Why generals don't approve of 'Army kids' writing against AFSPA
[Book extract] In a conflict zone, the truth is often the first casualty and therein lies the problem with the draconian act.
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Dressed in olive green and shiny black boots, a wiry young Sikh soldier escorted me through the security gate of South Block which also houses amongst other things, the Prime Minister’s Office or PMO. We turned into a dimly lit hallway - a collage of military and landscape pictures dotted the walls leading into the office of Indian Army’s media wing.
Having handed over my phone and with no other source of entertainment, I sat staring at the maps and stereotypical landscape pictures that decorate every military office. My mind drifted to the telephone call that had brought me here, "Hi Avalok, the general read your article and would like to meet you." I had been summoned a day after my article on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act or AFSPA had appeared in a magazine.
I was relaxed, the general and the media wing guys knew me and had been appreciative of my previous work. But when the man walked in and shook my hand, I felt uneasy. On his table was a copy of the magazine I worked for, a yellow sticky tab popping out of its edge.
Although he greeted me as always, I noticed a coldness in his demeanour. He asked me to sit and even as I was served a cup of tea, he opened the magazine to the tab and said, "So you have written on 'AFSPA'," curling his fingers to indicate inverted commas as he said, “AFSPA”. I smiled, attempting to steel my nerves. "Yes," I said, rubbing my sweaty palms on my trousers.
"Good, good, many people write on AFSPA, but I didn’t expect this from you. You are an Army kid, you should know better." I started to speak, but he put his hand up to silence me. "You know who your father is, right? He’s a very well-respected officer and you wrote this?" I was taken aback. I had spent a lot of time trying to dissociate myself from my last name, but here I was, being reminded of my antecedents.
"Sir, if you read the article, it isn’t against the Army," I said, but he cut me short yet again.
"Son, don’t teach me my job, I know the media. These figures you have listed about the human rights violations," he said pointing towards the graphic in the article which listed all the fundamental rights which were violated, "everyone is only going to read this, no one will care what you have written."
In Pursuit of Conflict by Avalok Langer; Westland Books; Rs 399
My father was posted in Bhopal at the time, but his previous office was less than a 100 metres away from where I was being upbraided. I bit my lip, stayed stoic, and in my head said what I wanted to say. Look, I grew up playing hide-and-seek in tank garages; although I studied in Delhi, I spent every holiday with my father, whether in the 50 degrees heat of Rajasthan or a New Year’s in the high altitude, frozen desert of Ladakh; getting my Class 10 board results while sitting with him during his counter-insurgency posting in Jammu and Kashmir, where every room had weapons and each time the dog barked, my heart stopped beating. I remember sitting in a tiny cottage in insurgency-ridden Doda, listening to my parents talk about a death threat to my mother because she had walked through the local market without an armed escort.
Instead, I smiled awkwardly. I wanted to tell him, I knew who my father was, that I understood the dangers of conflict, but then maybe as an outsider, I knew something which he didn’t, or rather I had seen something that he might have missed.
I remembered travelling through the Rann of Kutch with the Army and how the sight of a military jeep would bring children to the road waving, laughing and chasing after us. A few would even stand at attention saluting the Army vehicle. I am sure for any Army kid, this would have been a familiar sight all across the western border till Jammu. However, what I would have liked the general to know is that in the Northeast, as I travelled with the Army from Tezpur in Assam to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, I saw young boys and girls standing on roadsides with their arms outstretched holding imaginary guns. They stood with one eye closed, and the other squinting as they took aim at the convoy. In both terrains, it was about the Army - warmth and hero worship versus utter disdain stemming from paranoia. I wish I could tell the general that the only difference was AFSPA.
But I just sat there listening to the general’s lecture. But then again, I have sat through so many dinners, meetings, conferences with the same silence as people ripped apart the Army labelling them murderers, rapists, toadies of the Indian state. I would always think of my father, his brother, my grandfathers, all my uncles who had served. I accept that it was my failure in not yelling out that not everyone in the Army fits into these boxes; after all, supporting the Indian Army is not the same as condoning or ignoring the wrongdoings. In some gatherings, I did lash out, argued, but finally, on both sides of the debate, with the military and activist groups, I lost.
