Former RAW chief suggests a ‘sunset clause’ for the Act

Recognising a problem with having a law which places unchallenged power in the hands of an armed force, Hormis Tharakan, former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing, has said that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) should be made more accountable.

“There is scope for improvement to make AFSPA more in line with international standards of human rights. For one, investigative powers to look into army excess should not be with the Army,” Mr. Tharakan said. He was speaking at a seminar organised by the Indian Social Institute here on Saturday. A series of such seminars have been organised across the country even as the Cabinet Committee on Security, headed by the Prime Minister, prepares to scrutinise the submission of the committee headed by N. Santosh Hegde that investigated alleged mass killings by the army in Manipur.

Sharing space with Mr. Tharakan at the seminar was R.N. Ravi, former Director of the Intelligence Bureau for the Northeast, who was more strident in his opposition to the Act. “The call to make AFSPA more humane is simply absurd,” he said, “An Act like that cuts at the very foundations of our democracy.”

Mr. Tharakan, on the other hand, did not see an in-principle problem with the Act. “We should understand the history behind AFSPA without prejudice. The Army needs police powers to be deployed as civilian areas are under police jurisdiction.” However, he stressed the need for a “sunset clause” that would set a specific deadline for the AFSPA when it is deployed in a certain troubled region. “It cannot be imposed on a population indefinitely,” he said.

Mr. Ravi said, “A wartime provision [introduced by the British] has been continued in independent India under AFSPA. The only difference from the colonial Act is that [AFSPA] extends the impunity to non-commissioned soldiers too. Counterinsurgency in our country is war. Since it was imposed, 8,983 people have been killed in Manipur, 6,023 in Assam and 2,803 in Mizoram… sounds like Congo or Sudan. In Manipur, it’s tough to even approach a police station for any assistance. Part of the problem is that the Government of India does not take its own community into confidence but prefers to depend on its cohesive arm: the Army.”

“I want to see the Prime Minister offering orange juice to Irom Sharmila after the AFSPA is repealed,” said Babloo Loitongbam, Executive Director of Human Rights Alert in Manipur. He said that along with the so-called security risks involved with repealing AFSPA, the government should also consider the long-term costs of persisting with a draconian law. “What if [Irom Sharmila] dies while on fast? There will be riots across the Northeast and in Manipur. Imagine how generations of Manipuris and people from the Northeast will view India.”

Considering the threat posed by armed insurgent groups, Mr. Loitongbam said, “The repeal of the AFSPA is not a panacea for everything. But it can be the first step toward reconciliation.”