Recent cases of repeated failed military operations in northeastern India provoked many to question New Delhi’s approach in countering insurgency in the Northeast. Failed operations at Oting and Chasa had once again incited many to question the age-old use of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the region.
The Act, which gives excessive powers to the Indian armed forces, had once again come under scrutiny. This time, it’s not just the public but also senior military officials and intellectuals from the armed forces. What lies ahead is New Delhi’s much needed change of approach in countering insurgency in the Northeast: a systematic change with legislative and institutional reforms.
From a mainland perspective, northeastern India is seen as a region infested with insurgency and secessionist movements. However, what is often overlooked is that it is also a region which has been periled by militarization. Under the premise of national security and countering insurgency, numerous civilians succumbed to its fallacious approaches. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958 holds accountability for much of the fatality that the public had to been subjected to.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act, known as AFSPA, bears a nauseant undertone along with its dreaded powers conferred upon the armed forces. AFSPA, previously known as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance was first enacted by the colonial British in 1942 to contain the Quit India Movement. Also, it was further adopted by Independent India in 1958 to suppress the armed struggle in the Northeast.
The AFSPA granted excessive powers to the Armed Forces which continue to be contested to this date. The special powers conferred upon the armed forces include licenses to kill, destroy, arrest without warrant, shoot based on mere suspicion, and impunity of trials.
M.G. Devasahayam, a retired IAS officer who also served in the Indian Army during the peak of insurgency in the Northeast noted that ‘while exercising such draconian powers, there is bound to be misuse’ and accordingly, it had been misused, with over 1,500 alleged extrajudicial killings by security forces in Manipur alone, the region continues to be tormented.
The justification needed to invoke the Act and confer such powers to the armed forces was highly reliant on the subjective understanding of the concerned head of the state, such that any area deemed as ‘disturbed’ would fall victim to the Act. Hence, with insurgency prevailing in the northeast region for decades, plagued civilians by such an Act as ‘draconian’ as AFSPA.
Cases from Oting and Chasa
The incident at Oting on the 4th of December, 2021, where fourteen civilians were killed by the armed forces adds to the civilian death count under AFSPA. At around 4 pm, the 21st Para Special Forces carried out an offense based on the intelligence they had received, unfortunately, resulting in the deaths of civilian coal miners instead of insurgents.
Various contestations circle around the event as to whether the Special Forces were in an attempt of a ‘fake-encounter,’ which the region is quite familiar with, or if it truly was a botched operation. However, evidence suggests its own answers, this is backed by survivor claims of indiscriminate firing and circulated footage of the armed forces attempting to change the attire of the victims. The incident was however, widely popularized as a case of ‘mistaken identity.’ Subsequently, various protests occurred in the following weeks. The issue of AFSPA was the central concern amid the various protests, and the repeal of the Act was echoed by both the public and politicians.
Of late, New Delhi has decided to partially uplift the Act from certain parts of the region, seven districts from Nagaland, 23 from Assam, and six from Manipur. However, Oting still remains under the Act. Over the past three years the ruling government has been able to resolve a number of insurgent issues in the region by signing several agreements with the insurgents, and the partial withdrawal is seemingly another victory for the party.
However, it is rather too early to celebrate, as with AFSPA, the partial withdrawal makes little to no difference. Given, the central issue concerning AFSPA is with its provisions which continue to be manipulated time and again.
One day after the Act was announced to be withdrawn, two civilians from the Chasa village were shot and injured. It was on the 2nd of April, 2022 when the 12th Para Special Forces carried out a failed operation, another case of ‘mistaken identity.’ Similar instance of indiscriminate firing were reported despite the victims shouting and claiming they were civilians. These repeated instances have unearthed major flaws in India’s national security measures, which require legislative reforms and structural changes in India’s security force deployments.
The Way Forward
Retired Lieutenant Gen H S Panag recommended that the deployment of the Indian Armed Forces is not a necessity to counter-insurgency in the region but is rather a role that needs to be taken by the Central Reserved Police Force (CRPF). He further suggested that the Act be repealed fully and replaced by a more humane act which can serve the interests of both the people and the state.
Accordingly, to reiterate Lt. Gen Panag’s recommendations, the insurgency issues in the Northeast can surely be contained by internal security forces, like the CRPF. Internal security problems can be addressed by internal security forces, which is something they are trained and specialized to do.
In cases of counter insurgency operations, forces accompanied by a commanding officer who is familiar with the topography, culture, and conditions of the region should be deployed so that operations can be carried out, keeping in mind the repercussions of the Act.
Henceforth, AFSPA should be fully repealed and a committee should be formed comprised of retired justices from the Supreme Court along with retired military officials and senior civil society members from the region. This committee would seek to draft an act that can effectively confer power to the armed forces, all the while safeguarding the rights of the people. In this way, ‘security’ in its real sense can be achieved.
Vetilo Venuh, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow
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