Now is the time to rethink AFSPA

Now is the time to rethink AFSPA

Army Chief General Bipin Rawat has shot down calls for "even a rethink" of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). This is disturbing and disappointing. AFSPA vests excessive powers on security forces deployed in areas deemed 'disturbed.' These powers include the right to shoot to kill, to raid houses and destroy any property that is "likely" to be used by insurgents. A person who has committed or is even about to commit a cognizable offence can be arrested without a warrant, even on "reasonable suspicion."

The AFSPA provides soldiers with immunity from prosecution. It goes against India's democratic values. It is supposed to be a temporary measure, an emergency legislation to be used in an area convulsed in conflict. However, AFSPA has been in force for decades on end in several parts of the Northeast and in Jammu and Kashmir. Clearly, it has failed to put a lid on violent conflicts in these areas and appears to have even triggered violence in areas that were previously calm. Consider this: AFSPA was first imposed on the Naga Hills in 1958. In the 60 years since, it has been extended to cover most districts in all of the Northeast's seven states and has been in effect in the Kashmir Valley since 1990. If the number of 'disturbed areas' in the country has grown, it would seem that AFSPA has failed to bring calm. Or, that it is being imposed in new areas where it isn't needed. Clearly, AFSPA needs to be repealed or at least reformed. It is unfortunate, therefore, that the army chief believes that now is not the time to rethink this draconian and undemocratic legislation.

The current unrest in Kashmir is certainly worrying. But this needs the state to reach out to civilians and build their confidence in India's democratic institutions and justice mechanisms. New Delhi needs to initiate inclusive dialogue with them. These steps, rather than rounding up people or shooting them, are the need of the hour. The lack of accountability that AFSPA assures the armed forces encourages soldiers to reach for the guns at the first sign of civilian protest. This is what happened in Shopian recently, where two civilians participating in a protest were shot dead by the armed forces.

Contrary to what Gen Rawat said, now is the time to begin a rethink on AFSPA. India has sacrificed far too many innocent lives by keeping it in force. We have dragged our feet for too long in repealing this legislation. Revising at least those clauses that provide immunity to soldiers would be the long-overdue first step. AFSPA must also be lifted from areas that are not disturbed.

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