[Reader-list] On Irom Sharmila's ten years of fast

Atreyi Dasgupta atreyid at gmail.com
Fri Nov 5 06:25:04 IST 2010

Gautam Navlakha writes about the AFSPA and a principled stand against war
against people.


 Principled versus Piecemeal Approach: Repeal of AFSPA, Troops Pullout or
Ending War against our People <http://sanhati.com/excerpted/2913/>

*November 2, 2010*

*On 2nd November 2000, Irom Sharmila Chanu of Manipur began a fast to
protest against the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which
allows the armed forces to repress the civilian population with complete
impunity in the areas where the act is in force. Ten years down the line her
fast still continues, though it is often interrupted by arrests on the
grounds of ‘attempted suicide’ and ‘forced feeding’ through nose by the
police. While Manipur has provided the stage for this struggle, Irom
Sharmila has become a powerful symbol of protest against AFSPA and state
repression all over the world. On the 10th anniversary of her heroic fast we
salute her great courage and commitment to democratic rights with the
following article in which Gautam Navlakha raises the debate whether our
opposition should be limited to the repeal of AFSPA or the pullout of troops
or should constitute a principled demand for the ending of all wars on our
own people. - Ed.*

*Principled versus Piecemeal Approach: Repeal of AFSPA, Troops Pullout or
Ending War against our People*

By Gautam Navlakha

In order to understand the significance of Armed Forces Special Powers Act
(AFSPA) and our response we must understand the role of the armed forces of
the union in wars of suppression. It is my contention that our opposition to
AFSPA is not ONLY because it protects Armed Forces of the Union (which is
how Indian constitution defines Army, Navy, Air Force and the Central Para
Military Forces) but also because  we, in the Civil Liberties and Democratic
Rights groups, oppose policy of military suppression of our own people in
the first place (at least formally considered “our own”) because it is this
that necessitates protection for military forces deployed to carry out the
dirty task of brutally restoring state’s authority and in its turn creates
the source of legitimacy for counter-violence.

Out of 626 districts in India, no less than 136 districts witnesses policy
of military suppression. Of these 136 districts, 101 have been notified as
“disturbed areas” where AFSPA and state level Disturbed Areas (DA) Act,
either separately or concurrently, operate. In 35 of the so-called joint
forces operations against “Left Wing Extremists” neither of these acts are
invoked and yet the war continues. (Of course there could be some other act
in operation indemnifying forces in Chattisgarh, Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand,
Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal ). However, for all practical
purposes, ground reality is no different in these 35 districts spread over
nine state and the 101 districts where AFSPA is notified.

Second thing to note is that the central government has set aside Rs 40,000
crores for “internal security” (which falls under Ministry of Home Affairs)
i.e. for wars in these districts where nearly 80% of the central
paramilitary forces (whose strength is 900,000 plus 145 battalions of India
Reserve battalion  or  150,000 personnel) and half of the Indian Army
(337,000 in J&K, and 280,000 in entire NE) is engaged in counter insurgency.
Were we to add to this Rs 40,000 cr allocated towards “internal security”
with what Ministry of Defense spends on “internal security” (taking merely
wages and allowances and pension of this  force) which comes to
approximately Rs 29,000 cr the Indian government is spending a staggering
sum of Rs 69,000 or say Rs 70,000 crores annually towards for these wars.
This amount could suffice to pay for a universal food security Act in India.
Significantly, the union finance ministry has cited paucity of funds to pay
for an universal Food Security Act.

There is another dimension to this which needs to be considered. In an
interview to Tehelka (5 June, 2010) Union Home Secretary GK PIllai said that
“Manipur has the highest police to population ratio in the country.” And yet
Manipur is raising another four battalions of Manipur Commandos! Of course
he did not spell out what the ratio was. Jammu & Kashmir (J & K), according
to CM Omar Abdullah, has 5-7 lakhs troops (army, central paramilitary forces
(CPMFs), state armed police, special forces), or say 600,000, for a
population that is said to be 1.1 crore. This means a ratio of one armed
soldier for 20 persons. Of course the ratio changes even more if we consider
actual concentration of troops in the Kashmir valley and those districts of
Jammu which have sizeable Muslim population. It could be approximately 1
armed soldier for 15 persons or even less. Recalling what the union home
secretary said about Manipur, the ratio could be a lot worse. Such a heavy
concentration deployed in a manner which monitors and controls the public
and private lives of people creates impediments in the way for normal
activities of people and causes a heavy loss of scarce human and material
resources whose actual cost is yet to be calculated.

