Army, AFPSA and Assam

The armed forces in Assam and other areas of the North East are protected by the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA). To call this Act merely unreasonable or undemocratic would amount to praise it. It is so savage and atrocious that it is difficult to find any adjective to describe it. The powers that it gives to security personnel are immense. It is currently in force in the northeastern States like Assam and Manipur declared as ‘disturbed area’. That dec! laration is done by the Governor (or the Administrator of a Union Territory or the Central Government). Thus, this itself is an attack on the ideal federal, democratic system, which every Indian citizen would like to be a part of. It is not the State government but the Centre which decides if the State or a part of it is a ‘disturbed area’. The AFSPA says that in a disturbed area (as in Assam now) ‘any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank in the armed forces’ may, ‘if he is of opinion that, it is necessary so to do for the maintenance of public order, after giving such due warning as he may consider necessary, fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law or order for the time being in force in the disturbed area’. The power to ‘fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death’, given to virtually anyone in the security forces! , is in fact freedom to murder. The Act also allows security personnel ‘to enter and search without warrant any premises’. That our security forces have been fully utilising that power is only too clear from what has been going on at Kakopathar, Makum, and other areas of the State now and earlier. The Act, which empowers the security personnel to commit all sorts of atrocities, is completely indifferent towards the security of the people. This is in sharp contrast to the spirit of the Indian Penal Code, which seeks to ensure the safety of the innocent before seeking to punish the guilty. The AFSPA gives unlimited power to the security forces, but does not care about the possibility of the innocent being punished, and the result is the chaos that we have been witnessing in Assam: security personnel going scot-free after perpetrating unthinkable, heinous crimes against free citizens of the country. The very existence of such an Act is a slur on Indian democracy. It is an Act which ex! poses the malicious and cruel attitude of the Centre towards the North East.

The use of the army for controlling insurgency or for any internal law-and-order situation is, of course, itself not quite right. The army is trained to fight the enemy, to destroy the enemy; and many of the people they routinely target in anti-insurgency operations or similar situations are not kind of ‘enemy’ they encounter in a battlefield. This job of keeping the peace inside the State is properly the job of the police. The police forces have, however, not lagged behind in earning a name for clumsy and malicious acts like fake encounters. Custodial deaths are a matter of grave concern all over India. The people are now just not safe – whether with the police, or in the hands of the army.

The atrocities perpetrated by the security forces in Assam haven’t drawn the attention of the national media in an adequate manner. Had such atrocities taken place in Delhi or Mumbai, the whole of the natio! nal print and electronic media would have become feverish with activity. Now people are gunned downed like rabid dogs in Assam, and their bodies are dumped off like garbage and the national media hasn’t bothered to stir. Perhaps we, the Assamese are to blame for this state of affairs. If our sorrows are not treated as national tragedies, we have allowed it to be that way. We haven’t projected Assam into the national stage with the aggressiveness with which the Gujaratis or the Marathis are known to plea for their causes. Save perhaps for Dinesh Goswami in the past and Sarbananda Sonowal now – this is without any reference to party politics – most of our MPs have been mere showpieces in the Parliament.

What we need is to vehemently protest against the draconian laws like the AFSPA, and to project our problems not as regional issues, but as important national ones. We can hardly depend on our politicians to do this for us; they have far more ‘important’ things to do, like prepar! ing for elections and rubbing the right people the right way. If the press and the people really determine to fight against the kind of extreme discrimination exemplified by the AFSPA, however, one can still hope for a miracle. The struggle for human rights in Assam really needs to be intensified.

River Basin Friends
Assam. India