By Elton Gomes
The Ministry of Home Affairs announced on Monday that it is removing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from all parts of Meghalaya and reducing it significantly in Arunachal Pradesh.
“AFSPA was totally withdrawn from all areas of Meghalaya from April 1. In Arunachal, it is down from 16 police stations to eight,” an MHA official said in a statement to reporters.
However, the Act has been extended by six months in the districts of Tirap, Longding, and Changlang in Arunachal Pradesh. These three districts have been under the Act since 2016.
The MHA has also relaxed the Protected Area Permit for foreigners who wish to visit Manipur, Mizoram, and Nagaland. However, residents from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China will not be permitted to visit these areas.
AFSPA was passed in 1958 by the parliament, and it was initially imposed in the North East and Punjab to combat insurgency in areas that are termed as “disturbed areas”. Most of these “disturbed areas” share their borders with Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.
Approximately 40 percent of Meghalaya was under AFSPA until September 2017. After the recent reviews were conducted in consultation with the state government it was decided that AFSPA should be withdrawn completely from Meghalaya. A senior MHA official toldmediasources that AFSPA had been withdrawn due to significant improvement in the security situation in Meghalaya.
The MHA said in the past four years insurgency-related incidents have declined by 63% and civilian deaths have reduced by 83%. Additionally, there has also been a reduction in security forces casualties by 40%
Several rights groups in the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir have advocated the removal of the Act as they claim that it gives security forces “sweeping powers” to act against civilians.
How is an area declared as “disturbed”?
An area can be declared as “disturbed” due to differences or disputes between members of different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities.
Under Section 3 of the AFSPA, the governor of a state or a union territory is empowered to issue an official notification to The Gazette of India. Thereafter, the Centre has the authority to send in armed forces for civilian aid in the “disturbed area.”
However, it remains unclear whether the governor urges the Centre to send in security forces or whether the Centre on its own decides to send troops.
What immunities do security forces enjoy under AFSPA?
Under the act, armed forces wield considerable power. After giving a warning, armed forces are allowed to fire at or use physical force against anyone who acts against the law. The security forces have the power to destroy places where weapons are stored, and they can also destroy hide-outs and training camps.
Furthermore, under AFSPA, the armed forces have the power to enter and search any premises where they suspect that weapons are being stored. They can also make arrests and seize weapons.
The act gives the armed forces the power to arrest anyone who has committed a cognizable offence without a warrant. More importantly, the armed forces enjoy legal immunity for their actions. For anyone acting under AFSPA, there cannot be any prosecution, suit, or legal proceeding.
Why you should care
The absence of any legal proceedings seems to have given the armed forces a free reign over the territories they patrol. However, with the act being withdrawn in Meghalaya, things might be looking up for both the armed forces and the area’s residents.
The withdrawal of AFSPA will come as a significant relief to the locals who might have a hard time forgetting the atrocities inflicted. The state will also be relieved, to some extent, as withdrawal of AFSPA translates to a decrease in insurgency in the area.
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