The Union government’s decision to revoke the much-despised Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in Meghalaya and reduce its scope in Arunachal Pradesh is a welcome development and reflects a pragmatic approach to special laws and a willingness to revoke them when the ground situation shows improvement. The AFSPA, which provides sweeping powers to armed forces in the notified disturbed areas, has become a symbol of state oppression and evoked protests in several areas. It gave rise to several excesses in the past that were sought to be brushed under the carpet. There has been a justifiable demand from civil rights groups and others for its withdrawal, particularly when there is an improvement in the ground situation. The phased revocation of the harsh law could lead to normalisation of the situation in the sensitive northeast region. Over the last decade, insurgency-related incidents have come down significantly while last year was totally incident-free. However, the Act, which provides immunity to security forces from prosecution, continues to be in operation in Assam, Nagaland and most parts of Manipur while it was withdrawn in Tripura in 2015. Though the Army continues to argue in favour of special powers, it is the Home Ministry that needs to make a realistic assessment of the ground situation and relax the provisions to instil a greater sense of confidence among the people. There has been popular upsurge against the AFSPA across the region, the most notable among the public protests was the prolonged hunger strike by Irom Sharmila.
Though a 2016 Supreme Court judgement clarified that the Act does not provide blanket immunity to Army personnel in anti-insurgency operations, there have been several allegations of the extra-judicial killings in the northeast region. Since the region constitutes a critical component of the government’s Act East policy, there is a need to create a congenial atmosphere to attract investments for rapid growth. The continuance of sweeping laws like AFSPA will be a hindrance to investment flow and tourism development. Efforts are needed to position the region as a bridge between the rest of India and Southeast Asia, boosting two-way trade. Similarly, the tourists will flock the region, endowed with natural beauty, only when there are no travel restrictions. The NDA government has spoken about massive plans to improve connectivity and infrastructure in the region. If this is coupled with complete removal of AFSPA, there will be a greater momentum for change. The resistance to the special law is most evident in Jammu & Kashmir where it is argued that the Centre could have revoked the Act at least in districts, which have been consistently peaceful and entrusted the task of law and order to local agencies.