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India Armed Forces Act under fire for fostering impunity

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
December 8, 2021

A botched security operation by the Indian army in Nagaland which left 14 civilians dead has reignited calls for the repeal of a draconian law that grants security forces immunity.

Torched vehicles belonging to Indian security forces from Assam Rifles, Mon district, Nagaland
Violent protests erupted after more than a dozen civilians were killed by security forces Image: Caisii Mao/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Tensions continue in the northeastern Indian state of Nagaland following the killings of 14 civiliansand one soldier in a botched army operation against insurgents.

Over the weekend, an elite military commando unit shot dead six coal miners returning to their homes in the district of Mon, believing they were targeting armed insurgents. Soon after, another eight people were killed by troops confronted by an angry crowd.

The killings triggered violent protests in the troubled region, home to dozens of separatist insurgencies led by ethnic rebel groups.

Home Minister Amit Shah vowed to carry out a high-level inquiry led by a special investigation team.

The incident marked one of the deadliest escalations in recent years in Nagaland, which has long been wracked by insurgency and ethnic divisions led by local militant groups. The deadly clashes have sparked concerns about its impacts on the ongoing Naga peace process with the government.

The clashes prompted Nagaland state's Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio on Monday to call for the withdrawal of emergency powers granted to Indian troops. Rio said his government wants the longstanding Armed Forces Special Powers Act, or AFSPA, repealed.

"AFSPA is damaging the image of our country which is the world's largest democracy,'' Rio said at the funeral services for the dead civilians in Mon.

Naga armed groups, civil society organizations and tribal bodies are also calling for the repeal of the AFSPA, accusing security forces of exceeding the powers granted to them under the AFSPA in their counterinsurgency operations.

"The protection provided to the security forces is a major obstacle to justice in the troubled region," Rosemary Dzuvichu, advisor of the Naga Mothers' Association, told DW.

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What are the army's 'special powers'?

The 1958 AFSPA law extends extra-judicial powers to security forces, allowing them to search, seize and even shoot suspects on sight — on the basis of "reasonable suspicion" — without fear of prosecution.

The act remains in force in Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir and parts of Arunachal Pradesh.

Under the act, local authorities require federal approval to prosecute army or paramilitary soldiers in civilian courts.

Human rights groups have called the law draconian and urged for its repeal for decades.

"It has to go. The call for repeal of AFSPA is not anti-national. This massacre was a reminder of how this draconian law is a blot on India's pride as the world’s largest democracy," Binalakshmi Nepram, founder of the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network & Global Alliance of Indigenous Peoples, told DW.

"It hasn't worked for 63 [years] and will not also work in the next 63 years," Nepram said.

"Can indigenous peoples of the north-east consider themselves as equal citizens of an equal country? As long as AFSPA is there, where security forces are given special powers to shoot and kill civilians nonstop since 1958… how is it possible?"

Government rejects pleas for repeal

Earlier calls for the AFSPA to be scraped have been rejected on the premises of national security.

In 2004, the Indian National Congress-led government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set up a five-member committee under former Supreme Court judge Jeevan Reddy. He maintained the AFSPA had become a symbol of oppression and recommended its repeal. This was endorsed further by a second administrative reforms commission.

Senior bureaucrats also recommended that the AFSPA should at least be amended, but opposition from the Defence Ministry has stalled any possible decisions.

Though a cabinet sub-committee was tasked to probe the matter, the Bharatiya Janata Party government subsequently dropped the sub-committee and also rejected the findings of the Reddy Commission in 2014.

"What happened in Nagaland is shameful for our country and it should have been an opportunity for the government to repeal the AFSPA. But I do not see the act being repealed in the foreseeable future," human rights lawyer Nandita Haksar told DW.

"Human rights discourse has itself been weaponized and is used to justify wars and military interventions," said Haksar. Her book, "Nagaland File: A Question of Human Rights," first exposed the human rights violations being committed by Indian security forces.

In 2000, 10 civilians were killed in the 'Malom Massacre' in Manipur’s capital Imphal.

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The killings had prompted 28-year-old Irom Sharmila to begin a 16-year-long hunger strike against  the AFSPA. Amnesty International declared her a prisoner of conscience, subsequently leading to the repeal of AFSPA, but only in the Imphal municipal area.

'An atmosphere of impunity'

Activists in the northeast region claim there were 1,528 cases of "extra-judicial killings" by the army and other security forces between 1979 and 2012 in Manipur.

The claim was brought to the Supreme Court by the Extrajudicial Execution Victim Families Association of Manipur (EEVFAM) in 2012.

During that time, the Supreme Court set up a three-member committee that investigated six cases of alleged fake encounters, including the killing of 12-year-old Azad Khan in 2009. The court submitted a report with the finding that all six killings were "fake encounters." There has been no prosecution against security forces.

"Manipur has seen a history of killing innocent people in the name of counter-insurgency. What the law has created is an atmosphere of impunity which has seen so many innocent people die," EEVFAM Secretary Edina Yaikhom told DW.

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11