To this one ought to add another dimension. As evident from the case in J &
K, there is pressure on J & K to recruit and train quickly a force which can
replace central forces. Thus accretion in strength of armed police gets
compounded because apart from a bloated CPMF we now have bloated state level
armed police formations. And like central forces protected by AFSPA these
state forces have their own state level protection against prosecution for
any act committed in course of “active service”.

In other words these conflicts become the occasion for stupendous
augmentation of  personnel in existing armed formations (In 2007-08 Shivraj
Patil, the then union home minister, spoke of raising 206 battalions of
CPMFs over the next five years) and/or through creation of new force of
either armed police battalions or forces such as Rashtriya Rifles, which was
raised for fighting insurgency in J&K in 1993-94. It is also less known that
armed police is trained along the lines of infantry formations of the Army.
Keep in mind also the fact since 1947 not a year has passed  when Indian
State has not been engaged in waging an internal war (call it by any name
war/armed conflict/military suppression)  against our own people in some
part of the country or the other.  It can also be established empirically
that almost all movements which picked up guns did so only after non-violent
struggles were run aground by the Indian State one way or another or
dismissed out of hand. In all these cases of internal wars, military (army
and CPMFs in particular) is deployed for a prolonged period with enhanced
powers to act on their own, i.e. minus civilian supervision. This is unlike
their short term usage during riots etc where they operate under orders of
the magistrate and are protected under Section 45 [Protection of Members of
the Armed Forces from Arrest] of the CrPC. This is the context in which the
campaign to repeal AFSPA is located.

When AFSPA was passed in 1958, after a truncated debate in the Parliament,
the then Union Home Minister G B Pant had assured the members of parliament
that the Act was temporary and only confined to fighting the “Naga
hostiles”. What was temporary became a permanent feature and can now be
imposed anywhere in the Indian Union. The Parliament also never saw it fit
to debate/review this Act since its enactment. Prior to the UPA government
instituting this review process the Indian Supreme Court had examined this
Act. The judicial process had resulted in the Supreme Court in 1997
upholding the legal validity of AFSPA asserting that Parliament had the
powers to enact such an Act. The review of the Act undertaken by the Justice
Jeevan Reddy Committee as per its terms of reference was not mandated to
recommend its repeal. However, having decided to ask for its repeal it went
onto to suggest that provisions of the Act could be incorporated in the
Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) 2004. Thus both the Supreme Court
in its 1997 judgement, as well as the Justice Reddy Committee in its report,
have upheld the need to empower the Armed Forces of the Union when they are
deployed for prolonged period in an area declared to be “Disturbed”. The
other drawback of the Reddy Committee was that the review and public
hearings that followed were confined to the north east, particularly,
Manipur and Assam. The conspicuous absence of J & K from its purview was
most unfortunate.

It needs to be reiterated that the Armed Forces of the Union, empowered with
AFSPA, is introduced NOT to curb armed militancy but meant to control the
civilian population from extending support to secessionist activities. It
thus antagonizes more and more people and swells the ranks of militants
contrary to official pretence that they are fighting only armed groups. This
is clear from the ground reality of J & K with a huge deployment exceeding 6
lakh troops (which comprises army, CPMFs, state armed police etc). Bunkers,
checkpoint, road blocks are manned by CRPF/BSF in towns and Rashtriya Rifles
(RR, army’s 66 battalion strong counter insurgency force) maintains vigil in
rural areas. Virtually every neighbourhood in urban area boasts a camp of
security forces and between every 4-5 villages there is a camp of RR. Just
Srinagar town has 400 bunkers, thus removal of 16, under the current offer
by the central government, is inconsequential. This level of deployment
remains at a time when it is officially claimed that the number of militants
is no more than 600-700, and no more than 250 remain in Kashmir valley.
Movements of people on roads and bazar is regulated with frequent demands to
show their IDs and frisking and searching of bags. It is a known fact that
anyone in area declared “Disturbed” found without a ID can suffer anything
from having to bribe his way to freedom to becoming a victim of enforced
disappearance. Again the very deployment of security forces necessitates
occupation of land and buildings. According to an estimate in J&K, Armed
Forces of the Union occupy legally and illegally about 400 sq kms and occupy
more than 1572 buildings which includes 98 schools. This impacts normal life
and economic activities. However, all this is a quintessential aspect of
counter-insurgency policy which is meant to break the link between armed
groups with the people through recourse to force or threat of use of force.

