Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Wednesday claimed that the promise in the Congress manifesto to amend the Armed Forces Special Powers Act will weaken the morale of the Indian Armed Forces. AFSPA gives the military sweeping powers to search and arrest, and to open fire if they deem it necessary for “the maintenance of public order”, and to do so with a degree of immunity from prosecution.
“Those aspects of the Congress manifesto which will undermine the morale of the Armed Forces, which will make them completely hands and legs tied, I will try to highlight those aspects,” she said at a press conference. “The Congress party has included these aspects in its manifesto to favour traitors and separatists,” Sitharaman alleged.
“This does not portend well for the unity of the country or the morale of the Armed Forces,” she added. Sitharaman said that once a case is filed against an Army officer, he will have to keep making the rounds of the court throughout his life, from wherever he is posted.
Sitharaman said both the Centre and state governments work together to declare certain areas of the country as disturbed. “We withdrew AFSPA from Meghalaya and Tripura,” she said. “If you want to withdraw AFSPA, there is a system to do it. We showed that there is a way to remove it.” On the other hand, Sitharaman claimed, Congress’ promise to amend AFSPA suddenly was sensationalism, and will affect India’s national security apparatus adversely.
The defence minister also criticised the Congress’ promise to reduce the powers of the district magistrates. “District level magistrates have the power to curb social media,” Sitharaman said. “If the armed forces are conducting operations at some place, the district magistrate deems it necessary to temporarily ban social media there, or impose Section 144. The Congress wants to take away that power from district magistrates.”
Sitharaman wondered what power the Army, district magistrates, revenue officials and law and enforcement officials would have to control the situation if the Congress manifesto is implemented. “What is the idea?” she asked. “All of us have to work together by considering the sensitive situation in Jammu and Kashmir. We cannot say, let us all get out of there and let anyone do whatever they wish. This is dangerous.”
The defence minister wondered why the Congress’ claim that it will grant martyr status to the Central Reserve Police Force jawans killed in the Pulwama attack is not present in the manifesto. Sitharaman also said that while the government reacted strongly to the attack (by sending Indian Air Force jets into Pakistan to blow up a terror camp), the Congress did nothing after the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
The Lok Sabha elections will be held in seven phases from April 11 to May 19, and the results announced on May 23.