On August 28, the Assam government extended the applicability of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act for six more months in the state. The entire state was declared a “disturbed area” as per the requirements of the under the 1958 Act on February 28. The move was driven by the National Register of Citizens process that aims to create a list of authentic Assamese residents, separating them from undocumented immigrants. “The situation is peaceful, but we will not take a decision on withdrawing AFSPA until NRC exercise is over,” the Assam police told the Times of India.
The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act gives the security forces sweeping powers in an area that has been declared “disturbed”. It allows them to search, arrest and even open fire.While in theory, a soldier can be prosecuted for crimes committed while operating under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, it is near impossible to do so in practice, given that legal action requires permission from the Union government,
The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act has, therefore, come in for criticism from human rights activists with allegations of misuse in Jammu and Kashmir and the North East. Till now, however, the Union government has ignored all objections, arguing that the security forces need special powers if they are to quell insurgencies. Yet, while the use of the Act to control insurgencies is questionable, its use in Assam to maintain law and order is even more so.
Assam has been under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act for 27 years now. When the law was enabled in the state in 1990, the area was under an ethnic insurgency. The situation today, however, is markedly different. Insurgent-related deaths were 33 in 2017 – the lowest in 20 years and an 87% decrease since 2014.
Given the sharp fall in insurgency, the Union government has wanted to reduce the area under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act since 2016 but the state government resisted, instead extending it over an even larger area. Noting this, a parliamentary standing committee called this a “paradoxical situation” in July, 2018.
Not only then does the extension of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act raise questions about the claims of the Assam government that the process related to the National Register of Citizens would be peaceful, it sets a worrying precedent about the Act for other states in the Union. The Indian Army is primarily meant to be an instrument of war. Its use in civilian areas within India is one of absolute last resort. Till now, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act was used in areas hit by insurgency. Questions about its human rights records should have seen the Act being rolled back or even removed altogether. Instead, in Assam we see a widening of the Act, given that it is now being applied even for reasons of law and order.
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