Withdrawal of AFSPA from Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh is a positive step
The Union Home Ministry of India announced on 21 April 2018, that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) had been withdrawn completely from Meghalaya as well as from eight police stations of Arunachal Pradesh with effect from April 1, 2018. Parts of these two north-east Indian states bordering Assam had been designated ‘disturbed areas’ in 1991, such designation being a prerequisite for imposing AFSPA. The aim was to inhibit spillover of armed insurgency by Assam-based insurgent groups such as the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) into these two neighbouring states.
In Meghalaya, areas within 20 km of the Assam border had till September 2017, been designated ‘disturbed’. In a periodic six-monthly review carried out by the Union Home Ministry, this area was reduced to 10 km of the Assam border with effect from October 2017. The designation as ‘disturbed area’ has now been removed from this 10 km stretch too. In Arunachal Pradesh, AFSPA was applicable in areas covered by 16 police stations; this has been reduced to eight police stations bordering Assam. In addition, AFSPA would continue to operate in three districts - Tirap, Changlang and Longding - that neighbour Myanmar. Insurgents of the Paresh Baruah-led anti-talks faction of ULFA and of NDFB (Songbijit) are known to have set up base in the vicinity of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) camps in the Myanmar Naga Hills, from where they launch attacks against Indian security forces. These neighboring districts of Arunachal Pradesh are often used by ULFA, NDFB (Songbijit) and National Socialist Council of Nagaland for transit and replenishment of cadres and supplies.
AFSPA gives special powers and immunity to Indian armed forces deployed in areas designated as ‘disturbed’. This designation is on account of these areas being seriously affected by terrorism or insurgency. A necessary pre-requisite for withdrawal or repeal of the Act from a region in which it has been enforced is neutralization of the structures that promote violence and return of an atmosphere of peace. Such conditions render the Act superfluous and unnecessary.
The decision of the Indian Government to withdraw AFSPA from Meghalaya and a major part of Arunachal Pradesh is a welcome step. It is an indicator of return to near normalcy in the region brought about through effective measures of the security forces coupled with implementation of sound strategies by the Indian Government. It has elicited calls for similar withdrawal of AFSPA from other north eastern states. The Indian Government, through its present decision, has demonstrated its willingness to review and reassess the need for AFSPA. The only rider is that the process of withdrawal will be phased and progressive with the ground situation prevailing in each state dictating the pace and time of withdrawal there. That the narrative of peace and development has been prioritized by the people of these states is evident from the marginalization and rejection of insurgent groups and their violent methods. In this milieu, it is more a question of when, rather than if, the act will be withdrawn from the remaining north-east Indian states. The present decision on withdrawal in the two states closely follows the example of Tripura, where AFSPA was withdrawn after 18 years in 2015. Reports in the media suggest that Assam, which was hitherto among the states most seriously affected by violent insurgency, is also contemplating withdrawal of AFSPA from some districts of the state.
Withdrawal of AFSPA from Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh brings into clear focus the significantly improved security situation in India’s north-eastern states. Five of the seven states – Tripura, Assam, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Manipur - were till as recently as a few years ago plagued by thorny insurgencies that severely hindered development. Effective measures by the Indian security forces have, over the past two decades, critically dented the infrastructure and morale of the insurgent outfits. The Indian Government has, meanwhile, entered into negotiations with several of these outfits, prominent among them being the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (IM), with which it signed a Framework Agreement on 3 August 2015, and the pro-talks faction of ULFA led by Arabinda Rajkhowa. Consequently, as per figures released by the Indian Union Home Ministry, insurgency-related incidents in the north-east Indian states have reduced by as much 85% in 2017 from the levels recorded at the peak of militancy in 1997. Fatal casualties among civilians and security forces have come down by 96% in the same period. In more recent times, between 2014 and 2018 there has been a 63% decrease in insurgency-related incidents in these states, an 83% decline in civilian deaths and a 40% decrease in the number of security personnel killed in such incidents.
The north eastern states of India form an important component of the country’s Act East policy that seeks to link the Indian economy with those of South East Asian countries. Connectivity over land between India and South East Asia would necessarily have to pass through these north-east Indian states. The Indian Government recognizes that for its Act East policy to succeed, peace and stability in north-east India are essential pre-requisites. Having ‘disturbed areas’ or the AFSPA in its north-east is, therefore, not a desirable situation for the Indian Government which would much rather project normalcy and stability therein. The recent decision of the Union Home Ministry to relax the over six-decade-old Protected Area Permit regime for Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur with effect from 1 April 2018, is also noteworthy in this context. Under this relaxation, foreign tourists, except those from Pakistan, China and Afghanistan, would now be allowed to visit these three states which, so far, was not allowed without a special permit. Hence, as the security situation improves further and peace and development in the region take deeper roots in the months to come, subsequent reviews by the Indian Government are likely to act upon the already demonstrated readiness to re-evaluate the need for AFSPA in states such as Assam, Manipur and Nagaland.
Following announcement of the decision on withdrawal of AFSPA from Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh, calls for withdrawal of the Act from Jammu & Kashmir, the only part of India outside the north-east region where it is in force, have been made. Notable among those demanding this was Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who questioned why AFSPA could be withdrawn in the north-east but not in Jammu & Kashmir. Those making such comparisons are totally ignoring the ground realities. In Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh, it is a marked and sustained improvement in the security situation that has allowed the Indian Government to affirm the rationality of its decision-making process. In Jammu & Kashmir, on the contrary, India continues to fight an unrelenting proxy war against terrorists abetted by Pakistan. These elements pose a threat to the entire country, not just to the state of Jammu & Kashmir.
Naeem Akhtar, spokesperson of the Jammu & Kashmir Government, addressed the issue more appropriately in his tweet in response to withdrawal of AFSPA in Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh - “Good news. We all need to work for creating conditions conducive for its revocation in J&K as well... ...Our neighbors (Pakistan) too have to realize and help in this effort”.