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What the partial repeal of AFSPA means for security in the Northeast

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The partial withdrawal of the Disturbed Areas Act in more parts of Assam, Nagaland, and Manipur with effect from April 1 has been welcomed by the people of the region. Irom Sharmila, of Manipur, fasted for 16 years demanding the removal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act or AFSPA.

Civil society organisations in Manipur have been more aggressive in pushing for the lifting of AFSPA even though there have been similar demands in other states of the region as well for decades. The partial withdrawal of the Act commenced in 2004 during United Progressive Alliance (UPA-1) in Imphal.

Its complete withdrawal from Tripura and Meghalaya was affected by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 2018, based on a much improved overall security situation. The Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission in 2009 also recommended repealing the Act along with an appropriate amendment to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) 1967. Dr Manmohan Singh wished for a “more human face” in the Act. The unfortunate Oting incident in Mon District of Nagaland in December last year also came under severe criticism.

AFSPA is an enabling instrument for the armed forces to fight insurgencies when called to do so in aid of civil authorities when all other forces (such as the state police and the Central Armed Police Forces) are unlikely to be able to handle the situation.

Internal security is a secondary function of the Army while the defence of India is the primary role. AFSPA, 1958, was first imposed post-Independence, in the erstwhile Assam state in Naga-dominated areas where large-scale insurgency had broken out during the 1950s.

Later, the Act was imposed in most parts of the Northeast region and Jammu and Kashmir. Regular assessments of the ground situation are carried out by the government to assess the need for extension or removal of the act in the concerned areas. The situation is far better in almost the entire region today, according to the ministry of home affairs and the ground realities.

Many groups in Nagaland, Manipur, and Assam are in talks with the government for the peaceful resolution of their demands, while a few continue to be hesitant of entering into any talks with the authorities. The 1,760 km-long Indo-Myanmar border is practically a semi-open border due to the free movement regime in place between the two countries.

This is a border where the militant groups are found to sneak through and carry out attacks against security forces with impunity. The smuggling hubs of Moreh in Manipur and Champhai in Mizoram are infamous for the illegal smuggling of drugs and narcotics to an estimated worth of 20,000 crore annually or much more.

Most of the proceeds find their way into the hands of anti-national groups and militants who are operating against the country. A dangerous mix of Narco-terrorism and identity wars in the region is in the making for a long time. Gun-running from unstable neighbourhoods continues unabated. A semblance of law and order is hard to come by in these border areas even today. The lack of enforcement of rule of law by multiple agencies in these areas is also a cause for concern. There are reports of a few of the Indian insurgent groups based in Myanmar either fighting alongside the military Junta or a few others opposing the military Junta.

Border management activities entrusted to the Assam rifles are progressing, but at a slow pace due to many security and administrative angles and turf wars. The state police forces bordering Myanmar need more effective mechanisms to show their presence and take on the anti-terror activities in these areas.

The conviction rates of crimes — which stand less than 5% in these border states compared to the national average — tell the true story. Besides, the reach of the administrations in these areas (national highways included) is often curtailed by extortions, kidnappings, and other forms of coercion from the militant groups or their front organisations.

The presence of a few Indian militant groups in Kunming in the Yunnan province of China further complicates the situation in light of Indo-China relations after Galwan. The linkages of Islamic terrorist groups with elements in Assam are well known. Identity wars often take violent turns mostly aggravated by legacy issues and imagined history. The unfortunate fighting between Mizoram and Assam police in July 2021 is a case in point. Such Inter-ethnic and inter-state issues tend to assume many dimensions of law and order which will also need a central mechanism to cope with very complex situations. Hence, AFSPA or modified AFSPA with “a human face” will need to be in place in many sensitive areas in the Northeast today or in the future.

While the Indian Army will be pleased to be relieved from internal security duties for their primary role, national interest, demands that any secessionist activities are nipped in bud. For that, the CAPFs whose combined overall strength is almost comparable to that of the Indian Army will need to take on more internal security responsibilities along with the state police leaving the Army for their primary role. The Army should only be deployed as an instrument of last resort in internal security matters, particularly when the integrity of the nation is seriously challenged.

The security forces will also need to reorient their standard operational procedures (SOPs) and deployments in these areas where the AFSPA will no longer be in force by focusing on intelligence gathering and WHAM (winning the hearts and minds) activities. The borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh, in particular, will need added impetus to ensure stable internal security of the country.

The partial withdrawal of the Act is well appreciated. Any future partial withdrawal of AFSPA in the region or in Jammu and Kashmir should be seen from the view of overall security scenarios, both internal and external. A holistic and synergised approach of the governments and security agencies will need to be in place to combat any activities by the anti-national forces directly or by proxies to avoid any re-imposition of the Act.

Lt General (Dr) K Himalay Singh is an Army veteran

The views expressed are personal

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