Road to Nowhere

Forty-eight years ago in 1958, the Government of India enacted the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) as a measure to empower her armed forces in their war to militarily quell the Naga movement. The AFSPA, which since 1972 is operational in the entire Northeast, is actually a legacy of the British colonial legislation, the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance (1942), which extended to the whole of British India in their effort to suppress the ‘Quit India Movement.’ Ironically, the very people who fought against colonial rule and non-violently secured India’s independence resorted to the very same instruments of force, used by their colonizers, as their response to the Naga question.   

First introduced in the form of an ordinance in 1958, twelve days after the budget session of the parliament was over, the matter came up again during the monsoon session of parliament for ratification. The then deputy chairman of Rajya Sabha PN Sapru, pointed out that was no need for such urgency. Several Members of Parliament opposed the act on the ground that it would lead to violations of Fundamental Rights and that it would circumvent the Indian Constitution by effectively imposing an Emergency, without actually declaring one. However, after discussions of three hours in the Lok Sabha and four hours in the Rajya Sabha, the Parliament approved and passed the AFSPA with retrospective effect from May 22 1958. 

In 2006 the AFSPA still continues to prevail, causing overwhelming effect on human life. In spite of the continuous dissent and opposition against the AFSPA and repeated demand for its repeal, the voices of people remain unheard. Perhaps the geographical and political distance between New Delhi and the Northeast region is demonstrative of the dialogue of the deaf. It was only in 1997, the Supreme Court of India heard a Public Interest Litigation filed in 1982, challenging the Constitutional Validity of the AFSPA. In a matter of ten days, the then Chief Justice of India, Justice JS Verma declared its judgment, upholding the validity of the Act, with some recommendation. The recommendation however did not in any way alter the original intent of the Act.  

As ironic as it may sound, Justice JS Verma was later appointed Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission. Such is its international contradictions. It is difficult to comprehend that an Act which empowers a non-commissioned to shoot-to-kill any person on mere suspicion and future provides immunity from any legal proceeding, can be upheld as Constitutional. In reality, the Act has only achieved in causing great suffering and isolation to the people and has only weakened India’s international standing as a leading democratic country. One wonders what Gandhi would have thought of the AFSPA, after all it was he who said, “It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings.”

When India in 1997 declared that military solution to the Naga question was ruled out and that it required a political solution, because the question was political in nature, the relevance in defense of the AFSPA evaporates. The government of India would do best by honoring the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee suggestion to repeal the AFSPA. Continuation of the AFSPA would only lead to a road that leads to nowhere. Rest assured it would only be in India’s best national interest to repeal the AFSPA as it would make her a stronger democratic country.