AFSPA in Assam: State extends Act by six months; insurgency lowest since 1997, but 'disturbance' over NRC remains a worry

The Assam government on Wednesday extended application of the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, (AFSPA) terming the entire state a "disturbed area" for another six months, as a "precautionary measure to maintain order during the ongoing National Register for Citizens (NRC)", reports said.

This is the third such extension of the Act by the state government in 30 years. The Act gives special rights and immunity to security forces in carrying out various operations in "disturbed" areas.

That "disturbances" in the then unified Assam (which included current Assam, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh) was the reason that the AFSPA was resurrected in 1958, a year after the AFSPA, 1948, was repealed, makes it important to study what has caused the recent extensions and what its past experience with the controversial act has been like, and what's keeping the State from withdrawing the draconian law.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

NRC, resurgence of insurgency: the latest issues

In August 2017, the state government implemented its powers under the Act, citing violent incidents by underground outfits like ULFA(I), NDFB.

An official in the Union home ministry justified the implementation of the Act saying that these group carried out 75 incidents of violence in Assam in 2016, in which 33 people, including four security personnel, were killed and 14 others were abducted.

The number of insurgency incidents, however, fell by 56 percent between 2016-27, the lowest since 1997, according to the MHA's annual report. Though the report reported 33 insurgency incidents in 2017, in which nine people including three security personnel and six civilians, lost their lives.

In April 2018, though the Centre lifted the Act from Meghalaya, the Assam state government retained AFSPA, once again citing the presence of militant outfits in the state.

Assam DGP Mukesh Sahay had then held a press conference during which he claimed that "Assam needs AFSPA" during its operation against banned groups. "The Union home ministry has said that militancy in Assam has gone down significantly, by about 70 percent. But some groups are still active in some pockets," he had said.

Sahay had also claimed the the presence of ULFA(I) in some areas of upper Assam, ie, along the inter-state border with Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland.

"Due to its proximity with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and easy access to the Myanmar border, ULFA(I) is still in a position to create problems in some pockets. We are coordinating with Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland in our counter-insurgency operations," Sahay had then said.

The latest extension of AFSPA is reportedly to maintain order ahead or during the release of the final list of the NRC. “The situation is peaceful at the moment but we will not take a decision on withdrawing AFSPA until NRC exercise is over,” said Special Director General (Assam Police) Pallab Bhattacharya, according to a report in The Times of India.

According to MHA, besides ULFA(I) and NDFB, Karbi Peoples Liberation Tigers (KPLT) is the only other insurgent group active in Assam along the Karbi Anglong district of Assam. ULFA (Pro-talk), NDFB (Ranjan Diamary), NDFB (Progressive) and Karbi Longri NC Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF) are under Suspension of Operation (SoO) agreement with the Government of India and /or Government of Assam.

The first instance of AFSPA in 'unified Assam'

According to a paper, published by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, the Act was first implemented in the state in 1958, as Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act due to fast deteriorating internal security situation in the ‘unified Assam’. Its roots lay in several short-lived legislations such as Assam Maintenance of Public Order (Autonomous District) Act and the Assam Disturbed Areas Act of 1955, each designed to curb insurgency in the region and the British era AFSPA, 1942 Ordinance.

Though envisioned to be in force only for a year, the Act remains in force even today in most parts of the North East (except Meghalaya and three police stations in Arunachal Pradesh) and in Jammu and Kashmir.

According to IDSA, since AFSPA came to being in 1958, besides the Naga insurgency, the the Mizo National Front's revolt against India (in 1966), and United National Liberation Front (UNLF) demand for separation of Manipur from India (implemented in phase manner from 1970 onwards), ensured that the Act prevailed in its original for the next 12 years.

In the meanwhile, the tribal movement against Bengali migrants from Bangladesh picked up in Tripura, forcing the act's implementation in 1970. The latter also brought an amendment in the Act in 1972, giving the Central government concurrent power to declare an area 'disturbed" in the North East. The Act was also subsequently amended to include states and Union territories formed following the Assam reorganisation in 1971 (changes were made as and when they acquired statehood as well).

AFSPA in Assam since 1990

In the 1980s, the armed activities seen in Naga and Mizo areas and in Manipur began spreading to Assam. But it was only in 1990 when Assam was declared 'disturbed' area under the AFSPA when the state witnessed massive violence perpetrated by the banned insurgent group ULFA and President's Rule was imposed after dismissing the then AGP government headed by Prafulla Kumar Mahanta.

Since then, the Central government has been exercising the powers given under the AFSPA.

However, it was only in September 2017 that the state government exercised its right for the first time since the Act came to force in the state of Assam.

Human rights violations in Assam and AFSPA

Those in favour of AFSPA in Assam have long maintained that there hasn't been no major human rights violations in Assam under the Act, yet an RTI query, according to Times of India, showed that Assam received 58 complaints of human rights violations under AFSPA between 2012 and 2016, second after Jammu and Kashmir.

There were also 10 cases of rapes, half of which were reported from Assam alone.

A report in the LiveMint also quoted Kishalay Bhattacharjee, author and expert on northeast India, as saying that "there's a huge mafia nexus in the region, especially Assam that identifies people who can’t leave a trail and whose disappearance will not be reported. They are then sold to the security forces, passed off as ‘militants’ and killed in ‘encounters’."

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Updated Date: Aug 30, 2018 14:51:21 IST

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