed repealing AFSPA because of the severe law and order scenario in the state.
Many politicians have made a career out of opposing AFSPA, notably current Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh, who ran for office in 2002 to “fight AFSPA” after ten people were killed by the 8th Assam Rifles in Malom Makha Leikai in 2000.
What have been the societal repercussions?
In the 1950s, Nagaland and Mizoram bore the brunt of AFSPA, which included Indian military air attacks and bombings. Accusations of mass murder and rape have been levelled at security troops.
Manipur has possibly the greatest documentation of the consequences. Following the Malom tragedy in 2000, and the assassination and alleged rape of Thangjam Manorama, which led to the subsequent repeal of AFSPA from the Imphal municipal area,
Human rights advocates claim that the Act is often used to settle personal scores, such as property disputes, with fake information given to security agents by local informants.
Between 1979 and 2012, the Manipur Extrajudicial Execution Victim Families Association filed a lawsuit before the Supreme Court claiming 1,528 false encounters. According to activists, these peaked in 2008-09.
Former Chief Election Commissioner J M Lyngdoh and retired Karnataka DGP Ajay Kumar Singh were appointed by the Supreme Court to a three-member committee led by former judge Santosh Hegde. The committee looked at six examples of suspected false encounters, including the 2009 killing of 12-year-old Azad Khan, and came to the conclusion that they were all fake encounters.
The Court formed a special inquiry team of five CBI personnel and one member of the National Human Rights Commission. The CBI charged Army Major Vijay Singh Balhara in Khan’s killing in 2018, but no security personnel have been charged in other incidents.
Activists point out that AFSPA fosters impunity among even state agencies, such as the Manipur Police and its Manipur Commandos, which are thought to be responsible for the majority of encounters in the state, some of which are carried out in collaboration with the Assam Rifles.
The SIT has examined 39 instances involving 85 civilian casualties and produced final findings on 32 of them. With the exception of the Khan massacre, 100 Manipur police officers have been indicted, but no action has been taken against Assam Rifles personnel.