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Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2006 > December 02, 2006 > Armed Forces Special Powers Act: Governance by Ballot or Bullet?

Volume XLIV, No.50

Armed Forces Special Powers Act: Governance by Ballot or Bullet?

by S.G. Vombatkere

Tuesday 24 April 2007


There is a growing demand for the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) because of public anguish over its misuse by the Army in the “disturbed” States of the North-East and Kashmir. However, the fundamental issue concerns deployment of the Army “in aid of civil power” to control a situation arising from governance failure over decades in those States.

Role of the Army

The Army is trained and equipped for its primary role of defence of national boundaries against external threat or aggression. However, governments requisition the Army in a secondary role in “aid of civil power” for disaster relief or internal security including countering insurgency. Disaster relief and internal security are the primary responsibility of governments with their integral State Police. The Central Police Organisations are requisitioned when the State Police fails. The cost of Army deployment in aid of civil power is paid by the Ministry of Defence, thus demonstrating the onus of the state.
Governments have political power of the people’s vote-mandate and it is misuse of political power that leads to a situation beyond the capacity of the bureaucracy-police to carry on even routine administration, leave alone development programmes, causing it to be declared a “disturbed area”.


Calling the Army is admission of political failure plus failure of the bureaucracy-police administrative machinery. In a deteriorated civic-political situation with the State on one side and a militant section of the population on the other, the Army has the unenviable task of maintaining peace by the threat or use of force to prevent violence against the State apparatus. This is rendered doubly difficult by the fact that it is obliged to operate with one hand tied behind its back since militants are basically Indians.
The reason for the AFSPA is that in such situations, the Army cannot function without the support of the State to protect its personnel against frivolous or motivated accusations of misdemeanour. It is true that the AFSPA has been and is being misused, and remains liable to misuse without civic accountability. Without making excuses for misuse of the AFSPA—misuse cannot be condoned, much less justified—it is necessary to point out that there is no law that has not been misused or may not be misused in the future, but that many Army officers and soldiers have been tried by courts martial and rapidly awarded severe sentences of dismissal and prison for criminal misuse of powers under the AFSPA, while similar bureaucratic-police crimes go unpunished.

Antipathy to the Army

Notwithstanding all this, the fact remains that the people of States in which the Army operates in a counter-insurgency (CI) role have antipathy to Army presence and do not want the Army in their State. The women’s naked protest in Manipur daring Assam Rifles men to come out and rape them (following Thangjam Manorama’s custodial death after her alleged rape) or Irom Sharmila’s historic, ongoing fast are entirely justifiable civic actions which are actually against failure of governance that has called for the Army’s presence.
Where the Army has been deployed for CI operations over decades, its presence has led to withering of normal political processes of dialogue and negotiation, and militancy levels have grown. This demonstrates the truth that violence begets violence in cycles of increasing intensity, and democratic political processes suffer attrition. In this politically degraded scenario, the people’s basic problems and needs remain secondary in the power game between weapon-wielding militants and the failed state that uses the Army instead of political power.

Cost to the Army

The Army has no organisational or professional stake in CI operations, which are its secondary role performed at the behest of the State. In fact, this deployment of nearly a third of its force detracts from training for its primary role of national defence. In the present context of regional instability, this neglect of preparedness for its primary role can only be at enormous cost of national honour at some future date. The cost-to-the-Army for CI operations includes physical casualties by militant action and growing psychological casualties evidenced by increased suicide rate and fratricidal killings.

Primary Duties

Historically, there has never been a stable military solution to political problems. The situation obtaining is due to a combination of continued political chicanery and bungling and rank corruption. Decades-long Army deployments have not provided a solution. Such politically-caused situations can only be realistically tackled politically. The Army needs to be withdrawn from CI operations. With its withdrawal, the need for the AFSPA will vanish, and the political leadership will then be shown up for what it is in reality. Rather than demanding repeal of the AFSPA, the people’s demand should be for governments performing their primary duty in people’s interest and allowing the Army to revert to its primary duty on the borders.

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