Irom Sharmila has been protesting against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) for the last 14 years. Unfortunately, the debate over the Act has been reduced to an absurd test of patriotism: While some contend that repealing the Act would be an insult to the Indian army and would put the soldiers at risk, others feel that it has adversely affected Indian soldiers. The law grants the military wide powers of arrest, the right to shoot to kill, to occupy or destroy property. But often, soldiers have killed innocents, creating a climate of rage among ordinary people.
Officials claim that troops need such powers because the army is only deployed when national security is at serious risk from armed groups. Such circumstances, they say, call for extraordinary measures. But there have been numerous instances in which people were executed, and soldiers falsely claimed the people were killed in combat. Without ordering independent investigations, the authorities routinely insist that most such allegations are false. AFSPA, designed as an emergency measure but now in force for decades, has contributed to, rather than reduced, violence in India. Since the army is not held accountable, the police, government officials and even militants believe they have the same privilege and commit crimes without fear of punishment.
Numerous independent commissions in India have recommended repealing the law. But in the face of resistance from the army, the government has failed to implement the recommendations. The army contends that repealing the law will affect troop morale, ignoring the more obvious truth.
Ending impunity by replacing AFSPA with a better, rights-respecting law is the best way to address the public discontent that only leads to popular distrust and cynicism, and can fuel further militancy.
“We are taking care of her life,” Mani-pur’s deputy chief minister, Gaikhangam Gangmei, said after Irom Sharmila was re-arrested on Friday. India can do better, save many more lives including Sharmila’s, by doing the right thing and repealing the Act.
(Meenakshi Ganguly is South Asia director, Human Rights Watch. The views expressed by the author are personal.)