In other words, while atrocities may come down if the legal cover
indemnifying the security forces is withdrawn. But it would be naïve to
believe that atrocities will cease if this cover is withdrawn. This is
because atrocities are inherent in the very nature of counter-insurgency,
which is meant to coerce a people into submission.

Findings of civil liberties groups as well as official inquiries undertaken
from time to time have also shown that once AFSPA comes into operation civil
administration begins to play the second fiddle. Instead of “coming to the
aid of civil administration” it virtually replaces them. Thus “law and
order” which pertains to civilian domain and “internal security”, which is
the raison d’etre of AFSPA, are difficult to keep apart. In real life the
lines gets blurred to the point that even traffic management invites the
over bearing presence of the Armed Forces of the Union. Lately, Armed Forces
of the Union have been entrusted with running of schools, health centres,
road building and now construction and management of micro hydel projects
(as in J&K). Thus more and more of matters which were considered part of
civil administration are becoming part of AFU activity all in the name of
‘operation sadbhavna’.

We have in recent times also witnessed the heads of coordination centres,
invariably, corps commander belonging to the Army, intervening in public
domain with their own assessment of the situation. The most reprehensible
was the statement of the GOC-in-C of the Northern Command who characterized
non-violent protests in Kashmir as being “agitational terrorism”. This
amounted to declaring all protestors as “terrorists” and thus made them
legitimate targets of the firepower of the Indian security forces. The J &
K’s ‘elected’ government, let alone seek his immediate transfer, refused
even to snub him for his outrageous statement. Between June 11, 2010 and
October 15, 2010 110 civilians were killed (all victim of bullet, tear gas
shell, of beating), 1500 cases of firearm/tear gas shell/pellet injuries,
500 cases of severe beatings and 38 instances of blindness caused by bullet
or pellet or marbles used as projectile in slingshot used by CRPF. Despite
these killings and serious injuries caused, just a single FIR has been filed
in a single case against CRPF for unauthorized firing killing a youth, but
no one has been arrested. In other words civilian protestors are easy
pickings. Problem gets compounded because promotion and reward provide
material incentive for extra-judicial killings.

Often the officers of the security forces adopt a position which is at odds
with that of the political authority. The most recent example was witnessed
in Assam where both the Corps Commander as well as the Governor (usually a
retired general) came out opposed to a political initiative to begin
dialogue with ULFA. This is direct fallout of employing security forces over
a long duration in internal situations which creates a kind of vested
interest and where they come to enjoy untrammeled power.

Arguably, as the situation worsens with recourse to military suppression, it
throws up its own compulsions where some militant or renegade groups begin
to browbeat civilians. There are times when inimical neighbours exploit this
situation to fan the fuels of militancy. I believe that such a situation can
be dealt with most effectively only when there is a political process and
the government appears sincere and serious in addressing the legitimate
grievances and takes recourse to democratic solutions. If it is respecting
right of self-determination in Kashmir or Manipur or Naga areas, or pursuing
the path of dialogue with the Maoists, to believe that problems get resolved
when people are suppressed is contrary to ground reality. J & K ought to be
the reminder that despite the most horrendous 20 years of repression and
most extraordinary control that grips the lives of people in Kashmir, the
demand for ‘Azaadi’ from India remains intact.

