Change the blanket ban on trials without official sanction to one where the government has the power to bar prosecution in individual cases provided it satisfies the courts that its reasons for doing so are valid.

The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act has come in for widespread criticism in Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur and other parts of the northeast because of the human rights abuses that have come to be associated with its operation. So strong is the sentiment against AFSPA in Kashmir that in recent months Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram and Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah have all spoken of the need to re-examine the law. The Army, on the other hand, says this is unnecessary.

The Army Chief, General V.K. Singh, has gone so far as to say that the demand for the dilution of AFSPA is being made for “narrow political gains.” On his part, Lt. Gen. B.S. Jaswal, GOC-in-C, Northern Command, has compared the Act to scripture. “I would like to say that the provisions of AFSPA are very pious to me and I think to the entire Indian Army. We have religious books, there are certain guidelines which are given there, but all the members of the religion do not follow it, they break it also … does it imply that you remove the religious book …?”

On paper, AFSPA is a deceptively simple law. First passed in 1958, it comes into play when the government declares a particular part of the northeast (or Jammu and Kashmir under a parallel 1990 law) a “disturbed area.” Within that area, an officer of the armed forces has the power to “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 prohibiting the assembly of five or more persons or the carrying of weapons or of things capable of being used as weapons or of fire-arms, ammunition or explosive substances.”

Even though activists have made this the focus of their criticism, giving soldiers the “right to kill” is not, in my opinion, AFSPA's principal flaw. After all, if a ‘law and order' situation has arisen which compels the government to deploy the Army, soldiers have to be allowed to use deadly force. Even a private citizen has the right to kill someone in self-defence, though the final word on the legality of her or his action belongs to the courts. Similarly, a civilised society expects that the use of deadly force by the Army must at all times be lawful, necessary and proportionate. Here, the Act suffers from two infirmities: the requirement of prior sanction for prosecution contained in Section 6 often comes in the way when questions arise about the lawfulness of particular actions. Second, AFSPA does not distinguish between a peaceful gathering of five or more persons (even if held in contravention of Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code) and a violent mob. Firing upon the latter may sometimes be justified by necessity; shooting into a peaceful assembly would surely fail any test of reasonableness.

Leaving this issue aside, however, it is important to recognise that AFSPA does not give an officer the unqualified right to fire upon and cause the death of any person in a Disturbed Area. At a minimum, that person should have been carrying weapons or explosives. The shooting of an unarmed individual, and the killing of a person in custody, are not acts that are permissible under AFSPA. Force is allowed in order to arrest a suspect but the fact that the Act authorises the use of “necessary” rather than “deadly” force in such a circumstance means the tests of necessity and proportionality must be met.

Over the years that AFSPA has been in operation, the Army has opened fire countless times and killed hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Whenever those killed have been armed insurgents or terrorists, there has been little or no public clamour against the Act. It is only when the armed forces violate the provisions of the law and indulge in the unlawful killing of persons — especially unarmed civilians — that voices get raised against AFSPA. The protests in Manipur in 2004 reached a crescendo because of the death in custody of Th. Manorama and scores of others like her. In Kashmir, sentiments against the Armed Forces Act got inflamed because of fake encounter incidents like Pathribal and Macchhil.

If today people are questioning General Jaswal's “religious book,” it is not so much because of its provisions as because of the failure of its custodians to act when the law is flouted. The Lord's Word threatens sinners with fire and brimstone, eternal damnation or the endless cycle of births and deaths. But AFSPA holds out no such horrors for the soldiers who violate its provisions. Section 6 says “no prosecution … shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the Central government, against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers conferred by this Act.” This requirement confers de facto impunity on all transgressors. Thus the CBI may have indicted army officers for the murder of innocent civilians at Pathribal in 2000 but their trial cannot take place because the Central government refuses to give sanction. What is worse, the Minister concerned does not even have to give any reasons.

The ostensible logic behind this Section, a variant of which can be found in Section 197 of the CrPC and in many Indian laws, is to protect public servants from frivolous or vexatious law suits. But though it has not ruled on the ambit of AFSPA's Section 6, the Supreme Court has often declared that the object of Section 197-type protection is not to set an official above the common law. “If he commits an offence not connected with his official duty he has no privilege.”

In the Pathribal case, the CBI took the view that abducting and killing unarmed civilians in cold blood could not be considered part of “official duty.” Not only did the MoD reject this logic, it moved the Supreme Court for quashing of the case on the ground that it has not granted sanction to prosecute. At no time has it been asked to furnish reasons for denying sanction.

A government which has faith in the actions of its officers and the robustness of its judicial system ought never to shy away from allowing the courts to step in when doubts arise. And yet, in case after case, legal proceedings get stymied by the denial of official sanction.

In a democracy, this requirement of previous sanction should have no place. But given the balance of political and institutional forces in India today, it is utopian to believe it can simply be done away with. What I am proposing, therefore, is a modest remedy. Let us not tamper with the government's ability to protect officers from criminal proceedings. But instead of the default setting being ‘no prosecution without official sanction,' let the blocking of a prosecution require official action.

Section 6 could thus be amended to read: “No prosecution … shall be instituted against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers conferred by this Act where the Central government provides reasons in writing and the competent court upholds the legal validity of these reasons.”

Such a provision would prevent good officers from being prosecuted for killings which result from acts of good faith while allowing the bad apples to be prosecuted for their crimes. The government would still have the right to intervene on behalf of a soldier who has committed an illegal act. But this would require a Minister to take personal responsibility for a decision that would, after all, be tantamount to denying justice to the victim's family. In the Pathribal case, for example, Defence Minister A.K. Antony would be compelled to inform the trial court of his reasons for opposing the prosecution of soldiers indicted by the CBI for murder. And the court would get to rule on whether Mr. Antony's reasons were valid or not.

There is no reason why this inversion of the “previous sanction” provision cannot be replicated across the board in all Indian laws to cover situations where human rights abuses are alleged. Such a provision would not disturb the basic provisions of AFSPA. But it would bring that “religious book” in closer conformity with an even holier tome, the Constitution of India.