In a major decision whose ripples will be felt across the country, particularly in the north-eastern States, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government of Tripura has revoked the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which was in force in the State for the past 18 years. Announcing the decision after a Cabinet meeting on May 27, Chief Minister Manik Sarkar said: “In view of the fact that insurgency in the State has been practically reduced to nil, the Cabinet has taken the decision to withdraw the AFSPA from the entire State. This is a happy occasion. We want to send out a message of peace to the whole country.”
Sarkar said that though there had been demands from various sections within the State to withdraw the AFSPA, the State government’s hands were tied on account of the security forces’ refusal to give clearance to the revocation. “Recently, when it was time to decide whether the AFSPA should be extended for another six months, we sought the report on the latest law and order situation specifically in regard to the presence and activities of extremists. We made our decision after the security forces agreed to our proposal of lifting the AFSPA here,” Sarkar said.
The AFSPA has been severely criticised by all liberal circles and human rights activists because of its draconian provisions, which give sweeping powers to the armed forces in “disturbed” areas. The “special powers” as provided by the Act are:
“Any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank in the armed forces may, in a disturbed area — (a) if he is of opinion that it is necessary so to do for the maintenance of public order, after giving such due warning as he may consider necessary, fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law or order for the time being in force in the disturbed area prohibiting the assembly of five or more persons or the carrying of weapons or of things capable of being used as weapons or of fire-arms, ammunition or explosive substances; (b) if he is of opinion that it is necessary so to do, destroy any arms dump, prepared or fortified position or shelter from which armed attacks are made or are likely to be made or are attempted to be made, or any structure used as a training camp for armed volunteers or utilised as a hide-out by armed gangs or absconders wanted for any offence; (c) arrest, without warrant, any person who has committed a cognisable offence or against whom a reasonable suspicion exists that he has committed or is about to commit a cognisable offence and may use such force as may be necessary to effect the arrest; (d) enter and search without warrant any premises to make any such arrest as aforesaid or to recover any person believed to be wrongfully restrained or confined or any property reasonably suspected to be stolen property or any arms, ammunition or explosive substances believed to be unlawfully kept in such premises and may for that purpose use such force as may be necessary.”
There is also legal immunity “in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers conferred by this Act”. With Tripura doing away with the Act, the AFSPA is still in force in Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, parts of Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh, and Jammu & Kashmir.
The Tripura government’s decision has been lauded in all quarters. Former Union Home Minister in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, P. Chidambaram called it “a victory for sanity and humanity”. Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju called it a “significant” decision taken by the Tripura government. The decision has once again thrown open the debate as to whether the controversial Act should be scrapped altogether by the Centre. “Tripura has shown the way by withdrawing the AFSPA. It should be revoked in Manipur as well, where there has for long been a demand to withdraw it. This draconian law instead of suppressing terrorism worked contrary to the principles of democracy and was used against the liberty of the people. Whatever be a law, its application is most important. In the case of the AFSPA, its application was wrong,” senior Communist Party of India (CPI) leader Gurudas Dasgupta told Frontline.
At the time when the AFSPA was imposed in Tripura (February 1997), the State was severely affected by growing insurgency. Though the seeds of insurgency were sown in the early 1980s with the armed separatist movement of the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) led by Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhwal, it was between 1996 and 2004 that it intensified and grew to alarming proportions. The All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) and the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), the two main extremist groups, perpetrated a reign of terror, particularly in the tribal areas that came under the elected Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC). More than 1,000 people were killed in the violence. Development was severely hampered, particularly in the tribal areas as the funds were mostly appropriated by the extremists. Initially, the AFSPA was imposed in two-thirds of the 40 police stations in the State in 1997; today, there are 71 police stations, and 26 of them were under the AFSPA when the State government decided to revoke the Act.
However, a unique aspect of Tripura is that not one case of excess or atrocity of any kind by the armed forces was reported during the 18 years that the AFSPA was in force in the State.
“This is because the armed forces were used in the State more to ensure the spread of democracy and development programmes, than to just subjugate insurgents. Our government believes that the insurgency problem in the State was a product of a prolonged period of socio-economical backwardness in the region,” said Jitendra Choudhury, CPI(M) MP and former Cabinet Minister in the State. The State government always viewed the insurgency as a “political” problem. In an earlier interview (Frontline, August 22, 2014) , Manik Sarkar had said that his government dealt with the insurgency menace “politically, administratively and ideologically.... We never believed that the use of arms alone can defeat the insurgents.”
Using development and administration as its main tools alongside counter-insurgency operations by the Tripura State Rifles and the armed forces, militancy was defeated. Once the militants lost the support of the local people, and their escape route to Bangladesh through the 856-kilometre-long porous border was also blocked, the backbone of the extremist movement was broken. The State government has acknowledged the help it received from the Bangladeshi government in fighting the terrorists.
However, there are many who feel apprehensive about the withdrawal of the AFSPA, as insurgency is still present in the State, howsoever negligible it may be.
“We are not complacent. We are aware that there are still some insurgents active in Tripura, and if we are negligent, then this extremist tendency may grow again. We are not going to let that happen,” said Jitendra Choudhury.
Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay