On April 23, 2018, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, (AFSPA) applicable to areas in the Northeast was removed from Meghalaya and restricted to eight police stations of Arunachal Pradesh bordering Assam and three districts bordering Myanmar. Earlier in 2015, the Act was removed from Tripura, which was yet another State in the Northeast affected by an indigenous insurgency movement.
AFSPA was first enacted and promulgated in the post-independence period in 1948 to replace four ordinances dealing with the security situation in Bengal, Assam and United Provinces.
This was, however, repealed in 1957, only to be re-enacted as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 on August 18, 1958. This was necessitated by the challenging security situation in Nagaland and Manipur. The Naga rebels had refused to affirm the merger of these two States with India and had established their own shadow government. They also refused to participate in the first national elections in 1952 and essentially challenged the newly-enacted Constitution of India. This led to police action, followed by the deployment of Assam Rifles in the area. However, having found this measure also to be inadequate, AFSPA was enacted to facilitate operations by the Army.
The existing laws of the country, including the Indian Penal Code as well as procedures defined by the Code of Criminal Procedure, do not allow the Army to operate in law and order situations, unless specifically requisitioned by the state administrative head, in aid to civil authorities.
The provisions of AFSPA allowed the Army to undertake operations in an area declared as disturbed to maintain public order. In brief, this includes: opening fire after due warning; destruction of an arms dump, fortified position or shelter which may be used for an armed attack; arrest without warrant of an individual having or likely to commit an offence; stop, search or seize a vehicle carrying an individual who has committed an offence or on the basis of reasonable doubt of its likelihood.
As is evident from the promulgation and provisions of the law, AFSPA aimed at primarily achieving two objectives. First, it gave the freedom to armed forces to operate in areas declared as disturbed in order to assist the state in restoring public order. The term public order is important here since the police are responsible for law and order and the armed forces are only requisitioned when there is a threat to public order in an area.
Second, AFSPA provided the necessary flexibility to the armed forces to operate freely in order to restore the breakdown of the administrative machinery of the state apparatus.
By definition, the law was meant to be a temporary provision, relevant only until public order could be restored. However, the year of promulgation of the law indicates that it has remained in effect for a period that was possibly not envisaged at the time of its introduction.
This was not because the Army wanted to remain involved with the security of the area, but primarily as a result of the assessment of the overall security situation not only in the specific areas but also the larger security environment in the region. It was assessed that the security of an area that was moderately affected and may be handled locally by the police became a part of a larger challenge faced by the region.
This was primarily due to the vicinity of such areas to the border or very violent States, exploited by inimical external powers or employed for movement of weapons, drugs and insurgents. This made it difficult to draw a line between areas that were violent and affected or only indirectly affected despite limited violence levels. As a result of the extensive network of insurgent groups that spilled over into such regions, the retention of the Act became a security necessity.
The removal of the Act is a significant development in relation to the security situation in the country in general and the areas directly affected by violence in particular. In this case, the removal of the Act indicates progress in a number of ways.
First, it suggests that the public order challenge has been lowered adequately to limit it to routine law and order. Second, it conveys that the state institutions have enhanced their capacity over a period of time, which gives them adequate confidence in their ability to not only address the existing situation, but also conditions that could arise in the immediate future.
Third, there are indicators that the threat emanating from the disturbed neighbourhood has also been brought under a level of control, which was a significant challenge in the past. Fourth, this addresses the criticism that has long been levelled against the government, both at the Centre and State, questioning their will and ability to manage security without the armed forces in disturbed areas of the country.
The removal of the Act is a test case that can provide relevant internal security indicators for other areas in not only Northeast India, but over a period of time, in Jammu & Kashmir as well.
The State and Central police forces, which have built their strength and capacity over time, must ultimately take over the mantle of internal security from the Army from areas where AFSPA was once introduced. This will give the necessary impetus to build these institutions to handle public order situations in addition to law and order and give the much-needed civilian face to such operations.
(The author is a Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA))