On August 29, the government of the northeast Indian state of Assam issued a notification declaring the entire state a “disturbed area” and extending the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 up to six months beyond August 28. As per the notification, the declaration was made by the state’s governor in accordance with Section 3 of the AFSPA, which outlines the administrative mandate for declaration of a particular region as “disturbed.”
But why is the government insistent upon retaining the AFSPA – a law designed to aid India’s security forces in insurgent theaters – in a state that is largely calm and militancy-free today?
The AFSPA, originally enacted to quell ethnic insurgencies in Assam and Manipur and later used extensively to suppress separatist militancy in Jammu and Kashmir, gives security forces broad leeway to undertake armed action, with significant impunity, against civilian populations.
Given its overreaching nature, the legislation has faced much flak from domestic civil-society groups and international organizations (including the United Nations), which have demanded its repeal. An iconic 16-year hunger strike by a political activist in the state of Manipur, Irom Sharmila, was centered on the demand for total repeal of the AFSPA.
As to why exactly the government decided to extend the AFSPA in full despite speculations about partial withdrawal earlier this year, Pallab Bhattacharya, special director general of the Assam Police, tells The Times of India: “The situation is peaceful at the moment but we will not take a decision on withdrawing AFSPA until [the] NRC exercise is over.”
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is an ongoing citizenship-determination process in Assam that intends to identify the “genuine” Indian citizens in the state and, in turn, identify “illegal” immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Bhattacharya had also dropped a hint about this extension back in June when he told The Economic Times that he was in favor of retaining the AFSPA until the end of the NRC exercise, but that the administration would review the situation after the final draft’s publication on June 30 (which was later released on July 30).
However, in June, some senior army officers contended to The Economic Times that extending the AFSPA beyond the publication of the final draft of the NRC would be infeasible since “insurgency is waning fast in Assam.” One then wonders what drove the administration to extend this controversial piece of legislation. Is Assam actually “disturbed” enough, even in light of the NRC exercise, to justify the move?
Section 3 of the AFSPA, which lays down the basic preconditions for its imposition, may shed some light on this: “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.”
Clearly, imposition of the AFSPA must be precluded by an unusual situation of civil or insurgent violence that demands force multipliers (like federal troops) to assist a struggling local administration. Further, the logic of extension is derived from the continued absence of normalcy in a region.
In a landmark 2016 judgment, the Indian Supreme Court opined that a lengthy imposition of the AFSPA in a particular area implied the prolonged absence of normalcy for that period while also indicating “the failure of the civil administration to take effective aid of the armed forces in restoring normalcy” or “the failure of the armed forces in effectively aiding the civil administration in restoring normalcy” or both.
But this has hardly been the case for Assam. The AFSPA was first imposed in the state in 1990 during the peak of the ethnic and separatist insurgencies, and has since remained continually active in the whole of the state or in some violence-prone districts. At that time, the civil administration was indeed hard pressed to control the violence unleashed by the notorious United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and other ethnic armed groups.
However, over the past two decades, insurgent violence in the state has fallen rapidly because of factional splits within militant groups, amnesty deals, surrenders, and security operations. The situation has particularly improved since the ULFA’s split in 2011, and is duly evinced by the falling number of casualties in the state. In fact, according to data released by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, civilian and security-force casualties in insurgency-related incidents in Assam have dropped to an all-time low this year.
This is also the case for neighboring states Meghalaya, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh, from where the AFSPA has withdrawn fully or partially in the past three years. One does wonder how the AFSPA has managed to live on in Assam despite relative calm over a period of almost eight years and no indication of any, as the Supreme Court noted, “failure of the civil administration to take effective aid of the armed forces in restoring normalcy.”
NRC is the trigger
Assuming that the NRC (and its possible fallout) is the key premise of the extension, as also stated by the administration, the absurdity of logic remains. Despite widespread speculation of instability and violence after the final draft’s publication in July, the situation in Assam has remained largely peaceful without any major mishap reported from anywhere in the state.
In fact, the state government had already taken extensive measures to ensure peace and harmony, which seem to have worked well. Clearly, Assam has a functional and effective civil apparatus in place, which is not a sufficient precondition for the imposition or extension of the AFSPA.
India’s central government, in consultation with the state government, must immediately undertake another review of the post-NRC draft situation and then take a fresh decision on whether Assam needs the AFSPA. After all, it is not an ordinary piece of legislation, but rather the most aggressive amplification of the state’s monopoly over use of force.
In this regard, policymakers and security planners in India must recall what the Supreme Court argued two years ago – that an apparent absence of normalcy or possibility of violence “cannot be a fig leaf for prolonged, permanent or indefinite deployment of the armed forces (particularly for public-order or law-and-order purposes) as it would mock at our democratic process.”
Assam has already faced severe limitations of democracy in the past while witnessing decades of relentless conflict. With the NRC, fresh ethnic divides have resurfaced. In such a situation, an overreaching and draconian piece of legislation like the AFSPA will worsen the tinderbox situation rather than contain it.