Now having gone through the debate over AFSPA for over three decade, our
struggle saw the Supreme Court uphold the constitutional validity of the act
(in NPMHR vs Union of India 1997), albeit suggesting some minimal safeguards
in shape of six monthly review of its working or defined strictly what
“shortest possible time” for handing over a person arrested by the Armed
Forces of the Union to the police. Next round of our collective efforts saw
appointment of Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee (2004-05) which called for
repeal of AFSPA. Because, the erudite retired judge felt the title had come
to acquire pejorative meaning, he suggested that AFSPA’s provisions should
be incorporated in UAPA. And now even as the demand grows for repeal of
AFSPA, to coincide with ten years of Irom Sharmila’s fast-unto-death, there
are efforts afoot to persuade us that we become pragmatic/realistic and
settle for  dilution of some provision or amendments to certain sections of
AFSPA or for its step-by–step withdrawal from a state. Thus the struggle is
not only confined to one part of the problem which was AFSPA, it now gets
further weakened with call for being sensible and settles for
dilution/partial withdrawal.

While it is correct that removal of AFSPA could mean withdrawal of the army,
in particular from counter-insurgency duties (which forms part of its
secondary role), since the army does not want to operate without indemnity
against prosecution. But it is futile to believe that, in face of near
unanimity in the parliament between the political parties, powers enjoyed by
the Armed Forces of the Union in ‘disturbed’ areas will get curbed, and we
will get only dilution/partial withdrawal of AFSPA. It would NOT mean an end
to military suppression/ war/armed conflict per se. Because state armed
constabularies too are deployed, and looking at the experience of Manipur or
J & K and the role of the state level forces in the nine states where joint
operations are going on against the Maoists, there is absolutely no reason
to believe that they are any less brutish and dastardly. This is evident
from the recent incidents in Manipur which were perpetrated by Manipur
commandos, or in J&K large scale war crimes were committed by the Special
Operations Group/Special Task Force of the J&K police or the horrendous
record of state forces of nine states where anti-Maoist operations are going
on. Thus, for one, we might get rid of AFSPA and the army partially. And
secondly, we will see them get replaced by state armed forces and state
level DA Act. In other words our major concern about ending the use of
military suppression to resolve political problems will not be addressed.
All in all, a piecemeal approach focuses on merely one aspect of the

The conventional wisdom is that this is better than nothing or that at least
it can provide immediate relief for civilians in the conflict zone. While
this appears attractive, it does not, unfortunately, resolve the predicament
we face which has become worse now that there is near unanimous consensus
among all the parliamentary parties, from left to right, ruling out the
repeal of AFSPA, and there exists a fractured support even for pulling out
army from the theatre of internal wars.

Indeed if one has to settle for a piecemeal approach why should we not
replace the call for repeal of AFSPA with call for withdrawal of military
forces? Because, if we have to have a piecemeal approach why not explore the
possibility of achieving our objective by demanding withdrawal of Army and
the CPMFs from counter insurgency? There are many retired and serving army
officers who believe that army’s primary responsibility has been compromised
and discipline has been affected by making Indian army focus more on its
secondary role (of aiding civil administration in conflict or calamity).
They also feel that while protection is essential if army is called in and
therefore AFSPA should remain, they favour withdrawal of army from counter
insurgency as being necessary. Besides, calling for repeal of AFSPA has been
made complex with most political parties (including Left parties and
Congress) in favour of pullout of army but they are not in favour of repeal
of AFSPA or its revocation where army has been deployed.

However, even this leaves much to desire. There is another section of armed
forces which favour Army’s induction in internal security affairs because
power and pelf accompany such a role. They also happen to outnumber those
who are against it. This view is not only the official position but the army
is engaged in honing its counter insurgency skills as shown in army’s
doctrine of sub-conventional warfare and doctrine of perception management
(an important part of counter insurgency). Something unstated is also the
fact that “disturbed areas” provide army an occasion to shake off civilian
control and garner resources. Thus call for pullout of the army can and has
been also countered by saying that Article 355 of Constitution read together
with 2(A) of Union List empowers central government to deploy central forces
in situations of internal security. And that whatever may have been the
cause once there is rebellion it has to be put down, if need be by the Army.
So a fait accompli is offered to us.

