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Mainstream, VOL XLVIII, No 50, December 4, 2010

Principle versus Piecemeal Approach

AFSPA, Troops Pullout Or Ending War Against Our People

Sunday 12 December 2010


by Gautam Navlakha

In order to understand the significance of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and our response we must understand the role of the armed forces of the Union in wars of suppression. Because, we tend to overlook the magnitude of experience of the war. And yet, whether we choose to ignore the war or to pay hypocritical obeisance to the victims of the war, it does not obviate the reality of the war.

It is my contention that our opposition to the AFSPA is not only because it protects the armed forces of the Union (which is how the Indian Constitution defines Army, Navy, Air Force and the Central paramilitary forces) but also
because we, in the civil liberties and democratic rights groups, oppose the policy of military suppression of our own people in the first place (at least formally considered “our own”) because it is this that necessitates protection for the military forces deployed to carry out the dirty task of brutally restoring the state’s authority and in its turn creates the source—credibility for counter-violence.

Out of 626 districts in India, no less than 136 districts witnessed the policy of military suppression. Of these 136 districts, 101 have been notified as “disturbed areas” where the AFSPA and State level Disturbed Areas Act, either separately or concurrently, operate. In 35 of the so-called joint forces operations against “Leftwing Extremists” neither of these Acts are invoked and yet the war continues. (Of course there could be in Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal....some other Act in operation indemni-fying the forces.) However, for all practical purposes the ground reality is no different in these 35 districts spread over nine States and the 101 districts where the AFSPA is notified.

The second thing to note is that the Central Government has set aside Rs 40,000 crores for “internal security” (which falls under the Ministry of Home Affairs), that is, for wars in these districts where nearly 80 per cent of the Central paramilitary forces (whose strength is 900,000 plus 145 battalions of the India Reserve Batallion or 150,000 personnel) and half of the Indian Army (337,000 in J&K, and 280,000 in the entire NE) is engaged in Counter Insurgency. Were we to add to this Rs 40,000 crores allocated towards “internal security” with what the Ministry of Defence spends on “internal security” (taking merely wages and allowances and pension of this force) which comes to approximately Rs 29,000 crores, the Indian Government is spending a staggering sum of Rs 69,000 or say 70,000 crores annually to pay for these wars. This amount could suffice to pay for an universal Food Security Act in India. Significantly, the Union Finance Ministry has cited paucity of funds to pay for an universal Food Security Act.

There is another dimension to this that needs to be considered. In an interview to Tehelka (June 5, 2010), Union Home Secretary G.K. PIllai said that “Manipur has the highest police to population ratio in the country”. And yet Manipur is raising another four battalions of Manipur Commandos! Of course, he did not spell out what the ratio was. J&K, according to CM Omar Abdullah, has six-to-seven lakhs troops (Army, CPMFs, State Armed Police), or say 600,000, for a population that is said to be 1.1 crore. This means a ratio of one armed soldier for 20 persons. Of course, the ratio changes even more if we consider the actual concentration of troops in the Kashmir Valley and those districts of Jammu which have sizable Muslim population. It could be approximate one armed soldier for 15 persons or even less. Reacalling what the UHS said in Manipur, the ratio could be lot worse. Such a heavy concentration deployed in a manner which monitors and controls the public and private lives of the people creates impediments in the way for normal activities of the people and causes a heavy loss of scarce human and material resources whose actual cost is yet to be calculated.

To this one ought to add another dimension. As evident from the case in J&K, there is pressure on J&K to recruit and train quickly a force which can replace the Central forces. Thus accretion in strength of the armed police gets compounded because apart from the bloated CPMFs we now have the bloated State level armed police formations. And like Central Forces protected by the AFSPA these State forces have their own State level protection against prosecution for any act committed in course of “active service”.

