December 8, 2021
License to kill?
To: either/view subscribers
Good morning. Contrary to popular belief, vaccine hesitancy has always been a part of the general zeitgeist. Especially in India’s tribal pockets due to their distrust of government policies. To overcome this, public health officials are embracing tribal traditions to get people vaccinated against Covid-19. Now, instead of pedantic lectures, the communities are approached through the well-established tradition of khatla baithaks. This is where villagers sit around on khatlas or wooden beds and “informally meet” to have a discussion. In places like the Jhabua district in Maharashtra, this empathetic and transparent approach has even led to a 98% coverage rate. Clearly, they’re doing something right.
📰 FEATURE STORY
The Nagaland Massacre – Is the AFSPA still needed?
Any counter-terrorism operation has its fair share of risks. A group of soldiers put their lives on the line, and any number of things can go wrong. You hope the intelligence is sound and the sources reliable. Regardless of the type of operation, one common thing is the avoidance of civilian casualties.
The recent killing of civilians by security forces in Nagaland has sparked widespread outrage across the political spectrum. The political blame game is well underway, but that’s not the point here. How did this particular operation end up with more than a dozen innocent people getting killed by the bullets of the armed forces? It threw a harsh light on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). It is a law that gives discretionary powers to the armed forces.
A Saturday evening turned into a nightmare. A group of soldiers from the 21 Para Regiment were involved in a counter-insurgency operation. They carried out an ambush on a group of people they thought were militants belonging to an insurgent organisation, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland. As the group approached in an open pickup truck, the soldiers opened fire, killing six men.
As the sounds of gunshots reverberated, villagers from nearby areas went to see what happened. As they got to the site, they recognised the victims as locals who worked in nearby coal mines. What followed was a fight between them and the soldiers. It resulted in three SUVs being burnt, one special forces soldier killed with a machete, and seven villagers dead.
The Nagaland police filed an FIR against the soldiers, charging them with murder. An initial report stated that security forces tried to hide the dead bodies. A statement from the Army said the operation was launched based on credible intelligence. Given the involvement of the 21 Paras, an elite special forces unit, the supposed threat was treated as high level. Now, there is anger over the AFSPA, which gives an officer or jawan to kill someone on suspicion “if he is of the opinion that it is necessary to do so for the maintenance of public order”. Sections 4 and 7 of the AFSPA give powers and legal safeguards to the armed forces.
The AFSPA only operates in places like Nagaland, Manipur, and Kashmir – areas deemed disturbed. In Nagaland, for example, the AFSPA has been in force since it was introduced as an ordinance in 1958. Keep in mind, law and order is a state subject. The AFSPA is invoked when a state government cannot maintain peace and the armed forces are needed. The geographical area under which AFSPA applies has been reduced in recent years. It was withdrawn from Tripura in 2015, Meghalaya in 2018, and significantly cut back in Arunachal Pradesh.
Disregards human rights violations
There is one big red flag concerning the AFSPA. Any soldier acting under it is immune from all actions under other laws of the Indian Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code. Giving highly trained and weaponised personnel the license to act with impunity with little to no accountability is anti-democratic.
In 2004, the abduction, alleged rape, and murder of a Manipuri woman by personnel from the Assam rifles set off protests calling for the law’s repeal. In its aftermath, the AFSPA was lifted from the Imphal valley but remained in the rest of the state. The first UPA government under Manmohan Singh appointed former Supreme Court judge BP Jeevan Reddy to head a committee to review the law. It recommended the AFSPA be repealed. In 2015, the Home Ministry rejected the report.
The judiciary has had its say on the matter as well. In 2016, it heard a PIL from the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association, on allegations of over 1500 fake encounter deaths in Manipur over the last decade. It ruled that even though the AFSPA was in force in a disturbed area, it does not mean the armed forces have blanket immunity on unjustified deaths.
