The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Rider in army act repeal signal
- Demand for legal shield for troops in terror zones

New Delhi, Oct. 20: Army headquarters is ready for a conditional repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. But it does not want the act to be repealed till troops in counter-insurgency operations are granted immunity from courts of law for their actions on official duty. In effect, the army has told the government that the act is acceptable by another name.

A short discussion on the recommendation of the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee featured in the commanders’ conference that concluded this week.

The army’s view does not run contrary to the recommendations of the panel. But army headquarters wants to be sure that there is no lapse of time between the repeal and the amendment to the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

The closest the army came to expressing its view was when the chief, General Joginder Jaswant Singh, said at the conclusion of the conference that “the army faces a very challenging situation in the Northeast. We have to confront mobs who are incited by terrorists or are joined by terrorists. We cannot fight with both hands tied behind our backs. We need some sort of immunity for our soldiers from court cases”.

The recommendations of the Jeevan Reddy committee are contained in its report submitted last year. Although the report has not been made public by the government, it has leaked out through civil rights organisations.

The report has recommended that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act be repealed but has called for the amendment of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and an inclusion of a chapter that empowers the army with the same authority that the former act does. But, the report recommends, such powers for the army cannot be limited to just one state and should be available to troops anywhere when they are deployed in aid of civil authority.

Officials of the defence, home and law ministries are examining if it is feasible to work out such an amendment for the winter session of Parliament beginning in the last week of November.

The army has not put its opinion in the public domain. But its view is best reflected in a paper that the former chief of army staff, General V.P. Malik, presented in the Observer Research Foundation, a think-tank, earlier this year. He also made a submission to the Jeevan Reddy committee.

General Malik writes: “The need for an act like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act for counter-insurgency and anti-terrorist operations is unquestionable. However, it can be reviewed or amended slightly due to changed circumstances, as is being done now.

“We can also improve its application, for example, make more judicial magistrates accompany military patrols, increase joint military-civil police operations in the urban areas so that police do the arrests, and streamline early handover of arrested people when civil police are not available with army patrols.

“I cannot perceive removal of the act altogether. In disturbed conditions, when there is a danger of ambush at every nook and corner in a jungle or built-up area, and the civil police are not available, the armed forces will not be able to perform counter-insurgency or counter-terrorist operations without a legal authorisation of this nature.

“But defending the need for the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act does not mean that I condone any crime or violations committed by soldiers in the area where it is applicable. Or for that matter any human rights violation anywhere. If any such acts are committed, it is in the interest of the armed forces to take disciplinary action against the offenders, as prescribed by civil and military laws.”

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