In other words, these conflicts become the occasion for stupendous augmentation of personnel in existing armed formations (in 2007-08 Shivraj Patil, the then Union Home Minister, spoke of raising 206 batallions of CPMFs over the next five years) and /or through creation of a new force of either armed police battalions or forces such as Rashtriya Rifles, which was raised for fighting insurgency in J&K in 1993-94. It is also less known that the armed police is trained along the lines of infantry formations of the Army. Keep in mind also the fact since 1947 not a year has passed when the Indian state has not been engaged in waging an internal war (call it by any name war/armed conflict/military suppression) against our own people in some part of the country or the other. It can also be established empirically that almost all movements which picked up guns did so only after non-violent struggles were run aground by the Indian state one way or another or dismissed out of hand. In all these cases of internal wars, the military (Army and CPMFs in particular) is deployed for a prolonged period with enhanced powers to act on their own, that is, minus civilian supervision. This is unlike their short-term usage during riots etc. where they operate under orders of the Magistrate and are protected under Section 45 [Protection of Members of the Armed Forces from Arrest] of the CrPC. This is the background in which the campaign to repeal the AFSPA is located.

WE have gone through the debate over the AFSPA for over three decades we have struggled against it and our battle saw the Supreme Court upholding the constitutional validity of the Act (in NPMHR vs Union of India 1997) albeit suggesting some minimal safeguards in the shape of six-monthly review of its working or defining strictly the “shortest possible time” for handing over a person arrested by the armed forces of the Union to the police. The next round of our efforts saw the appointment of the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee (2004-05) which, while calling for the repeal of the AFSPA, because the title had come to acquire a pejorative sense according to the erudite retired judge, wanted its provisions incorporated in the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. And now even as the demand grows for repeal of the AFSPA, to coincide with ten years of Irom Sharmila’s fast-unto-death, there are efforts afoot to become pragmatic and realistic and settle for dilution of some provisions or amendments to certain sections of the AFSPA or for its step-by-step withdrawal from a State. Thus the struggle is not only confined to one part of the problem, it gets fragmented with the call for its dilution/partial withdrawal.

While it is correct that removal of the AFSPA could mean withdrawal of the Army in particular from CI duties (which forms part of its secondary role) since the Army does not want to operate without indemnity against prosecution, it is futile to believe that in face of near-unanimity in Parliament between the political parties their powers will not get curbed and we will get only dilution/partial withdrawal of the AFSPA. It would, however, not mean an end to military suppression/war/armed conflict per se. Because the State armed constabularies too are deployed, and looking at the experience of Manipur or J&K and the role of the State level forces in the nine States where joint operations are going on against the Maoists, there is absolutely no reason to believe that they are any less brutish and dastardly. This is evident from the recent incidents in Manipur which were perpetrated by the Manipur commandos, or in J&K where large scale war crimes committed by the Special Operations Group/Special Task Froce of the J&K Police or the horrendous record of the State forces of nine States where anti-Maoist operations are going on. Thus, for one, we might get rid of the AFSPA and the Army partially. And for second, we will see them get replaced by State armed forces and State level DAA. In other words our major concern about ending the use of military suppression to resolve political problems will not be addressed. All in all, a piecemeal approach merely focuses on just one aspect of the conflict.

The conventional wisdom is that this is better than nothing or that at least it can provide immediate relief for civilians in the conflict zone. While this appears attractive, it does not, unfortunately, resolve the predicament we face; and this has become worse now that there is near unanimous consensus among all the parliamentary parties, from Left to Right, ruling out repeal of the AFSPA, and there exists a fractured support even for pulling out the Army from the theatre of internal war/s.

Indeed if one has to settle for a piecemeal approach, why should we not replace the call for repeal of AFSPA with the call for withdrawal of military forces? Because, if we have to have a piecemeal approach why not explore the possibility of achieving our objective by demanding withdrawal of the Army and CPMFs from counter insurgency? There are many retired and serving Army officers who believe that the Army’s primary responsibility has been compro-mised and discipline has been affected by making the Indian Army focus more on its secondary role (of aiding the civil administration in conflict or calamity). They also feel that while protection is essential if the Army is called in and therefore the AFSPA should remain, they favour withdrawal of Army from CI as being necessary. Besides, calling for repeal of the AFSPA has been made complex with most political parties (including the Left parties and Congress) in favour of pull-out of the Army but they are not in favour of repeal of the AFSPA or its revocation where Army has been deployed.

