One state at a time
Progress often occurs incrementally. This seems to be the case with the demand of withdrawing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, a draconian legislation that invests security forces with unbridled powers in restive states. In a welcome initiative, the Centre has now decided to rid the whole of Meghalaya of the AFSPA. In Arunachal Pradesh, eight police stations remain under the ambit of this legislation; the figure was 16 previously. The reason for its withdrawal is the establishment of peace and stability in these two states. It is heartening to note that parts of the Northeast, which had been wrecked by ethnic violence and militancy, are now slowly coming out of AFSPA's shadow. Tripura had chosen to discard AFSPA three years ago. It now remains firmly in place in Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. In the eyes of India's security apparatus, conditions are yet to ripen to usher in normalcy in these areas.
The momentum that has been generated for the gradual revocation of the AFSPA must be used as an opportunity to examine its troubled legacy. The long history of unrest in the Northeast bolstered the argument that special legal provisions - extra-judicial is the term preferred by AFSPA's critics - are necessary to curb the threat posed by insurgency. Yet, it is equally true that AFSPA has, in the long run, been transformed in the hands of the State to inflict grave injustices upon its subjects in the name of upholding security. The allure of immunity from legal scrutiny perhaps explains the inertia on the part of successive administrations to withdraw the act even from areas that had not witnessed bloodshed in a while. That the controversial law took a heavy toll can be explained by the numerous allegations of custodial deaths and torture that were reportedly perpetrated by the security forces who are seemingly exempt from punishment and accountability on account of their discretionary powers. It is not without reason that the Supreme Court is on record saying that the prolonged application of AFSPA is an unambiguous indication of the failure on the part of the civil administration and the army in discharging their duties. Supposed deterrents - AFSPA is just one of the several tyrannical instruments at the State's disposal - have the potential to undermine just, democratic governance. Symbolically, AFSPA remains a stumbling block on the path to attract investment to a region that is the lynchpin of the nation's outreach to the East. Is not equitable development an adequate disincentive to public discontent?