India is one of the largest democracies in the world. The first democratic elections in India were a spectacle, an unachievable democratic feat by a very poor nation in the world. The unity and democracy in the nation have always braved the test of time. Unlike many of the newly independent nations, we never lost our democracy. We never bowed down as a nation to another strong global power. However, the democratic image of India has struggled to remain untainted in the recent times. Skirmishes have been a part of the democracy and many of them have been hiding under the facade of a united India. The direction of India’s democracy today is yet another debate.
One such draconian measure, a taint on the Indian democracy is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, popularly known as the AFSPA. I have come to believe that this act is probably one of the reasons why some regions of the nation, to this day, feel alienated. This act gives the military undue powers such as searching, arresting or even shooting civilians without any warrant in the so-called ‘disturbed regions’. Now, the Central and the State governments have the authority to declare certain regions as ‘disturbed’ if they find a possibility of disharmony or armed conflict in that region. This means that the military would have blanket immunity and will not be answerable for their actions.
A bit of historical context would make the whole idea more clear. This act was passed in 1958 following the freedom movement of the Naga community of the Naga hills of Assam. The Naga National Council sought their independence and this act was a means to empower the government to suppress this uprising. Though meant to address the immediate situation, the act has been in place for decades. At present, the AFSPA has been extended for a period of 6 months in Nagaland. Several parts of North-East India and Jammu & Kashmir have also been under the enforcement of AFSPA at various points in time.
The situation in practical terms can be unimaginable for many of us who do not reside in those regions. The weaker sections of these regions have to suffer a lot because of the unrestrained aggression of the military and paramilitary forces. Over hundreds of people have gone missing or have been behind the bars for years waiting for a trial. Tragedies of the common people are unspoken of. One such incident is the Malom Massacre where 10 civilians waiting at a bus stop were recklessly shot down. It is agreed that AFSPA was intended to ensure peace within the nation. But now, we need to re-evaluate if we need this act in the first place.
The escalated levels of violence and counter-violence is something that we need to look into. The beginning of insurgencies is because of the feeling of alienation and oppression and somehow we are using the same to address it. In fact, democracy has been dismantled for a section of the population, systematically denying them their fundamental rights. It then becomes unfair to expect the affected sections to feel closer to the national identity. Activists like Irom Sharmila have been fighting against the AFSPA and so are committees of the government that have recommended the removal or amendment of this act.
An eye for an eye is never going to work. Now, the situations are at a point where we need to figure out who the real perpetrator is– the insurgents or the government. Almost over more than 7 decades of independence and democracy, we need to move towards peace and harmony. Uprisings are bound to happen because, in a diverse nation, it is highly impossible to meet all the conflicting needs of the various communities and nationalities that come together as “Indian”. We need to build systems of accountability and responsibility into acts that give unlimited power to every institution or section of society.
The fundamental rights of human beings have been built on the foundation that the rights of one do not infringe the rights of the other. Mechanisms of accountability and power check have to be incorporated into such acts. One of the major developments in this line is the Supreme Court verdict against the blanket immunity for soldiers who have shot civilians in regions under AFSPA. These instances seem to create faith in democracy and its institutions. Yet, there is a need for justice and restoration of democracy for those who have been denied it for years. And then we can call ourselves the biggest and strongest democracy in the world!
Picture Courtesy- The Wire