It is time India considers a repeal of AFSPA not merely out of a concern for human rights but also out of a desire to refocus its internal security regime. Such a law is inconsistent with the structure and spirit of our democracy and brings down India’s image at the global high table

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is bound to be receiving countless suggestions on how to strengthen India. These could range from “select inputs” to detailed wish lists on subjects as diverse as the economy to electoral reforms, homeland security to agriculture, education to health, and foreign policy to space policy, ensuring that by now his plate is full. But the most interesting request Mr. Modi has perhaps received so far is from an unassuming Manipuri, Irom Chanu Sharmila, who has been on hunger strike for 14 years. Ms. Sharmila has asked Mr. Modi to repeal the controversial (and draconian for the human rights community) Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, better known by its acronym, AFSPA. She has promised to break her long fast if Mr. Modi assures her that AFSPA will be repealed.

AFSPA confers special powers on the armed forces to respond at will in “disturbed areas” in order to maintain law and order. In a “disturbed area,” a military officer can fire upon an unlawful assembly of five or more people if the need arises or even for illegal possession of fire arms. The military is free to use force, even causing death to those suspected of possible violence. No arrest and search warrants are required for any operation as in the provisions of the law. Under the blanket powers it confers on soldiers, there is always the fear of its misuse. The law is presently in force in whole or in parts of the States of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura.

Politics over repeal

In 1990, an amendment Bill was passed to include the State of Jammu and Kashmir under its purview. Manipur, however, withdrew the Act from some parts of the State after a huge agitation, but Ms. Sharmila would not withdraw her hunger strike unless the law itself is repealed. She started her hunger strike on November 2, 2000, after indiscriminate shooting by security forces left several locals dead in her locality. She has been forced fed all through, but her condition has deteriorated over the years.

After the fierce agitation in Manipur against AFSPA in 2004, the Central government appointed a five-member committee under the former Supreme Court judge, Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy, to review the Act and whether it needed to be toned down or repealed completely and replaced by a more humane legislation. On June 6, 2005, the committee recommended in its 147-page report the repealing of the Act unanimously. Interestingly, one of the five members of the Commission was a former Director-General (Military Operations) of the Indian Army, Lt-Gen. (retd.) V.R. Raghavan. Another member was former Home Ministry bureaucrat P.P. Srivastava.

Now why would such hard-core members of the security establishment advocate a repeal of AFSPA? This is a question that has rarely been asked. In fact, many a military officer with long years of experience in counter-insurgency in the Northeast and Kashmir, has argued after retirement that it should be repealed as it serves no purpose. But the serving military establishment has fiercely stalled AFSPA’s repeal, as viciously as it would fight a war against an enemy. Senior officers even launched a Facebook campaign to “save AFSPA.” The Defence Ministry has been pressured by the Army top brass; the United Progressive Alliance government did not dare place the Jeevan Reddy Commission’s report for discussion in Parliament, let alone adopt its recommendations.

Inducing a disconnect

But it is time India seriously considers a repeal of AFSPA — not merely out of a concern for human rights but also out of a desire to improve and refocus India’s internal security regime. A draconian law like AFSPA is inconsistent with the structure and spirit of our democracy and brings down India’s image at the global high table at a time when it is looking to be a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. It also encourages lazy, inefficient soldiering in counter-insurgency situations and actually proves to be counterproductive because it makes the security forces look like occupation armies and not people-friendly, which is what is required in counter-insurgency. One has to remember that counter-insurgency, which is an operation directed against one’s own citizens, is not against a foreign enemy. So, the primary focus of a counter-insurgency operation should be WHAM (winning hearts and minds), and not liquidation or elimination. AFSPA lets troops get away with murder and its frequent use encourages a culture of impunity which is counterproductive to WHAM; it actually increases the disconnect between the forces and the local population.

Compromising professionalism

With AFSPA around, military or paramilitary units do not feel the need for restraint or fire control (leading to incidents like the one at Malom which led Irom Sharmila to start her hunger strike). That leads to a sharp drop in professionalism and actually dehumanises and corrupts the Army and paramilitary forces.