In the region, the AFSPA has led to many Naga people dead in the name of counter-insurgency. The treatment of locals as the ‘other’ stems from the law. It is a window into how people from the rest of the country view this region as inferior, leading to the region’s politics being undermined. As Richard Kamei and Roderick Wijunamai, lecturers at the Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan, wrote, repealing the AFSPA is only the first necessary step.
A necessity for high-level threats
There is a consensus among the armed forces that the AFSPA should not be scrapped. One thing they do agree on is the law needs to be more humane. However, doing away with it would be dangerous. The sentiment against the AFSPA is not new. Various activists, politicians, and parties have called for its scrapping.
However, many have misinterpreted the law. Many have taken it to mean the Army can commit crimes or indiscriminately murder Indian citizens. The constitution clearly states that the armed forces cannot be deployed against Indian citizens unless a state or central government asks for their intervention. That means the situation on the ground is dire, and lives are at risk. Such circumstances require tough measures.
Withdrawing the AFSPA would play into the hands of the insurgents. It would be waving the white flag. On the human rights aspect, it should be kept in mind that in most incidents of civilians being killed, insurgents fire first. As unfortunate as it is, as is the case in any warzone, civilian casualties might happen.
It is also unfair to criticise the Army for violations when the local police have wide-ranging powers to detain, seize and arrest under the Code of Criminal Procedure. In 2018, 300 officers of the Indian Army moved the Supreme Court as part of a court-appointed probe by the CBI into allegations of extrajudicial killings in Manipur. They said the AFSPA does not give a soldier any special rights. It only facilitates their operations during extraordinary circumstances of war or insurgency.
🕵️ BEYOND ECHO CHAMBERS
For the Right:
Ambedkar’s Idea of Religious Liberty & How Today’s Anti-Conversion Laws Deny It
For the Left:
Indian Liberals are Selective in Their Outrage and It is Hurting the Liberal Cause
🏴 STATE OF THE STATES
Allowing ardent spirits (Gujarat) – The famously dry state is now planning to lift its booze ban to offer an “evening social life” in the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT). Currently, the state allows liquor permits to tourists and business travellers from outside Gujarat. A permanent relaxation might be extended to GIFT to “create an international experience as well as to attract talent from competing centres abroad.”
Keep saying no to drugs (Arunachal Pradesh) – CM Pema Khandu has promised the allocation of funds for sports and games in the state from the next budget onwards. According to him, “sports has the potential to keep youngsters away from drugs.” Khandu also said that the government will be working towards improving the infrastructure of their de-addiction centres. As of April this year, Arunachal Pradesh’s drug addiction levels have been “higher than the alarming levels”. Some serious policy work is definitely needed.
Silencing officials (Jammu & Kashmir) – The administration has served a notice to a government employee for criticising their poor supply of electricity. Apparently, the Forest Department employee uploaded a video on Facebook talking about the “poor electricity supply” that was hindering students’ online learning. According to the notice, this is a direct violation of Section 18 of J&K Government Employees (Conduct Rules), 1971 which covers “criticism of the government”.
A pleasantly surprising cyclone (West Bengal) – The Jawad cyclone might not have made as big of a splash as previously expected but it sure did leave behind something rather nice. It seemed to have improved Kolkata’s air quality by 80-90%. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, the city’s Air Quality Index (AQI) went from a bunch of “poor” and “moderate” readings to those of “good” and “satisfactory”. Environmentalist S.M. Ghosh even added that “this was one of the lowest records for the city in the month of December, in the last 40 years.”
Here’s to pre-history (Telangana) – Experts have now found Mesolithic (8,000 – 2,700 BCE) and Neolithic (10,000 – 4,500 BCE) remains on the premises of Buddhavanam, a government-funded Buddhist park. The team of experts found a bunch of grooves by the left bank of the Krishna River which they believe was used to “grind or sharpen tools”. These are especially important as they indicate the presence of a pre-historic factory site or habitations in the nearby area.
🔢 KEY NUMBER
85% – According to Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya, 85% of “India’s eligible adult population” has gotten their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. Things get a little shaky when the second dose comes into play. But still, around 50% of those eligible have received their second dose as well.