Better late than never. This is what must have crossed the minds of many after hearing the remarkable Supreme Court ruling on the contentious issue of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (Afspa) on Friday. In a stern message to the Centre and the security forces operating in the Afspa areas, the SC ruled that armed forces personnel and police cannot use “excessive or retaliatory force” in disturbed areas. The verdict, which is a blow to the immunity enjoyed by the forces, came on petitions demanding a probe by the CBI or a special investigation team into the alleged 1,528 cases of “extra-judicial killings” in Manipur between 2000 and 2012 by the Army. The SC also held that the allegations of such fake encounters in Manipur should be inquired into. The Centre, unfortunately, refused to back down from its stance, chillingly arguing that the “killings” are “part of the sovereign function discharged by the Union of India through the army”. Attorney general Mukul Rohatgi said security forces could not be blamed for collateral deaths that critics describe as extra-judicial murders in Manipur.
Rights activists have long been demanding the repeal of Afspa and replacing it with a law that protects human rights and ensures accountability, but the defence ministry stoutly defended it on the grounds of battling armed insurgents. This debate on the continuation of Afspa has not just been limited to Manipur. In the Northeast, Afspa continues to be a major issue in Assam and Nagaland. In Manipur, rights activist Irom Sharmila has been on a fast since 2000, seeking the law’s repeal and demanding justice for alleged army excesses. There has been some counter-pressure on the Centre also. In March 2015, Arunachal Pradesh strongly opposed a home ministry notification which sought to bring in more areas under the ambit of the legislation. Last year, the Tripura government withdrew Afspa in view of ebbing militancy in the state.
In fact, the misuse of Afspa is not restricted to fake encounters, when a genuine militant is killed in a staged action. There are false encounters also, which means killing an outright innocent individual. And this is primarily driven by a very “result”-driven army set-up. The awards of “good results” include: A unit citation that needs a certain number of points, which are awarded for each “kill”, weapons captured, and surrenders.
The SC’s judgement is a step in the right direction, but it must not stop at this. Along with keeping up pressure on the State to check the misuse of Afspa, the court must push it also to put in place a robust mechanism, through which people, even anonymously, can voice their grievances when security forces cross the line or report on an alleged false encounter.