The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Suspending civil rights has become the norm in fighting terror

The average mainstream Indian may not even be aware what this 1958 statute does. For a start, under Section 3, some areas can be declared disturbed areas. “If, in relation to any State or Union Territory to which this Act extends, the Governor of that State or the Administrator of that Union Territory or the Central Government, in either case, is of the opinion that the whole or any part of such State or Union Territory, as the case may be, is in such a disturbed or dangerous condition that the use of armed forces in aid of the civil power is necessary, the Governor of that State or the Administrator of that Union Territory or the Central Government, as the case may be, may, by notification in the Official Gazette, declare the whole or such part of such State or Union Territory to be a disturbed area.”

Once a state or part of a state is declared disturbed, civil rights, as we understand it, cease to exist, because fundamental rights are overtaken by the deliciously vague objectives of maintaining public order and ensuring public interest. Accordingly, under Section 4 of the 1958 statute, the armed forces have special powers. “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 the opinion that it is necessary to do so 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 the opinion that it is necessary to do so, destroy any army 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 training camp for armed volunteers or utilized as hide-out by armed gangs or absconders wanted for any offence; (c) arrest, without warrant, any person who has committed a cognizable offence or against whom a reasonable suspicion exists that he has committed or is about to commit a cognizable 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.”

Notice the clauses about suspicion and search and arrests without warrants. Even firing and causing death. And in such cases, under Section 6 of the statute, no prosecutions can be instituted against the offending officer without the permission of the Central government. Even if Assam Rifles happens to kills some civilians, as it is alleged to have done in Malom in 2000. Admittedly, there is an apparent safeguard in Section 5. “Any person arrested and taken into custody under this Act shall be made over to the officer in charge of the nearest police station with the least possible delay, together with a report of the circumstances occasioning the arrest.” But this has been flouted in the past and in an actual case, Assam Rifles has also been asked to pay compensation for violation of Section 5. But in how many cases is it actually possible to sue Assam Rifles for compensation' And that becomes even more difficult if, like Thangjam Manorama Devi, you happen to be dead.

In addition, “Every person making a search under this Act shall have the power to break open the lock of any door, almirah, safe, box, cupboard, drawer, package or other thing, if the key thereof is withheld.” These provisions are missing in the north-eastern statute and should we argue that the north-eastern problem persists, but the Punjab one has been resolved, because Assam Rifles lacks sufficient teeth'

Unfortunately, everything goes in the name of fighting terrorism and violence, and the suspension of human rights has become the accepted norm. Not just in India, but also in developed countries like the United States of America. People get agitated and talk about the rights of the victims of terrorism and violence.

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