AFSPA withdrawn from Meghalaya but Act played little role in containing insurgency in hill state
The withdrawal of the act from Meghalaya is to be seen as a response to decline in insurgency in Assam and reduction in security threat of insurgents from Assam fleeing to the jungles in the neighbouring state to escape counter-insurgency operations.
Withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 from Meghalaya and three police stations in Arunachal Pradesh by the Central government has attracted widespread media attention which has gone to create a perception that the Army and paramilitary forces have succeeded in playing its role and are no longer required to be involved in counter-insurgency operation in large areas of North East due to decline in insurgency and significant improvement in the security situation.
The Centre’s move came three years after the previous Left Front government in Tripura lifted the AFSPA from the state in 2015.
However, the whole of Assam, Nagaland and Manipur (except in Imphal municipal areas), three districts of Arunachal Pradesh and areas under eight police station bordering Assam continue to be tagged as "Disturbed Areas" and the AFSPA continues to be in force in these three states and parts of Arunachal Pradesh. Therefore, the withdrawal of AFSPA from Meghalaya and some areas of Arunachal Pradesh cannot be expected to have much impact on the broader perception of AFSPA being a "Draconian Act" and that human rights continue to be violated by security forces in the North East under the garb of this act.
Besides, the continuation of the "disturbed area" tag for the three districts of Tirap, Longding and Changlang and eight police stations in Arunachal Pradesh indicate that these areas continue to grapple in spillover Naga insurgency and the security threat from insurgent outfits of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland using these areas for infiltration and exfiltration from their base camps in Myanmar still persists, if notifications issued and renewed under AFSPA for declaring these areas as "disturbed" are any indication.
The AFPSA allows any commissioned or non-commissioned officer from the armed forces or any other person of equivalent rank to enter and search any premises without a warrant, arrest without a warrant and even fire upon or otherwise use force even to the extent of causing death, against any person acting in contravention of any law in the notified disturbed area.
The withdrawal of the act from Meghalaya is to be seen as a response to decline in the insurgency in Assam and reduction in security threat of insurgents from Assam fleeing to the jungles in the neighbouring state to escape counter-insurgency operations. As far as containing insurgent activities of local outfits of Meghalaya are concerned, the AFSPA had a little role and it was primarily the Meghalaya Police which inflicted the body blow to the extremist outfits. To the contrary, Meghalaya resisted enforcement of the AFSPA in Garo Hills areas when the High Court of Meghalaya directed the Centre on 2 November, 2015 to consider enforcement of AFSPA in Garo Hills districts following a spurt in militant activities. The high court directed the Centre to "to consider the use of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, in the Garo Hills area and deployment of Armed and Para-military forces to control the situation in the aid of but certainly not under the command of civil and police authorities till life becomes normal and the incidents of rampant kidnapping and killing totally stop."
Asked to comment on the development, security analyst GM Srivastava, who had served as Director General of Police (DGP) in Assam and Tripura described it as a "routine perception management". He claims that "this has little impact on the overall security situation in the northeastern region as it is primarily the state police forces which have been playing the key role in containing the insurgency in the region with the army and paramilitary forces playing a supporting role."
At the time of total withdrawal of the AFSPA in Meghalaya, it was in force along 10-km wide belt of the state’s 884.90 km boundary with Assam. In Arunachal Pradesh, the act has been lifted from areas under three police stations while it continues to be in force in three districts of Tirap, Changlang and Longding and in eight police stations bordering Assam. These three districts have boundaries with Assam and border with Myanmar while Longding has a boundary with Nagaland.
In the last notification issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs on 1 October, 2017 under Section 3 of the AFSPA the area under "Disturbed Area" was reduced from 20 km wide belt of Meghalaya’s boundary with Assam to 10 km for a period of six months till 31 March, 2018. In another notification issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs on the same day, three districts of Arunachal Pradesh Tirap, Changlang and Longding and areas falling under the jurisdiction of 11 police stations of the state bordering Assam were declared as "disturbed area" for a period of six months till 31 March, 2018. The 11 police stations are Balijan and Kimin under Papum Pare district, Likabali in West Siang district, Ruksin in East Siang district, Roing in Lower Dibang Valley district, Seijosa in East Kameng district, Bhalukpung and Balemu in West Kameng district, Namsai and Mahadevpur police stations in Namsai district and Sunpura in Lohit district.
