Army cannot operate in civilian areas without a contentious act that gives it sweeping special powers, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has said, amid demands from several quarters that act be revoked from Jammu and Kashmir where it is in operation.
Parrikar was referring to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that is in place in what are termed “disturbed areas”. Asked about the possibility of revoking AFSPA, the Defence Minister said that the subject came under the home ministry, adding it was needed by the army to “proceed and act” in certain areas. He also said immunity to soldiers should be total.
The minister stressed that the army will not go in the civilian areas without the act being in place. There is a “new crop” of activists who keep filing cases against the AFSPA, the minister said, adding in a lighter vein that someone may even file a case on the Kargil conflict even though 17 long years have passed since Army went into action to evict Pakistani intruders from icy heights of Jammu and Kashmir.
The AFSPA came into force in the northeastern states in 1958 after the Naga tribes rebelled against the government and continues to be in force there. It is also in force in Assam, Manipur, and parts of Arunachal Pradesh. It came into force in Jammu and Kashmir in 1990, a year after an Islamist insurgency, which continues to fester, erupted. The act was also enforced in Punjab after terrorism erupted in 1983 and was withdrawn in 1997.
In Jammu and Kashmir, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a junior partner in a coalition headed by the PDP, removing AFSPA from certain areas was one of the conditions the latter had set for joining hands. Earlier this week, the opposition National Conference and the Congress protested in the Kashmir assembly, demanding that the AFSPA be revoked.
Meanwhile, in a written reply in the Rajya Sabha during the recently-concluded budget session, Minister of State for Home Haribhai Parthibhai Chaudhary said there were no plans to revoke AFSPA from Jammu and Kashmir. Among the provisions of the AFSPA, any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank in the armed forces may fire upon or otherwise use force if he is of the opinion that it is necessary to do so for the maintenance of public order. A soldier, however, needs to first give a warning before opening fire.
The forces can destroy arm dumps, make arrests without warrants and can enter and search a premises without a warrant to make an arrest. The act, however, requires the forces to promptly take an arrested person to the nearest police station. The act provides that no prosecution, suit or other legal proceeding shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the central government.