As the tension and violence in Assam fades out of the media spotlight, there is one key issue to which little attention has been paid.
This is the critical delay in calling out the Army to deal with the acute burst of bloodshed between July 20-25, when violence peaked especially between Bodo and settler Muslims of Bengali origin, with the latter bearing the brunt of it. Yet, it is an issue that cuts across the gamut of Centre-State relations, raises issues of Constitutionality and the law, and defines the role of the Army/defence roles in situations of civil conflict. The delay arguably led to the death of scores and the largest internal displacement since Partition.
A brief recap: After a set of attacks and counter-killings on July 19-20, the violence was unquenchable until the Army moved in on July 25. By then over five lakh people were homeless and sheltering in relief camps. Nearly two lakh people still remain in these squalid settlements which have been housed in local government schools, more than two months after the first riots.
The deployment of the Army was delayed because of a procedural issue. After communal rioting nationwide following the Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992, the Ministry of Defence has developed what a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) where the Ministry reviews calls for the Army to come to the aid of the civil administration during communal (read also ethnic and linguistic) disturbances and decide how and when to act. The procedure is coordinated with the nodal ministry for law enforcement, the Ministry for Home Affairs.
A senior retired Army officer says the effort is “to stop State governments from calling the Army out at the drop of a hat … for the Army must be the last resort.” The Assam case, therefore, is worth examining.
Operations in Assam
The Army is already in operation in the State where, under the shelter of the Disturbed Areas Act, it can use as much force as it wishes under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) to tackle any problem. All of the following powers — cordon and search, destruction of weapons dumps, arrest without warrants or on mere suspicion, searches of private premises and even shooting to kill upon suspicion — are available under AFSPA. Although the insurgency situation has vastly improved in the State, the Army remains in a state of readiness groups and there are frequent reports of it apprehending various suspects in different areas of Assam and even “encounters” there and elsewhere in the Northeast. A united command structure, where civil and military organisations coordinate, is in place. Significantly, nowhere in AFSPA does it specify that military action is against armed insurgencies: the Act says that the Army will come to the aid of civil authority. “If, in relation to any State or Union Territory to which this Act extends, the Governor of that State or the Administrator of that Union Territory or the Central Government, in neither case, is of the opinion that the whole or any part of such state or Union Territory, as the case may be, is in such a disturbed or dangerous condition that the use of armed forces in aid of the civil power is necessary, the Governor of that State … or the Central Government … declare the whole or such part of such State or Union Territory to be a disturbed area.” Thus, AFSPA can be used to combat rioting in “aid of the civil power.” And it is not the Army which decides that: it is the government, acting through the Governor, who is bound by the advice of the Cabinet, the Centre or Union Territory administrator.
An appeal by the Assam Chief Secretary, the Deputy Commissioners of Kokrajhar (the worst-affected district) and Dhubri districts to local army commanders requisitioning their services was referred to the Ministry of Defence. This, despite the fact that various major strike formations were located either in Assam or neighbouring States, not far from the areas of strife. The first reference was made to the Ministry of Defence on July 20 and authorisation to deploy was given on July 25. Five critical days were lost as mayhem ruled and groups of fighters, armed with automatic weapons on one side, went on the offensive while large mobs of the other community attacked, with spears and daos (machetes) wherever they found vulnerable targets. Homes were burned — which meant that documents relating to land and property went up in smoke — as did money and valuables. For five days, despite the pleas of the State government, Assam burned.
There is an existing law, which overrides the SOP; the latter is nothing more than an administrative procedure. The major provisions of law are Sections 130 and 131 of the Criminal Procedure Code read with relevant provisions of the Indian Penal Code. It is absolutely clear here that the Army must respond to summons from civil authority which is best placed to decide whether a situation has gone beyond the capacity of local law enforcement forces to deal with it and whether the Army is needed. This is the law of the land, a constitutional mandate which surely overrides both AFSPA, which is a creature of the night, designed in 1958 (without even naming an insurgent group) or a mere procedural order.
The Army and the Ministry of Defence — and the Ministry of Home Affairs, which at least has acknowledged the delay and wants the Defence Ministry to scrap the SOP — cannot take shelter under the plea of procedural delays.
An investigation into this failure must be conducted urgently. Culpability must be fixed: the report must be made public (unlike the Justice Reddy Committee Report which reviewed AFSPA and submitted its report in June 2005 and which the government still hasn’t made public). In addition, the State government has to act firmly on the issue of illegal weapons, which continue to strike fear in the Bodoland areas. Otherwise, “normalcy” can never return to a region where weapons dictate the law and intimidation is a way of life.
(Sanjoy Hazarika is Director, Centre for North East Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org )