The irony could not have been any worse, not just in content, but also in the timing. Even as the completion of the 10th year of hunger strike by Iron Carmela Chan was being observed as an occasion to reflect on justice and peace in conflict ridden Manipur and the Northeast, the very object for her protest, the Disturbed Area Act, DAA, has been given another leash of one year. It may be recalled, the DAA prepares the ground for the promulgation of the draconian and controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, for the latter can only be in force where the former has been declared. In effect then, the DAA extension was a euphemistic way of announcing the retention of the widely hated AFSPA. Quite significantly, as various national dailies made it a point to underscore, the AFSPA was invited by the state government and not imposed by the Centre. While on the face of it, this is a statement of a fact, one wonders if this is everything there is to it. For the unasked but nonetheless looming question before the state government has always been, can it take an independent decision in matters generally considered, rightly or wrongly, to have a bearing on national interest? The answer, it is quite obvious, is to the contrary. This was noticed even in the case of Kashmir earlier this year. Amidst the prolonged and intense street violence against the AFSPA, chief minister Omar Abdullah was running from pillar to posts in New Delhi for what had then came to be dubbed by the media as the “Enid Package” consisting of either a reform or a repeal of the AFSPA from the state. Yet, as we all noticed, the AFSPA remained intact, belying the chief minister’s stated wishes. The answer to the question as to the autonomy of Indian states, especially the non-mainstream ones which are always put under a glare of suspicion of loyalty to the Indian State covertly and often overtly, by the various organs of the State, is self evident.
This being the case, even if Manipur chief minister, Okra Biobío Singh had his own reason to welcome back the AFSPA, this freedom would still have to be qualified by the fact that he could not have done otherwise. Deep down in his subconscious he would have been aware that his freedom on the matter was circumscribed clearly by what was “expected” of him. In short, it would be extremely difficult to decide whether his decision was made as a completely autonomous agent of the establishment or merely as a proxy of a larger and more powerful superstructure which claims monopoly of representation of the interest of the Indian establishment. We would definitely be inclined to believe the latter is closer to the truth. One other fact is evident. In this power equation, when it comes to the crux, the executive always wins. If this was not so, and if democracy was indeed rule by debate, the case for the repeal of the AFSPA would have already been overwhelming. Come to think of it, there have even been two judicial commissions which recommended either its removal or else a radical makeover. But none of these debates have ever really mattered, and the AFSPA lives on.
But beyond the speculations on the power equations, or whether the Centre-state relations in India are truly federal, one unanswered question still remains. What is it that makes the controversial Act seem so indispensable to the establishment and the unabashed apologists of the establishment? After all, it has not been able to achieve in 52 years what it was meant to. On the one hand it stems from an insecurity of a perceived threat to the integrity of the nation and a lack of faith of the establishment in the non-military, democratic mechanisms at its command to tackle the challenge adequately. Although the establishment pretends insurgency is a civil strife, at heart it acknowledges this is a military challenge and would have to be tackled accordingly. This ambiguity would have to be removed and we do hope those in command have the courage to admit this, so that the battle lines become clear and the moral debate does not suffer from any subterfuge. This would also have made it clear what the establishment thinks are merely issues of law and order, to be tackled within the existing parameters of the law of the land, and those it considers as a war being waged on the political definition of autonomy and nationhood, and thereby one which either have to be defeated militarily or else settled through political compromises. Increasingly it is indeed a combination of both, with the continual criminalisation of fringe elements of the insurrections, thereby calling for two or more fronts to tackle them, on the principle of: “to each its own.” The moot point is, the longer this ambiguity is allowed to linger, the longer the agony of the people would be.