Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma later justified the move, saying that insurgent groups are still active in the North-East, including Assam.
The Assam government has extended the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958, or AFSPA, in the entire state by another six months. The law guarantees sweeping powers to security forces involved in anti-insurgency operations.
Human rights activists and security experts see no justification why the entire state has been declared a “disturbed area” when the insurgency is on the wane and ethnic rebel groups have signed peace agreement with the Centre.
Needless to say, there has been a long-pending demand for repeal of AFSPA due to its alleged misuse in insurgency-hit regions such as the Northeast and the Kashmir Valley.
On September 11, a brief press statement by Assam government’s information and public relation department said, “The Government of Assam in exercise of powers conferred by Section 3 of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 has declared the entire State of Assam as "Disturbed Area" up to six months with effect from August 28, 2021 unless withdrawn earlier."
The statement that was widely published in the local media did not cite any reason for attaching the ‘disturbed area’ tag to the entire state for another six months. The move is quite surprising given the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Central and Assam governments have signed two major peace agreements with ethnic rebel groups in the past one and half years.
Interestingly, the original government order, a copy of which has been reviewed by this writer, seems to have gone unnoticed. The order issued by the Assam governor cited eight reasons in support of the AFSPA extension.
One of them is worth mentioning as it says, “The hill districts of Karbi Anglong, West Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao have witnessed hydra-headed ethno-based militancy, which has inter-state ramifications. Moreover, these groups have received support from militant groups like NSCN (I-M) operating in neighbouring states.”
(The NSCN [I-M] is the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland, led by Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah.)
Signed by Niraj Verma, principal secretary (home and political department), Assam, the notification of the governor order was issued on September 10, 2021 - a week after the Centre signed a tripartite Karbi Anglong Accord with six militant groups. Union Home Minister Amit Shah hailed this as a “historic accord”.
Speaking to reporters chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma later justified the government’s move, saying insurgent groups are still active in the entire North-East, including Assam. He said it would be wrong to assume that there is complete peace in the region until all the rebel groups returned to the mainstream.
What Sarma meant is that while Assam is relatively peaceful, the rebel groups are still active in neighbouring states such as Manipur and Nagaland. In Nagaland, the NSCN (I-M) is engaged in peace talks with the Centre, but there are other Naga rebels groups which are suspected to be involved in subversive activities.
AFSPA and ‘extra-judicial killings’
There are three versions of the same legislation – AFSPA (Assam and Manipur), 1958; AFSPA (Punjab and Chandigarh), 1983; and AFSPA (Jammu and Kashmir), 1990. In the North-East, AFSPA was initially enforced only in the Naga Hills, then a part of Assam, and was later extended to the rest of the region to tackle ethnic armed insurgencies.
The issue of human rights violations as a result of excesses committed allegedly by security forces has long been highlighted by activists and legal experts, a reason why AFSPA is seen as one of the most draconian laws in India since Independence.
In Manipur, well-known activist Irom Sharmila had led a 15-year-long ‘hunger strike’ until August 2016, demanding that AFSPA be repealed. The state had witnessed hundreds of alleged “extrajudicial killings” in the past.
Following a Supreme Court directive in 2017, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had constituted a special investigation team (SIT) to probe the alleged role of Army and Assam Rifles personnel in 1,528 extrajudicial killings committed between May 1979 and May 2012 in Manipur.
While the CBI probe is still on, it is believed the agency is facing hurdles in getting prosecution sanction against armed forces personnel as AFSPA guarantees impunity to security forces in insurgency-hit regions.
The current situation in North-East
Tripura and Meghalaya removed AFSPA in 2015 and 2018, respectively. Assam has also been by and large peaceful for several years – the reason being the major insurgent group, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), had joined the peace process a decade ago. And the government is now awaiting response from the Paresh Baruah faction to join the peace talks.
Additionally, other ethnic rebel groups from Dimasa, Bodo and Karbi communities have inked peace agreements with the Central government in the past one decade.
In this backdrop, the decision to declare all of Assam a “disturbed area” has invited criticism from human rights activists.
“The extension of the AFSPA in entire Assam has nothing to do with the state of insurgency in the state. It only exposes the absence of proper security assessment when decisions that affect lives and liberties are taken. If Tripura, which recently had the killing of two BSF jawans, and Meghalaya do not require the AFSPA, there is no justification for the AFSPA in entire Assam, after having resolved the Bodo and Karbi insurgencies,” said Suhas Chakma, director of Delhi-based Rights and Risks Analysis Group.
In its 1997 judgment in the Naga People’s Movement of Human Rights (NPMHR) Vs Union of India case, the Supreme Court
had cautioned that AFSPA should be used in rare situations, well-known rights activist Babloo Loitongbam, executive director of Imphal-based Human Rights Alert, pointed out.
“It is only when absolutely necessary that the ‘disturbed area’ tag should be used, according to the SC order," Loitongbam said. "In Assam and Manipur, the law and order situation has considerably improved, something the respective state governments have been claiming for quite some time. Therefore, we see no reason for extending the ‘disturbed area’ provision in this region. Recently, Manipur State Human Rights Commission has come out with recommendations saying there is no need of AFSPA in Manipur.
“I think it is a similar situation in Assam. There is already a peace process; the chief minister is very active; he has been speaking to militant groups under this peace process… So, I believe it is redundant to have AFSPA now. Assam and Manipur police can handle the situation in their respective states and there is no requirement to mobilise military for the same,” Loitongbam added.
Loitongbam said that AFSPA should be removed. “If the situation worsens, it can be reimposed. But the rule should be - governance without AFSPA,” he said.
Brigadier Ranjit Borthakur (retired), a Guwahati-based security expert, also admitted that the situation has vastly improved compared to the 1990s when insurgency was at its peak in Assam.
“Yes, insurgency has been on the wane in Assam for several years now. And even if AFSPA is there, there is hardly any operation involving the Army. It is mostly the paramilitary forces and the police, which carry out operations, if needed.
“I believe this would be gradually withdrawn. However, one thing needs to be kept in mind – once withdrawn, it’s not easy to reimpose it…the process is time-consuming,” said the former Indian Army officer, who had served in the North-East.
“There is no doubt the law and order has improved. Even (ULFA leader) Paresh Baruah has dropped some hints that he may join the peace talks. These are positive developments for the state.”
When asked whether Assam could follow in the footsteps of Tripura and Meghalaya and withdraw AFSPA completely, Brig. Borthakur said, “In my view, there are two options. Either it is completely removed once this six-month extension is over, or it can be applied to select areas in Assam. For instance, this can apply to interstate borders with Arunachal and Nagaland to curb infiltration of militants and other activities.”
Assam principal secretary (home and political) Niraj Verma did not respond to an email sent by this writer seeking his comment.