An extreme case of such misuse and impunity has recently come to light after a case was filed by a Manipuri man who told the court that his brother and two others were kidnapped and killed by personnel of the Corps of Intensive Surveillance (CIS) unit deployed with the 3rd Army Corps in Rangapahar (Nagaland). He claims that a major had complained against some officers of the CIS unit to Army headquarters, alleging that they had murdered the three Manipuris behind an officer’s mess in Rangapahar. This rogue unit commanded by an otherwise highly decorated colonel had been earlier implicated by the Assam police in a case of robbery and extortion at the house of a surrendered rebel turned military contractor. In fact, former Army chief (and now Minister for Development of North Eastern Region) General (retd.) V.K. Singh had pulled up Lt. Gen. Dalbir Singh Suhag for “failure to maintain command and discipline” during these CIS operations. Lt. Gen. Suhag, then commander of the 3rd Army Corps and now the Army chief-designate, was spared prosecution by the court on the grounds that he was not directly involved in the murder of the three Manipuris.

The extent to which AFSPA has encouraged a culture of impunity and a compromise of professionalism can be gauged from cases such as that of Colonel H.S. Kohli (the “Ketchup Colonel”) who asked civilians to feign death, smeared them with tomato ketchup and claimed kills in an operation — all to score brownie points. It was later found that he had done all this in full knowledge (if not under explicit orders) of his immediate superior, Brigadier Suresh Rao of the 73rd Mountain Brigade. And these mountain brigades are supposed to be our key units in the order of battle against China.

If one were to lay emphasis on the primacy of WHAM in counter-insurgency, success in it should be judged not by body count in encounters or “area domination” but by how many rebels/militant groups have been compelled by an intelligent mix of persuasion, force, secret contact and psychological operations to abandon the path of armed struggle and return to normal life. AFSPA provides for lazy, non-professional soldiering, characterised by an absolute lack of focus and a conspicuous lack of a consistent doctrine of counter-insurgency. Operational action is rarely linked to clearly defined objectives — more kills rather than more surrenders from guerrilla ranks are likely to fetch better decorations and rewards, encouraging gung-ho commanders who can never gain the confidence of the people in areas of operation.

The former Manipur Governor, Lt.Gen. V.K. Nayar, made this point rather strongly in an article in the Indian Defence Review in October 1992. In fact, in his book, A Soldier Recalls, Srinivas Kumar Sinha points out that until the late 1960s, the Indian Army did not even have training manuals for counter-insurgency. Even now, many military institutions like the Counter-Insurgency & Jungle Warfare School (CIJWS) do not have appropriate campaign studies for units to be deployed for “internal security duties” in a counter-insurgency environment. In his Fighting Like a Guerilla, Rajesh Rajagopalan has aptly pointed out that the “conventional war bias” of the Indian Army explains its failure in counter-insurgency like in the Jaffna peninsula during the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) operations in the late 1980s. Therefore, the argument made by the military top brass that its units will be “crippled” in counter-insurgency situations without AFSPA is untenable. Long use of AFSPA has not helped end insurgencies; political settlements have. The reason for the failure of Indian military units to effectively root out insurgent groups in Kashmir or the Northeast stems from its failure to evolve an appropriate doctrine for counter-insurgency even after fighting insurgents for 60 years. This not only reveals the “learning failures” of an unimaginative military leadership but actually ends up alienating populations. It is time the new government realises the dangers of unleashing a force with a redeeming conventional war bias on its own people.

Army and internal security

In an article last year, the former GOC-in-C of the Northern Command, Lt. Gen. H.S. Panag, made this point rather tellingly on the situation in Kashmir. He wrote, “The large presence of the Indian army in the hinterland is not only unwarranted militarily, it is leading to complacency and resultant casualties. Given the current situation, a change in military strategy with a focus on counter-infiltration, a reduced but adequate deployment grid to act as a reserve and imaginative, selective and gradual lifting of the AFSPA will not only facilitate political strategy but also make the CI [Counter-Insurgency] campaign more efficient.”

Repeal of AFSPA should be seen as the first step in an effort to create a smarter and more effective counter-insurgency capability that draws more on information technology, psychological operations, political persuasion and conflict resolution rather than on overkill and mindless indiscretion. The government will have to evolve a counter-insurgency doctrine which will not only seek to keep the Army out of the “internal security” matrix to the extent possible and deploy other specifically trained and highly skilled forces that observe the principle of “minimum force,” but also not insist on an AFSPA-type legislation as a prerequisite for their deployment and demonstrate a respect for human rights and accountability in keeping with the letter and spirit of the Constitution.

(Subir Bhaumik, a former BBC Correspondent, is the author of Insurgent Crossfire and Troubled Periphery.)

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