Thus it is abundantly clear that a piecemeal approach, either demanding
repeal of AFSPA or withdrawal of army, are not without problems and do not
adequately address the issue. I am reminded of what happened when POTA was
revoked. We were told by many a progressive commentator to be happy at a
half victory since confession to police, while in their custody, was
dropped. What these progressives failed to realize was that rest of POTA got
incorporated in Unlawful Activities Prevention Act 1967 (which got further
strengthened in 2008) and which by now has become ever more lethal a threat
than TADA or POTA.

Take another example. Indian government offered a sop to people of Manipur
after the rape and murder of Manorama Devi by the Assam Rifles in shape of
withdrawal of AFSPA from Imphal. The result was that instead of the Assam
Rifles now Manipur Commandos carry out killing in Imphal (and elsewhere too)
since they enjoy protection provided by the state government. Thus AFSPA may
not be in operation in Imphal but conditions in Imphal are no different, and
no better than elsewhere in Manipur, point being that very often a half
measure ends up biting us and leaves us worse off than before.

Will this mean that non-state groups can continue fighting while state
demilitarises? I doubt it. No to war against our own people robs even
non-state actors of their source legitimacy. If the state does not wage war,
i.e. there is no prolonged deployment and empowerment of military forces
against our own people, why would people or any political group take up
arms? If there is a possibility of non-violently resolving matters,
including possibilities of transforming state and society, why would anyone
take to armed resistance? There is no natural propensity of people to opt
for armed resistance. Indeed the prospects of people taking to arms is
directly linked to Indian state’s propensity to use military suppression as
“mother of all policies” against popular movements demanding either right of
self-determination or radical transformation.

But are there not groups which possess weapons or believe in armed
resistance? Mere possession of weapons does not mean declaration of war
against the state. Also opting for armed resistance is never an automatic
choice rather it is a proposition which is contested and debated within
revolutionary parties and liberation groups prior to decision being taken.
In an interview given to The Hindu (April 14, 2010) Cherukuri Rajkumar aka
Azad had reminded that it was the “imposition of the ban (against the
CPI(ML) (PW) that had led the Party and the mass organizations to take up
arms in the first place…….What shook the rulers at that time (in 1978) and
compelled them to declare Jagtyala and Sircila taluks in Karimnagar district
of North Telengana as disturbed areas in 1978 was not the armed struggle of
the Maoists (which had suffered a complete setback …by 1972) but the
powerful (movement against) anti-feudal order in the countryside….” Were the
State not to wage war against people, the chances of the debate veering
towards armed resistance gets reduced.

It is also worth remembering that there are, according to International
Action Network on Small Arms, an estimated 40 million private weapons in
India. It does not require rocket science to believe that these tens of
millions of weapons are mostly in the possession of those classes and castes
in Indian society who wield power and are privileged. This reality, and an
India, which for all its verbosity about non-violence, is one of the most
heavily armed state both in terms of accumulation of destructive power of
its arsenal as well as size of its military force, which gets
force-multiplied by draconian laws, and thus enables the ruling classes to
practice ‘slow genocide’ against its own people. Therefore, I believe we
should be pitching for something that helps us focus on the fundamental
concern and not its symptom, ( militancy being in essence a manifestation
against oppression) to enable us to argue for peaceful and democratic way
out. Therefore, we should say ‘No to War Against Our Own People’.

In other words, ten years of irom Sharmila’s heroic fast and more than four
decades of struggle against AFSPA should convince us that the time has come
for us to demand an end to war against our own people as the principled and
realistic stance. Once we accept legitimacy of wars against our own people
we enable the state to argue for AFSPA, DA Act etc. Of course those who
believe that AFSPA alone should be repealed but wars against our own people
should carry on will oppose this because they believe that no state can
allow any non-state group to overthrow it. But they must have the courage of
their conviction to come out and say so rather than hide behind the façade
of being “pacifist” while intellectually supporting the policy of military
suppression and the blood-letting that ensues. But those of us who argue
that the State must give up prosecuting wars against our own people must
seriously consider a course correction, lest we are led to the ‘desolation
row’ through a piecemeal effort.

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