Yet again, two innocent young villagers were injured in a counter-insurgency operation by armed forces in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tirap district on Friday. The operation came a day after the contentious Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 was extended in Tirap, Changlang and Longding districts for another six months from April 1. This is the second time since the December 4 Oting massacre that civilians have been victims of counter-insurgency operations conducted on credible intelligence. Altogether 14 civilians were killed in Oting in Nagaland’s Mon district which triggered fresh demands for the repeal of the “draconian” AFSPA from the region.
The Centre on April 1 reduced the operation of the controversial law in Assam, Nagaland and Manipur because of the improved security scenario. The culprit this time is also the Para Commandos, who had been given a wide berth of conducting counter-insurgency operations in the border areas and even beyond the border. Para Special Forces is one of the Indian Army’s elite military units specializing in jungle warfare, doing operations beyond the mandate or capabilities of conventional forces. The highly trained outfit has operated extensively in the northeast.
The Para Special Forces came to the limelight after its actions in the highly controversial 2015 surgical strikes on Indian rebels based in Myanmar. The purported cross-border strikes were in response to an ambush on an army convoy by north-eastern militants, which resulted in the death of 18 Indian Army soldiers in Manipur on June 4, 2015. In both incidents, the Army has expressed its regrets while the core issue of security forces operating with impunity among civilians has not been addressed in real time.
When the Union Home Minister Amit Shah made an announcement that the Centre has decided to remove the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from certain districts in Nagaland, Assam and Manipur the Northeast CMs were ecstatic and hailed the decision as bold and recognition of the improved law and order situation in the region. Some Union Ministers had even remarked that the decision had brought the Northeast closer to the mainstream.
Election promises apart, the decision comes in the backdrop of vociferous demands from various states in the Northeast to remove AFSPA, in the wake of the Oting massacre. Although the decision had been hailed in some quarters, those who had been demanding its repeal were disappointed by the partial removal. In 2004, the Jeevan Reddy Committee set up by then Manmohan Singh government had recommended the repeal of AFSPA. The Administrative Reforms Commission headed by Verrappa Moily also recommended repeal of the Act in 2008. Thereafter, the Supreme Court appointed the Justice Santosh Hegde committee to investigate encounter killings in Manipur based on a writ petition filed by the Extra-Judicial Execution Victim Families Association, Manipur (EEVFAM) in 2012.
It must be remembered that Manipur had never demanded withdrawal but repeal, as was the demand of the Iron Lady Irom Chanu Sharmila. Besides Irom Chanu Sharmila’s 16 yearlong lone battle of indefinite hunger strike, the state of Manipur witnessed an unprecedented movement against AFSPA in 2004. Just as we predicted, the partial withdrawal has evoked mixed responses from the civil society organisations and human rights activists across the board.
The United Naga Council is right in questioning the rationale behind withdrawing AFSPA from valley districts while the hill districts remain under the stamp. In the case of Manipur, AFSPA had been lifted from only 15 police stations including the 6 within the Greater Imphal area and it was withdrawn in the previous Congress regime. Now, 9 more police stations including Sekmai, Lamsang, Bishnupur, Patsoi, Lamlai, Irilbung, Thoubal, Kakching and Jiribam all in the valley districts have been excluded from AFSPA operations.
The Act remains in force in all the hill districts irrespective of whether it adjoins the international boundary. However, it seems the ongoing ceasefire with NSCN (I-M) and Suspension of Operations (SoO) with the Kuki militant groups had not been taken into account while addressing the issue.