Manipur may still be at the centre of the news from the Northeast and rightly so, but one could argue that Assam also witnessed something momentous on May 22.
It may only be an announcement for now but when Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said that his government was aiming to withdraw the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, (AFSPA) completely from the state by the end of 2023, the dominant feeling in the state was one of “about time” coupled with relief.
Sarma, who has now become the main face of the BJP and the NDA in not just Assam but all of Northeast, made the announcement during the Commandants Conference held on May 22. “AFSPA will be lifted from the entire state by November. This will facilitate the replacement of Central Armed Police Forces by Assam Police Battalions. However, (the) presence of CAPFs as required by law shall be in place,” he stated.
Why AFSPA Is Going
This development is not a complete surprise. One of the most significant achievements of the NDA government, and something that the BJP seldom fails to remind us of, is that under their leadership, the Northeast has seen a huge drop in the insurgency. And official numbers back it up.
The BJP has indeed done a commendable job in the northeast in some ways. Of course, the violence in Manipur has overshadowed several other developments, but truth be told, the security situation in the North-Eastern states has considerably improved since 2014. Both 2019 and 2020 witnessed the lowest number of insurgency incidents and casualties of civilians and security forces during the last two decades. In comparison to 2014, insurgency incidents have fallen by 80 percent in 2020.
Similarly, casualties in security forces also fell by 75 percent and civilian casualties decreased by 99 percent. In 2014, there were 824 incidents of violence in the Northeast resulting in the death of 212 civilians, the number of deaths reduced to three. This, when coupled with militants surrendering across Assam in front of packed audiences has successfully created the image of an Assam much more peaceful than its past.
And finally, the near-demise of ULFA, from being the region's foremost separatist organisation to barely making it to the news has helped the BJP's image immensely. While reports of ULFA resurgence resurface every once in a while, few would call it the threat it once was. The fact that it has been reduced to kidnapping private company employees shows how bad things are for the Paresh Barua-led unit. And this bodes very well for the Assam government.
No Closure For The Victims
As of now, AFSPA is restricted to only eight (out of 31) districts of Assam which perhaps explains why Sarma also believes that the time is ripe for an AFSPA-free Assam. Now, it is a well-known fact that AFSPA and all regulations around it are controlled by the Central government, not the state government. So, when Sarma makes such a claim, it is assumed that he does so with the full support of Home Minister Amit Shah and of course, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. With Lok Sabha elections around the corner, this will only help the BJP, although few would argue that AFSPA in Assam would be a factor at all.
Unlike Manipur, where the struggles of Irom Sharmila for over 15 years kept the fight against a law like AFSPA alive, and Nagaland, which also has a long history of fighting against AFSPA best illustrated by the protests that engulfed the state after the Oting massacre of December 2021, Assam has largely forgotten about AFSPA, despite a bloody, tragedy-ridden past. Sure, it makes it into the news every time it is extended, but the atrocities committed in Assam under AFSPA barely find mention in local papers compared to ones in Manipur and Nagaland.
That said, it is not as if the victims, or the families of the victims, have forgotten their pain. Ask the residents of Dipila, a village in Sipajhar Tehsil in Darrang District of Assam, about July 27, 1991. Keshab Deka, a farmer; Pramod Kalita, a farmer; Ganesh Deka, a teacher; Chandra Baruah, a painter; and Karuna Kalita, a state government employee, were the five men killed by the BSF personnel on July 27, 1991, under suspicion of being involved with the blast at a bridge.
Of course, no one was ever punished because AFSPA effectively shields security forces against any action. This incident may have been from 1991, but even in 2021 when 13 miners were killed for no reason in Oting, Mon district, Nagaland, it was pretty clear that no one would be ever punished. And this was confirmed in 2023 when the Centre turned down the prosecution of the 30 army personnel.
So, while the decision to scrap AFSPA from Assam will be welcomed with open arms, any call for justice for innocent victims is likely to never make it to the headlines. Because AFSPA has left a bloody trail everywhere it has been implemented. The sooner it becomes the past across the country, the better.
Amit Kumar is executive editor of Eastmojo.com, a Northeast-based news portal. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.