Polls in northeast: Ministers rush to defend army on AFSPA

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New Delhi/Bangalore, Feb 7: Why is that the Central government finding time to talk on the draconian AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act), and try to explain away the atrocities under the act?

The immediate compulsion is elections in three northeastern states (Nagaland, Tripura and Meghalaya), the second concern is defence budget and then comes the exclusion of it (AFSPA) from the ordinance ever after the Verma Committee specifically suggested amendments.

The act allows an officer of the armed forces to use measures such as make unwarranted arrests or search any premises to make arrests. The extreme clauses in the law, which has been implemented in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and was later extended to Jammu and Kashmir, have led to misuse of the powers given to the para-military forces, with civil rights activists launching widespread protests demanding its rollback.

Soldiers

Yesterday, while Finance Minister (earlier home minister) P Chidambaram blamed the army for opposing any dilution of the act, Defence Minister AK Antony assured ruthless action against armed forces personnel involved in crimes against women. Both Chidambaram and Antony are making necessary noise to contain voices against armed forces because of noth east elections this month. The congress is holding power in Meghalaya, trying to regain in Nagaland and wants to at least give some scare to leftist government in Tripura.

Resorting to rhetoric, Antony said in Bangalore "our government is serious and concerned about the security of women. We will take strongest action against people who create problems for women. The ordinance is coming to Parliament. After it, we will be able to take strong against such people ruthlessly. That applies to armed forces also."

The Minister was commenting on the opposition by women activists over armed forces personnel covered by AFSPA to be kept out of the ordinance's purview. He said the armed forces have been issued directives that there would be "zero tolerance" policy by the Defence Ministry towards crimes against women. "I assure you that we have given directives to armed forces that regarding crime against women, our policy would be of zero tolerance. We will take strong, speedy and convincing actions", Antony said.

On the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act, he sought to link the importance of the Act with the regional and global security situation and said no hasty decision could be taken on that. "Earlier, your colleagues had asked about the situation in neighborhood. Considering that, we have to be very serious. We cannot take a hasty decision on that", the Defence Minister said.

Now from rhetoric to helplessness of the government, which Chidambaram wants us to believe with him. According to Chidambaram the Army has taken a strong stand against any dilution or amendment to AFSPA, making it difficult for the government to move forward on this proposal.

"The armed forces, and especially the Chief of Army Staff, the present one and the previous one, have taken a very strong position that AFSPA should not be amended," he said while delivering the K Subrahmanyam Memorial Lecture in New Delhi. There was a proposal to amend the AFSPA as also to lift it from certain areas of Jammu and Kashmir but the Defence Ministry is strongly opposed to it.

"Now, how does the government move forward in the face of such widely divergent views on the sensitive subject"? Chidambaram said. Chidambaram and Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah are in favour of dilution of AFSPA. "My view on AFSPA is known, the view of the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir on AFSPA is known. We have Jeevan Reddy Committee report but yet if the Army takes a very strong stand against any dilution or any amendment to AFSPA, it is difficult for a civil government to move forward," Chidambaram said.

"I think you should ask the question to the armed forces and ask why are they so opposed to even some amendment to AFSPA which will make AFSPA more humanitarian," he said.

What is AFSPA?

On September 11, 1958, the Parliament passed an Act that conferred special powers upon armed forces in what was described as "Disturbed Areas". These "disturbed" areas primarily included the north eastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura.

According to this Act, an officer had the legitimate power in any area declared as "disturbed", fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law against "assembly of five or more persons" or possession of deadly weapons. To arrest without a warrant and with the use of "necessary" force anyone who has committed certain offenses or is suspected of having done so to enter and search any premise in order to make such arrests.

In 1972 amendments to the AFSPA extended the power to declare an area disturbed to the Central Government. In the 1958 version of the AFSPA only the state governments had this power.

Under Section 4 of the act, special powers are granted to the commissioned officer, warrant officer, or non-commissioned officer, only a jawan (private) does not have these powers. This Section allows the armed forces personnel to use force for a variety of reasons.

The army can shoot to kill, under the powers of section 4(a), for the commission or suspicion of the commission of the following offenses: acting in contravention of any law or order for the time being in force in the disturbed area prohibiting the assembly of five or more persons, carrying weapons, or carrying anything which is capable of being used as a fire-arm or ammunition. To justify the invocation of this provision, the officer need only be "of the opinion that it is necessary to do so for the maintenance of public order" and only give "such due warning as he may consider necessary".

The army can arrest anyone without a warrant under section 4(c) who has committed, is suspected of having committed or of being about to commit, a cognisable offense and use any amount of force "necessary to effect the arrest".

Under section 4(d), the army can enter and search without a warrant to make an arrest or to recover any property, arms, ammunition or explosives which are believed to be unlawfully kept on the premises. This section also allows the use of force necessary for the search.

Campaign in March against the Act

A week-long campaign will be launched across the country on March 8 to demand revocation of the Act, National Alliance for People's Movement (NAPM) has said. The Save Sharmila campaign by NAPM will be launched on International Women's Day.

Irom Sharmila Chanu, a human rights activist, has been on an indefinite hunger strike for nearly a decade in Manipur, demanding the withdrawal of AFSPA from the state.

Arguments against the Act

A 'people's review' report has concluded that a prolonged imposition of the AFSPA in Manipur has had an adverse effect on children's right to education.The review was carried out in nine states under the Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (Don't break the promise campaign) by civil society bodies of the respective states.

In Manipur, the review was carried out by five civil society bodies - Community Network for Empowerment, Human Rights Alert, Human Rights Law Network, Manipur Alliance for Child Rights, Sustainable Livelihood Forum-Manipur and Untied Voluntary Youth Council.

"Prolonged imposition of AFSPA has infringed upon children's rights to education and the criminal justice system because child rights cannot be separately protected while the rights of adults who are supposed to protect their children are blatantly violated," the report said.

The presence of armed forces personnel in large numbers inhibits free practice of civil and political rights, the report said.

It said there were military intrusions in educational institutions and security forces for their strategic convenience had occupied various educational institutions.

The indefinite strikes and economic blockades that force the prolonged closure of institutions also hinder education.

Many factors are associated with children dropping out of school. Acute poverty is one of them. Manipur has the highest percentage people living below the poverty line in the Northeast - 47.1 per cent.

The report recommended that issues of conflict orphans, conflict widows, children of HIV/AIDS patients should be taken into consideration while planning strategies to ensure qualitative and quantitative right to education of the child along with livelihood and life skill education.

Even the rights group Amnesty International has campaigned against the legislation, which it sees as a stain on India's democratic credentials and a violation of international human rights laws.

Several human rights groups, including the powerful North East Students' Organisation (NESO), has also been demanding withdrawal of the AFSPA from the northeast.

In view of the outcry against the AFSPA, the central government had appointed a five-member review committee headed by Supreme Court Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy. After visiting all affected states, the committee submitted its report to the central government in October 2006. The union government has not yet made the findings public.

Not only the Jeevan Reddy's Committee, the Administrative Reforms Commission headed by Veerappa Moily (currently Petroleum Minister) too has recommended that the controversial act must be reviewed.

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