In an earlier notification issued on 4 August, 2017, areas under 14 police stations of the Arunachal Pradesh bordering Assam apart from the three districts of Tirap, Changlang and Longding, were declared as "disturbed areas".
In the last notifications dated 1 October 2017, the areas under AFSPA in Meghalaya was reduced from 20 km belt on Assam-Meghalaya border to 10 km belt and in Arunachal Pradesh from 14 police stations/police outpost areas of Arunachal Pradesh-Assam border to 11 police stations/outpost area, besides districts of Tirap, Changlang and Longding.
Previous notifications issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs for declaring entire Assam and 20 km wide belt in Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh indicated that extension of the disturbed area tag to parts of the two neighbouring states of Assam was to contain the activities of the Paresh Barua-led United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent). The Ministry of Home Affairs notification issued on 4 November, 2013 states that ULFA (Independent) cadres "use Lohit, Changlang and Tirap district in Arunachal Pradesh for infiltration and exfiltration to Myanmar where their base camps are located. The outfit uses these areas extensively for temporary transit camps while on the move as also to escape counter-insurgency operations in Assam." It also stated that bordering areas of Assam with Meghalaya were used by underground outfits in the neighbouring state facilitating ULFA (Independent) in "establishing safe shelter base in bordering areas."
On 27 March, 2015, the Ministry of Home Affairs notified all the districts of Arunachal Pradesh bordering Assam as "disturbed areas" for a period of one year on the following grounds: 1) the law and order situation in all the districts of Arunachal Pradesh bordering Assam has continued to be matter of concern due to violent activities by underground outfits; 2) presence of National Democratic Front of Boroland (Songbijit), NSCN(IM), NSCN(Khaplang), ULFA( Independent), KLO, MPLF along the Assam-Arunachal border and Manipur’s under ground outfit KYKL, UNLF, PLA and KCP helping NDFB(S), ULFA (Independent), and KLO for movement of men, material, infiltration and exfiltration, 3) The NDFB (S) has set up their General Headquarters and training camp in Taga, Myanmar and are reportedly contemplating to find a new route for arms transshipment from Myanmar via Changlang district, 4) the geographical terrain of Arunachal Pradesh put the militants in advantageous position and is used by the underground outfits as their safe heaven and 5) the Left Wing extremism though silently tryian ng to infiltrate into the state as it is found to be most active in areas of Dhemaji and Tinsuka ia districts of Assam bordering with Lower Dibang Valley and Lohit districts of Arunachal Pradesh.
The annual report of the Ministry of Home Affairs for 2017-18 states: "the number of insurgency incidents in 2017 declined in Assam (56%), Nagaland (67%), Manipur (28%) and Meghalaya (59%) compared to 2016. There was an increase in violent incidents in Arunachal Pradesh in 2017.”
The report states that there was a significant improvement in security situation in Meghalaya. "In 2017, the State witnessed more than 58% decline in the number of violent incidents (2016 - 68, 2017 - 28). Number of civilian casualties decreased by 75% (2016 - 8, 2017-2) and there was no SF (Security Force)s casualties in 2016 and 2017. In SFs action, both the number of militants killed (2016 - 15, 2017 - 06) and the number of cadres arrested (2016-59, 2017-13) saw a decline by 60% and 78% respectively.
While the notification for withdrawal of the AFSPA in Meghalaya and parts of Arunachal Pradesh were issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, the decision to extend or withdraw it in Assam was left to the Assam Government. On 31 August, 2017, it was for the first time in 27 years since the AFSPA was promulgated in Assam on 27 November, 1990, the state government on its own declared the entire state as "disturbed" to extend AFSPA for a period of six months with effect from 1 September, 2017. This indicates that New Delhi is not yet ready to take a call on the larger issue of repealing the AFSPA and instead it may be keen on testing the ground for passing the buck to the state governments as far as the invocation of the act for counter-insurgency operations are concerned so that it creates a new perception about the role of the Central government vis-à-vis the controversial legislation.
The author is a senior journalist and editor of NEZINE.
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