India & AFSPA

I want to address today’s column only to patriotic Indians. Preferably those with an idea of India’s geographical contours – knowledge about the fact that India includes several states – for example, West Bengal, Goa and Jammu & Kashmir. A sense of fraternity/Indianness with Indians living in *all* states and not just a few will be an added bonus.

In the year 2000, the Indian military killed seven men in Pathribal village, in the Anantnag district of Jammu & Kashmir. The Army claimed that those killed were ‘foreign militants’. Locals disputed this claim and 12 years later the Central Bureau of Investigation reported to the Supreme Court that those killed were in fact innocents and that the killings “were cold-blooded murders and the accused officials deserve to be meted out exemplary punishment.”

Please pause here for a moment. The report did not say that the incident was a case of a mistaken identity. It did not say that the dead men were collateral damage or victims of an accident. The words used, I repeat are ‘cold blooded murders’. The Supreme Court let the army decide whether the accused would be tried in a civilian court or a military court. The Army tried them in a military court and concluded that there was no case against the officials.

Innocent Indians were murdered and no one was held accountable.

In 2013, the Extra-Judicial Execution Victim Families’ Association, Manipur, and Human Rights Alert, Manipur, filed two separate petitions, seeking constitution of a Special Investigative Team to investigate 1,528 cases of alleged fake encounter killings by security forces in the disturbed areas of Manipur between 1979 and 2012. The court constituted a committee and picked six cases randomly for investigation by the SIT. The report submitted by the SIT found all six of the ‘encounters’ to be fake.

At the heart of these murders lies the Armed Forces Special Powers Acts—which inter alia grant to the armed forces a license to kill with near impunity. Those who support this act argue that such immunity is necessary to enable the armed forces to arrest terrorism without worrying about court cases in each instance. There is also a belief that the areas in question are so sensitive or disturbed that collateral damage is inevitable. ‘After all, in a life or death situation, a jawan cannot stop to ask whether a person is a militant or a civilian’ is the contention.

Any prosecution against a member of the armed forces requires the sanction of the central government. The theory this is supposed to ensure the guilty are held accountable in AFSPA regions without involving the army in vexatious litigation, that could compromise the forces from doing their job. In practice, here’s what happens: Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar recently informed Parliament that the defense ministry has not accorded sanction for prosecution under AFSPA since 1991. Such sanctions were requested only 38 times, have been rejected in 30 cases while eight are still pending.

Earlier this week four people were killed in J&K. Allegedly, two of them were shot dead when they were protesting the molestation of a girl by armed forces personnel. One of the people shot was a young, gifted cricketer who nurtured hopes of joining the Indian cricket team. A video was later released in which the Kashmiri girl who was allegedly molested says she was assaulted by a local, not an army man.

Various entities have conflicting versions to offer regarding the incident. However the clouded sequence of events actually played out, this fact is undisputed – those protesting were doing so by throwing stones at armed forces personnel. The stones were met with bullets in the head, by trained members of the armed forces.

It is clear that the murder of innocent civilians is no longer restricted to so-called collateral damage, but has become uncomfortably frequent-—to put it mildly. Parrikar has said that the army cannot operate sans AFSPA because it needs ‘appropriate powers’ to maintain internal security. In the face of data which shows that innocents are routinely dying, how can our response simply be to do nothing? How can we be comfortable with the fact that there are zero checks and balances on the powers accorded under AFSPA? Is it even possible to have a check and balance on such an unbridled and excessive power? Why doesn’t the matter receive our constant and urgent attention?

My argument is simply this. It is AFSPA which is disturbing internal security and it needs to go.

How are the victims of this law and their loved ones expected to react to their fate? Can they be justifiably expected to chant Bharat Mata ki Jai? Will you feel surprised if they seek azadi? How would you feel if you were in their situation?

Does the murder of innocent fellow Indians affect you? Or is your empathy and outrage subject to the identity of the murderer?

This article was first published in The Mumbai Mirror

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