TOI NEWDELHI, 11th Jan:
The government is now re-examining the long-pending demand to make the iron-fisted Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which gives military personnel special rights and immunity in "disturbed areas" like Jammu and Kashmir and the northeast, "more humane" and less open to misuse.
Sources say several rounds of high-level discussions have already been held between the defence and home ministries on the "need to remove or dilute at least some provisions" of the AFSPA in line with Supreme Court judgments on "extra-judicial killings" and recommendations of expert committees over the years.
The discussions have particularly focused on Sections 4 and 7 of the AFSPA, which accord far-reaching powers and legal safeguards to the security forces while undertaking counter-terrorism operations.
Section 4, for instance, gives security personnel sweeping powers to search premises and make arrests without warrants, "use force, even to extent of causing death", destroy arms dumps, hideouts and to stop, search and seize any vehicle.
Similar exercises, of course, have been undertaken in the past but have come to naught, with the defence ministry-Army combine stymying all moves to "partially withdraw" the controversial AFSPA from J&K and some parts of the northeast or even "dilute" some of its stringent provisions.
The defence establishment argues the AFSPA - first enacted by Parliament in 1958 to tackle insurgency in northeast -- is an "enabling act" that provides "operational flexibility and protection" to military personnel operating in "extremely hostile environments" against terrorists and other inimical forces.
Latest statistics, incidentally, show the Centre has rejected sanction to the J&K government for prosecution of military personnel in 47 of the 50 cases submitted since 2001. In the other three cases, which involve "disappearance of a civilian" in 2006, "kidnapping of a civilian" in 2011 and "killing of a civilian" in 2014, the decision has been kept "pending" as of now.
"The reason for denial/pendency of prosecution sanction is on account of lack of sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case," minister of state for defence Subhash Bhamre told Rajya Sabha last week.
A senior officer, in turn, said, "AFSPA provides legal protection to soldiers from being dragged to civilian courts. It stipulates the procedure for prosecution of military personnel to prevent them from getting implicated in fabricated cases."
"There may be a case for withdrawal of AFSPA from some `disturbed areas' in the northeast like in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, where the situation has improved. But same is not the case in J&K, with the terror training infrastructure fully alive and kicking in Pakistan. While infiltration bids across the Line of Control continue unabated, local recruitment of militants has also gone up," he added.
But political parties like the People's Democratic Party, which is running the coalition government in J&K with the BJP, and National Conference as well as civil rights activists and others have for long been demanding repeal of the "draconian" AFSPA. "AFSPA has become a symbol of oppression ... it has no place in a democracy," said an activist.