Campaign against Armed Forces Act gains momentum in N-E

Samudra Gupta Kashyap

GUWAHATI, May 11: Seven hours, three in the Lok Sabha, four in the Rajya Sabha, were all Parliament took in 1958 to make the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act ordinance a law. Almost 40 years later, the complaints against the legislation, conferring virtual shoot to kill powers on the armed forces, continue to pile up.

At least two cases are pending against the law in the Supreme Court, and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) is holding a seminar in New Delhi on May 13 to discuss the issue. The opinions expressed therein will be submitted to the SC.

In the North-east, where the law has been in force intermittently almost since its inception, the campaign for its repeal is gaining momentum. Besides parts of Assam, Mizoram and Tripura, and almost whole of Nagaland and Manipur, the Act has also been enforced over the years in Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh.

The provisions of the law give wide-ranging powers to security forces. Under the Act, an Army officer can not only raid a premises without a warrant but can also ``fire upon'' a person, ``if he is of the opinion that it is necessary to do so for maintenance of public order, after giving such due warning as he may consider necessary''.

This is believed to have led to ``massacres'' by Armed Forces in the region, the worst being during 1987's ``Operation Bluebird'' in Oinam, a remote area of Manipur. Dozens were killed, scores of women raped and virtually every villager in and around Oinam village was allegedly subjected to torture. However, another provision of the Act almost ensures total immunity for jawans.

``No prosecution...or other legal proceeding except with the previous sanction of the Central Government'' can be brought against them, it says, ``in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of powers conferred by this Act''.

Professor Naorem Sanajaoba, former dean of law at University of Guwahati and one of the most vocal critics of the Act, wrote in a letter to NHRC Chairman Justice Venkatachaliah last week: ``The constitutional validity of this Act was challenged in Manipur in 1980 and in Nagaland in 1982, but the Supreme Court has tied its own hands down in the matter for more than 17 years.'' In the meantime, he added, ``the draconian law has devoured hundreds of innocent lives in the North-East''.

It was the previous NHRC chairman, Justice Ranganath Mishra, who had first initiated a debate on the Act at the national level by expressing concern over its ``gross misuse'' in the North-east and Kashmir.

The commission has now issued notices to both the Defence and Home Ministries on the alleged violations, and has been compiling detailed reports on the misuse of the Act for the seminar.

The mandarins at North Block say they have taken a significant step towards settling the problems of the North East: they have erased the phrase `North East' from official communications.

In a recent directive, the Ministry of Home Affairs has banned the politically incorrect `North East' saying that all the states in the region will now be referred to by their individual names in all Government communications and official references.

`North East' has also been banned in all official media, including Doordarshan.

Copyright ) 1997 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.