The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 (AFSPA) has become a major poll issue ahead of the Lok Sabha elections in the northeastern region with demands for its repeal becoming louder.
The AFSPA, which is now enforced in large parts of Manipur, Tripura, Assam and Nagaland and some parts of other northeastern states, gives armed forces special powers to kill and detain terror suspects in insurgency-prone areas.
A number of regional political parties, civil rights groups, NGOs and student bodies in the northeastern region, especially Manipur, have been demanding the repeal of the act for several years, citing rights abuses by the security personnel.
"We cannot desert this vital issue during the electioneering as this is a basic human rights issue," said Raj Kumar Anand, a legislator of Manipur People's Party (MPP).
"The Congress and other political parties are playing politics with this vital issue and they remain insincere about the removal of the draconian law," Anand told reporters in Manipur's capital Imphal last week.
The repeal of the AFSPA has been part of the MPP's poll manifesto for the past few elections.
The Congress-led Secular Progressive Front (SPF) government in Manipur has been treating the issue with caution but leaders of the Communist Party of India (CPI), a junior partner in the alliance, are vocal against the act.
"As the majority of the people in northeast India, especially the women, are against the AFSPA, the centre should consider the matter once again," senior CPI leader and Manipur Health and Family Welfare Minister P. Parijat Singh told IANS.
"Though the central leaders are in a dilemma over the AFSPA issue, the candidates of Congress and BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) are in favour of the repeal of the act," said Ima K. Taruni, a 78-year-old Manipuri rights activist.
Taruni, the convenor of the Save Sharmila Campaign, has been spearheading a women's movement against the AFSPA across the state.
Irom Chanu Sharmila, a 34-year-old human rights campaigner, has been on an indefinite hunger strike against the controversial AFSPA from November 2000 after soldiers of the paramilitary Assam Rifles allegedly killed 10 Manipuri youths on suspicion that they were militants.
Former union minister and Lok Sabha speaker P A Sangma has been advocating against the AFSPA during his election speeches in various parts of the northeastern region.
Terming the act as anti-human, Sangma, who was elected to the Lok Sabha a record eight times from Meghalaya, said: "Without enforcing the act, the government can curb terrorism in the region by adopting various other strategies, including holding talks with the separatist outfits."
"Using the draconian law, a large number of innocent youths are being killed by the security forces on suspicion," said Sangma, who is national general secretary of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
The powerful North East Students' Organisation (NESO) has also been demanding withdrawal of the AFSPA from the northeastern region.
"Instead of solving the militancy problem in the northeast, the act is complicating the situation. It has resulted in a war between the people and the members of the armed forces," said NESO vice-chairman Lalmuanpula Punte.
In view of the outcry against the AFSPA, the centre had appointed a five-member committee headed by Supreme Court judge B P Jeevan Reddy a few years ago to examine whether the act was required or not.
After visiting all affected states, the committee submitted its report to the centre in October 2006. The union government has not yet made the findings public.
Terming the centre's stand as "disappointing", Sanjoy Hazarika, a member of the committee, said: "The Indian government does not have the courage to implement the report."
Tripura's main tribal-based party, the Indigenious Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT), is a political ally of the Congress but it has also been strongly demanding the repeal of the AFSPA.
"The act gave access to the armed forces to victimise innocent people, especially the tribals, in the name of anti-insurgency operations," INPT general secretary and former Tripura minister Rabindra Debbarma said.
"Repeal of the AFSPA is one of the issues in our ongoing election campaign," he added.