However, even this leaves much to desire. Because there is another section of the armed forces which favour Army’s induction in internal security affairs since power and pelf accompany such a role. They also happen to outnumber those who are against it. This view is not only the official position but the Army is engaged in honing its CI skills as shown in Army’s doctrine of sub-conventional warfare and doctrine of perception management (an important part of CI). Something unstated is also the fact that “disturbed areas” provide the Army an occasion to shake off civilian control and garner resources. Thus the call for pullout of the Army can and has been also countered by saying that well Article 355 of the Constitution read together with 2(A) of the Union List empowers the Central Government to deploy Central forces in situations of internal security. And that whatever may have been the cause, once there is rebellion it has to be put down, if need be, by the Army.

THUS it is abundantly clear that a piecemeal approach, either demanding repeal of the AFSPA or withdrawal of the Army, is not without problems and does not adequately address the problem. I am reminded of what happened when the POTA was revoked. We were told by many a progressive commentator to be happy at half-victory since confession to the police, while in their custody, was dropped. What these progressives failed to realise was that the rest of the POTA got incorporated in the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act 1967 (which got further strengthened in 2008) and which by now has become an ever more lethal threat than the TADA or POTA.

Take another example. The Indian Government offered a sop to the people after the rape and murder of Manorama Devi by the Assam Rifles in the shape of withdrawal of the AFSPA from Imphal. The result was that instead of the Assam Rifles now the Manipur Commandos carry are out killings in Imphal (and elsewhere too) since they enjoy protection provided by the State Government. Thus the AFSPA may not be in operation in Imphal but conditions in Imphal are no different, and no better, than elsewhere in Manipur, the point being that very often a half-measure ends up biting us and leaves us worse off than before.

Will this mean that non-state groups can continue fighting while the state demilitarises? I doubt it. No to war against our own people robs even non-state actors of their source credibility. If the state does not wage war, that is, there is no prolonged deployment and empowerment of military forces against our own people, why would the people or any political group take up arms? If there is a possibility of non-violently resolving matters, including possibilities of transforming the state and society, why would anyone take to armed resistance? There is no natural propensity of the people to opt for armed resistance. Indeed the prospects of the people taking to arms is directly linked to the Indian state’s propensity to use military suppression as the mother of all policies against popular movements demanding either the right of self-determination or radical trans-formation.

But are there not groups which possessed weapons or possess weapons? Mere possession of weapons does not mean declaration of war against the state. Also opting for armed resistance is never an automatic choice; rather it is a proposition which is contested and debated within the revolutionary parties and liberation groups before a decision is arrived at. Were the state not to wage war against the people the chances of debate veering towards armed resistance gets reduced.

It is also worth remembering that there are, according to the International Action Network on Small Arms, an estimated 40 million private weapons in India. It does not require rocket science to believe that these tens of millions of weapons are mostly in the possession of those class and castes in Indian society who wield power and are privileged. This is the reality, and also the reality of an India which, for all its verbosity about non-violence, is one of the most heavily armed states both in terms of accumulation of destructive power of its arsenal as well as size of its military force, which gets force multiplied by draconian laws, and thus enables the ruling classes to practice ‘slow genocide’ against its own people. Harsh words, but not necessarily misplaced if one considers that 45 per cent of children below six years suffer from malnutrition, malnourishment and stunted growth, or that by playing around with calorie intake, say, reducing it from 2400 to 1500-1800, one can statistically reduce the number of people living below the poverty line and thus reduce the Food Security entitlement for hundreds of millions of Indians! Thereby exposing them, our own people, to a painful and slow death.

Therefore, I believe we should be pitching for something that helps us focus on the basic demand and not its symptom to enable us to argue for their resolution peacefully and democratically. it is in this context we should say to the Indian state ‘No to War Against Our Own People’.

In other words, the time has come for us to demand an end to war against our own people as the only principled and realistic stance. Once you allow wars against our own people, we enable the state to argue for the AFSPA, DAA etc. Of course, those who believe that the AFSPA alone should be repealed but wars against our own people should carry on will oppose this because they believe that no state can allow any non-state group to overthrow it. But they must have the courage of their conviction to come out and say so rather than hide behind the façade of being “pacifist” while favouring the Indian state’s propensity to practice military suppression and the blood-letting that ensues. But those of us who argue that the state must give up its war-making against our own people and abide by the Gandhian path of non-violence, have to seriously consider a course correction lest we are led to the ‘desolation row’ through a piecemeal effort.

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