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India’s Tryst With A Draconian Law – OpEd

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Indian military is getting embroiled in a bitter altercation with a section of the political class and human rights advocate on the question of revoking a restrictive legislation called Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from certain parts of the country’s insurgency affected territories like Kashmir. This is enough to set the alarm bell ringing surreptitiously in South Asia’s most potent and stable democracy.

That the extremely rigid viewpoint adopted by the quarrelling parties has vitiated the entire debate can be gauged from the horrifying accusation of the army having staged successive bomb attacks on paramilitary personnel manning the streets of Srinagar – capital of the Indian administered Kashmir to retain their hold over the strategic border region, coming from no less than an elected people’s representative.

However, it is time to call the bluff. This entire debate is based on the premise of the civilian administration attempting to restore the democratic rights of citizens in Jammu and Kashmir from the clutches of martial law. Does that mean the armed forces have a vested interest in retaining its hold over such disturbed zones? An impartial analysis of the history of AFSPA, however, exposes a harrowing truth.

The civilian leadership of this nation is actually responsible for subcontracting the role of tackling disgruntlement arising out of the Indian state’s abject failure to recognize cultural, social and economic aspirations of some section.

The military was provided a long rope in the form of a draconian legislation like AFSPA to contain any secessionist design with iron hand. Interestingly, the unrestricted and unaccounted power to shoot, arrest, search and even demolish residential properties suspected to be used in holing up terrorists is a gift from the highest legislative body of the land – the Indian Parliament whose members are ironically elected by the people to represent their aspirations. It sounds intriguing because India has been issuing sermon of democratic virtues the world over.

The AFSPA originally meant to confront the tendency of seeking self-determination in the northeastern provinces is, in fact, one of the most arbitrary legal provisions ever passed by any Parliament which grants all ranks in uniform the free right to shoot fellow countrymen fatally in the garb of maintaining civil discipline and that too without any judicial oversight. Section 6 of the legislation clearly provides the armed forces with immunity stating explicitly that “no prosecution, suit or other legal proceeding shall be instituted against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers conferred by this act.”

Not many are aware of the fact that this enabling statute has its origin in the Armed Forces Ordinance (AFO) of 1942 enforced by the British administration to desist freedom fighters from participating in the Quit India Movement and protecting the eastern frontier of British India from the onslaught of Indian National Army and Japanese coalition. The same emergency provision designed to kill patriotic Indians was adopted with slight modification by the government of independent India in 1958 to tackle any popular uprising with the armed forces continuing to enjoy the special powers and privileges granted in the colonial ordinance. That is precisely the reason why a man in olive is looked upon with suspicion even today.

Nobody cares to know that he is out there dominating his own people out of compulsion and not choice. The political executive of this nation has virtually shoved the army into a war that is no less fratricidal.

Provisions of AFSPA are never debated even in legislative assemblies of the affected states with the mainstream politicians treating it as a tool of attaining political salvation in a troubled zone. The few voices daring to question its efficacy are either usurped or silenced due to fear of being branded anti-national. Since, the draconian law has not been a panacea for eliminating aspiration- and frustration-related violence resulting in rapid proliferation of armed militias within the ever growing geographical bound over which AFSPA’s writ runs endlessly, there is scope for revisiting its clauses.

It has to be accepted at some point that counterviolence is no remedy for assuaging people’s sentiment. Rather this mindless bloodshed could have been averted by acknowledging and genuinely respecting the rights of varying ethnicity that New Delhi has absorbed within its borders at the time of attaining independence.

The Indian Army Chief Gen. V.K. Singh, however, believes that the withdrawal of this law will seriously jeopardize the safety and credibility of his forces. Indeed, his men suffer from credibility crisis in areas where they are operating under the shield of AFSPA.

The controversy, in fact, stems from the tendency of military analysts to approach this entire perspective through a war prism. With the army being stretched to its limit having been entrusted with the tricky internal security assignment of combating emotion with weapon for the last 53 years, why is the learned general so eager to hang on?

This unfortunately creates an impression of the armed forces having a vested interest in these disturbed territories in some form or the other. Moreover, nobody is in a better position than him to appreciate that continuous exposure to strenuous war-like situations over a prolonged period can elicit abnormal behavioral attribute resulting in increased cases of rape, molestation and excesses. The army on the contrary should play a lead role in alleviating the feeling of alienation that application of emergency laws like AFSPA has generated. Surely, no right-minded official of the Indian Armed Forces relish the situation of being in perpetual conflict with his fellow countrymen. Predatory laws resembling the imperial legislations aimed at instilling fear among the public will only aid in wiping out faith in democratic values, tradition and institution.

Half of a country’s military strength engaged in fighting its own people does not augur well for a practicing democracy while reforming the system and making the laws more humane will only strengthen the cause that hundreds of India’s brave warriors have laid down their precious lives for in the line of duty.

This article appeared at Arab News.

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Seema Sengupta

Seema Sengupta is a journalist based in Kolkata, India and a Contributing Writer for The Korea Times, Seoul. Her articles have been published by Asia Times Online, South China Morning Post, The Bengal Post and other newspapers. Recipient of National Award for Excellence in appreciation of excellent services rendered in the field of Freelance Journalism, 1999. She can be reached at [email protected]

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