People’s Union for Democratic Rights, PUDR, welcomes the Union Government’s decision (March 31, 2022), to significantly reduce the ambit of disturbed areas under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). According to news reports, this decision will be effective in 15 police stations in seven districts of Nagaland; in 15 police stations in six districts of Manipur; and wholly in 23 districts and partially in one district in Assam. Following in the tracks of Tripura (2015) and Meghalaya and parts of Arunachal Pradesh (2018) where such notifications were allowed to lapse, the present decision will bring partial relief to the people of the Northeast who have been struggling against the Act ever since its enactment in 1958.
It may be remembered that shortly after the killing of six coal miners at Oting in Mon district by army personnel of December 4, 2021, the Union Home Minister had stated in Parliament that it was a case of “mistaken identity”. As the death toll had risen following public protests, a Special Investigation Team, SIT, was constituted to investigate the matter within a month. Despite demands from Naga civil society organizations, the findings of the SIT were not made public. As late as March 2, 2022, the Chief Minister of Nagaland stated that the findings of the SIT can be made public once the Union Government gives permission.
Over the years, civil society organizations have documented the horrifying human rights violations that have been perpetrated under the aegis of AFSPA. But what is even more grave is that the overboard provisions are made more deadly by the law’s requirement for prior sanction to initiate prosecution. AFSPA makes sanction from the Union Government mandatory for initiating prosecution, suit, or legal proceedings against any member of the armed forces for any act committed in exercise of its powers! In 2015, in an answer in the Rajya Sabha, it was revealed that of the 38 requests for sanction, from 1990 till 2015, sanction was turned down in 30 cases and 8 remained pending. Similarly in 2018, it was told while the Union Government had received requests for 50 cases from the government of Jammu and Kashmir, 47 were turned down and 3 remained pending.
In the present instance, the Union Government’s decision to remove the notification of disturbed areas is not enough. It must make public the findings of the SIT as the people have a right to know. Further, if the Union Government is serious about leading a dispute free Northeast, then it must give sanction for prosecution for the incident of wanton killing at Oting in December 2021, and in all previous cases. Also, it is hoped that the Union Government will give the people of Jammu and Kashmir similar relief through withdrawal of disturbed areas notification in select areas. Finally, it must be remembered that a piecemeal approach to the AFSPA doesn’t provide justice to the people who have suffered historic losses. The Act needs to be repealed.
Radhika Chitkara and Deepika Tandon