What’s in the news?
- The Government of India has significantly reduced the footprint of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958 in the Northeast, withdrawing it entirely from 23 districts in Assam; and partially from seven districts in Nagaland, six districts in Manipur, and one district in Assam.
- Once the decision is notified in the gazette, AFSPA remains in force in parts of these three states as well as in parts of Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir.
Why is the decision significant?
- AFSPA, which has been called draconian, gives sweeping powers to the armed forces. For example, it allows them to open fire, even causing death, against any person in contravention to the law or carrying arms and ammunition, and gives them powers to arrest individuals without warrants, on the basis of “reasonable suspicion”, and also search premises without warrants.
- It can be imposed by the Centre or the Governor of a state, on the state or parts of it, after these areas are declared “disturbed’’ under Section 3.
- The Northeast has lived under the shadow of AFSPA for nearly 60 years, creating a feeling of alienation from the rest of the country.
- The move is expected to help demilitarise the region; it will lift restrictions of movements through checkpoints and frisking of residents.
Why is the latest move significant?
- The decision to withdraw AFSPA has come as the result of a combination of circumstances.
- Over the last two decades, various parts of the Northeast have seen a reduction in insurgencies. A number of major groups were already in talks with the Indian government.
- For example, in Nagaland, all major groups — the NSCN (I-M) and Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs) — are at advanced stages of concluding agreements with the government.
Why was AFSPA imposed on the Northeast in the first place?
- When the Naga nationalist movement kicked off in the 1950s with the setting up of the Naga National Council (NNC) — the predecessor of the NSCN — Assam police forces allegedly used force to quell the movement.
- As an armed movement took root in Nagaland, AFSPA was passed in Parliament, and subsequently imposed on the entire state.
- As secessionist and nationalist movements started sprouting in other Northeastern states, AFSPA started being extended and imposed.
What has made AFSPA unpopular among the people?
- In Nagaland, 60 years of living under the AFSPA regime has had psychological consequences, trauma and alienation of the people. Critics said that the use of force and AFSPA furthered the feeling of alienation of the Naga people, solidifying Naga nationalism.
- Various incidents of violence have been recorded in the Northeastern states, as AFSPA gives sweeping powers to security forces.
Are there any checks and balances?
- While the Act gives powers to security forces to open fire, this cannot be done without prior warning given to the suspect. It says that after apprehension of suspects, the security forces have to hand them over to the local police station within 24 hours. It says the armed forces must act in cooperation with the district administration and not as an independent body.
What attempts have been made to repeal AFSPA or reduce its area of operation in the past?
- In 2000, the activist Irom Sharmila began a hunger strike that would continue for 16 years against AFSPA in Manipur. In 2004, the then central government set up a five-member committee under former Supreme Court Justice Jeevan Reddy, which submitted its report in 2005 recommending the repeal of AFSPA, calling it “highly undesirable”, and saying it had become a symbol of oppression.
- Subsequently, the Second Administrative Reforms Commission, headed by Veeerapa Moily, endorsed these recommendations.