The Supreme Court’s verdict two days ago, declaring the Army and police are not free to use excess force even under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA-1958, is something long overdue. In fact, this may actually be another interpretation of the spirit of the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee recommendations in 2005. Though this report was never made officially public, thanks to resourcefulness of The Hindu daily, the full text of the entire report was uploaded on the newspaper’s website for the benefit of all stakeholders. At its crux, the Justice Jeeven Reddy report, it may be recalled, called for the AFSPA to be repealed and its provisions incorporated into the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, UAPA, so that the Army can still operate and enjoy most of the powers it enjoyed under the AFSPA, but the legality of the actions of the forces would be determined by civil courts of justice, by the application and interpretation of the UAPA. In other words, the security forces would continue to fight insurgency if so needed, but they would not be shielded from scrutiny of civil law for atrocities they commit. It is a surprise as to why the government waited for another bench of the Supreme Court to paraphrase this spirit for them?
In many other ways this is what many in Manipur have also been saying. Prominent citizens like the late Lt. Col. H. Bhuban Singh, indeed made it their personal advocacy responsibility to try and convince the authorities and all concerned that the people’s hate for AFSPA must not be seen as a hate for the Army. No doubt about it that the AFSPA is dreaded and loathed in Manipur, but this does not necessarily mean the same dread and loathing hold for the Army as well. Quite to the contrary, the general outlook of the people towards the security forces would hardly be one of hostility. As for instance, before the Assam Rifles was vacated from the Kangla complex a decade ago, those in Imphal will remember the traffic jams outside the gates of the Kangla whenever the this paramilitary unit advertised for recruitment rallies, with healthy young men flocking in to try their lucks and skills to be accepted into the force. It will also not come as a surprise to anybody at the number of local men employed as troopers as well as officers of the Indian Army today. It is this inherent spirit that the AFSPA has been skewing and tarnishing. The recent Supreme Court’s ruling in this sense is welcome news indeed.
There are those who argue that the Army must be given all powers to safeguard the nation, and that it is the Army which has been keeping the nation together in all these decades, implying that the nation would have fallen apart if not for the Army. This opinion may indeed very well be a complement for the Army in some ways, but what is not realised is, they are actually calling the nation a failed republic, for how can any nation which needs the Army to hold it together be a republic? By definition, a republic is a nation ruled by its citizens through democratic representatives. It is a political organisation where the people are the ultimate sovereigns. In this democratic polity the Army is an instrument of war and meant only for the defence of the country from external aggressions. It is because of this that the continuance of the AFSPA for over half a century of India becoming a republic is seen by so many as an ugly scar on democratic India’s credentials.
It is true there are many violent insurrections in the country and these militaristic challenges to the nation must, at least in the short run, be met militarily. But after nearly 68 years of independence, if India continues to use its military to fight internal dissents, there is something seriously wrong. This is the job of the police and if the fire power of the police sometimes is felt inadequate, the military has to be called in to be the fire power backup of the police, the military in such a situation should be treated as doing policing duty, therefore put under the provisions of civil laws till such a time they remain in such a duty. The Supreme Court ruling has been eloquent on this point and this was loudly evident in the choice of words, in particular in its emphasis that there is no war like situation in Manipur. The undeclared verdict therefore is also, if India thinks this is a war, then let the international laws of war, such as the Geneva Conventions and the Hague Law be invoked, allowing international bodies like the UN and ICRC to intervene. If this is not the case, let the military, if needed, do police duties, and be governed by civil law while thus utilised.