Friday, July 16, 2010

Response to Op-ed column on AFSPA

This is in response to Mr. Ashok Mitra's Opinion piece on AFSPA in The Telegraph, dated July 16, 2010 (Linky). I would like to point out that the Armed Forces, being called to contain secessionist and fissiparous tendencies in various corners of India, under the aegis of the respective State Governments have their own perspective on AFSPA. Some of these perspectives, a bit more nuanced than the simplistic take Mr. Mitra indulges in his Opinion piece can be found at, for example:
i) AFSPA: A Soldier’s Perspective ---- Harinder Singh
ii) Why was AFSPA Instituted? ---- Col (Retd) Anil Bhat
iii) Special powers for armed forces: We need clarity, not emotions ---- Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi (Retd)
iv) The larger Issues concerning AFSPA ---- Jaibans Singh

In the light of the above perspectives, some of Mr. Mitra's remarks are extremely naive on ground realities. For example, Mr. Mitra makes the statement that: "How the country will be administered within the four corners of the Constitution is for politicians sitting in Parliament — and state legislatures — to decide. They, it follows, have the prerogative to review from time to time provisions of such statutes as the AFSPA, which they themselves had legislated. Given continuing reports of people’s unhappiness with the functioning of the act, it is only natural for politicians to wish to take another look at it." In the midst of his circular logic, Mr. Mitra has not realized that the very same State Governments that persist with the AFSPA to this day derive their legitimacy in a Constitutionally mandated, democratically elected framework. Certainly the people who are terribly unhappy with the AFSPA can take part in the election exercises and elect representatives who would abrogate the AFSPA. Further, these representatives can take collective responsibility in ensuring that the State Police Forces can handle internal security matters instead of seeking the umbrage with the Union Government and the Central Police and Armed Forces.

Mr. Mitra also opines that, "The army chief of staff — who no doubt had the benefit of the advice of his service colleagues — looks with disfavour on such a debate." This is an unfortunate comment not corroborated by evidence on the ground. It is journalists such as Mr. Mitra, who coax people in the Armed Forces to make statements so that they can derive sensationalist tidbits that would keep their TRP at a high level. Further, just like every citizen of India has a Constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of speech and expression, Gen. V. K. Singh has expressed his opinion on the AFSPA matter. If Mr. Mitra can have an opinion on this matter, why not Gen. V. K. Singh? Does the freedom of speech and expression extend only to journalists, judges, politicians, terrorists, and human rights campaigners? Further, when Mr. Mitra remarks that, "He would like the act to continue in its present form, which allows military personnel a free hand while dealing with elements suspected of waging war against the State," he makes the fundamental mistake of "suspecting" that terrorists are waging war against the State of India. This is unfortunate given that at least two thousand of our servicemen and women have made the Supreme Sacrifice in upholding law and order, not to mention the territorial sovereignty of India under severe duress from external interferences that have been carefully and painstakingly well-documented (see, for example, Linky). In fact, Mr. Mitra's remarks such as, "activities of army people while they strut about enjoying the protection of the act," are not only utterly callous and insensitive to the ground realities of being an Armed Service Personnel, but also unrealistic in a setting plagued with internecine warfare, threats to human rights from terrorists, etc.

Mr. Mitra highlights the highly condemnable case where "the hands and feet of each [left-wing extremist] were separately bound and then hung, upside down, with the help of a strong rope, from a bamboo pole, precisely the manner in which a carcass is brought back when villagers return from a successful hunt of wild boar or of any other predatory animal." On the same vein, if Mr. Mitra could point the readers of the Telegraph to an article or a petition or a blog (either written in May 2001 or later) that showed equal opprobrium when Border Security Force (BSF) Personnel were meted the same treatment in Pyrdiwah village in May 2001 by the Bangladesh Rifles Personnel and Bangladeshis, it would help the readers understand the context of Mr. Mitra's empathy.

In conclusion, I would agree with Mr. Mitra when he says that, "Awesome consequences can follow if counter-insurgency operations are not supervised with finesse and imagination, a responsibility too risky to be left to the whims of the CRPF or the armed forces. There is therefore enough logic in seeking a review of the AFSPA. This matter does not fall in the domain of the chief of staff or his colleagues." It is the responsibility of every state that is suffering from terrorism in the form of left-wing extremism or tribal rights-related extremism or ethnic or religious extremism to ensure that its Police forces are brought to speed to handle the internal security matters of that state. It is time that the Central Armed and Paramilitary Forces handed over the thankless job of maintaining internal security to the State police personnel and handled border security alone. Till the State governments realize that the onus is on their side, it would be prudent on the part of human rights campaigners to pursue their cases with the respective State governments. It would also be prudent on their part if these campaigners allowed at least a modicum of human rights for the Armed Forces, as much as they want the various Governments in India to provide the adivasis, left-wing extremists, etc.

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