The more I lost, the more I thought about AFSPA. Why is it so controversial? Why is it so hard to find a middle ground? I don’t think it’s just about the dead, or the breakdown in the balance of power or even the morality of it. The AFSPA debate is polarising because it’s about two world views, that of the individual and the state. Before I get into each of these aspects, it’s important to understand why the Army needed and continues to need what is routinely called a draconian measure, the AFSPA.
"Terrorists are like fish and the local population, water. Like fish cannot survive outside water, without the support of the local population, the movement can’t survive. You see...", and the line got disconnected. I gently placed the mouthpiece back on the cradle and sank into the blue-cushioned rocking chair and waited for the military telephone exchange people to reconnect me to my father who was patiently explaining Mao Zedong’s fish and water analogy.
I was in Class 9 preparing for an inter-school debate, one I would eventually lose, but this conversation was my first exposure to sub-conventional warfare and insurgencies.
Over the years I evolved my own method to understand the difference between conventional and unconventional wars. Whenever I tried simplifying the first in the category, I would think of TV shows like GI Joe – a conventional battle is a full-scale war where the armies are defined, whether it’s the Joes versus Cobra or India versus Pakistan, you recognise the enemy. However, in the post-9/11 world - ironically, I was sitting in the same blue-cushioned chair as I’d watched the planes crash into the twin towers - the eventuality of a full-scale conventional war between India and her neighbours had become highly implausible.
As a conflict reporter, I soon realised that I would spend most of my time reporting on proxy and unconventional conflicts in which the "enemy" is unknown and usually embedded amongst the local population. However, what made and continues to make things more complex in the case of Kashmir and the Northeast is that the "enemy" is India and the "enemies", Indian citizens. This may sound trite to many but for the benefit of the uninitiated, how does one distinguish the "enemy" from the "innocent"? What are the rules of engagement and restrictions while dealing with civilians and not a recognised army?
Shortly after general Keyho returned from China with a trained group, India found itself faced with a new kind of conflict which was far removed from the war it had fought with Pakistan in 1948. First, the Nagas were countrymen-turned-guerrillas; that they were not only armed to the teeth, but also knew the terrain and put the Army in a bind. Gradually, Indian forces found themselves ill-equipped to combat a highly motivated band of secessionists and this despite getting more hands to push the militants back. Trained to fight an external enemy, the Indian Army’s additional job requirements fell outside the purview of the "Army Act" as they needed certain policing powers - the ability to detain people, search homes and localities, and be ready for an impending threat. Finally, on 11 September 1958, the Indian Parliament enacted the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act or AFSPA, which was ironically fashioned on the British Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance (1942), to quell Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India movement.
Under AFSPA, for the Centre to send in troops, the governor of a state or union territory under Section 3, needs to declare a section of the territory or the entire state/UT a disturbed area for a specific time frame (this point being most important). While the state government has a say in whether the Act should or shouldn’t be enforced, both the governor and the Centre have the power to overrule it.
The Act lists out certain powers that are bestowed upon the central forces in a disturbed area, and it is this which many argue is in clear violation of certain fundamental rights. AFSPA grants a commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank in a disturbed area the powers to:
1) After giving due warning fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law or order.
2) Destroy any arms dump, hideouts, prepared or fortified position or shelter or training camp from which armed attacks are or can be carried out.
3) Arrest, without a warrant, someone who has committed a cognisable offence or is reasonably suspected of committing a cognisable offence or is about to committing a cognisable offence.
4) Enter and search any premise in order to make such arrests, or to recover any person wrongfully restrained or any arms, ammunition or explosive substances and seize it.
Although some of these clauses may be taken to infringe upon certain fundamental rights, namely Article 21 which protects an individual’s life and personal liberty, and Article 22 which is prevention against arbitrary arrest and detention, the need for these provisions can also be ratified and are covered by legal caveats.
The most controversial section of the AFSPA is probably Section 6 which states that no prosecution, suit or other legal proceedings shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the central government, against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in the exercise of powers conferred by this Act. This clause is seen as blanket immunity for troops in a disturbed area, making them "above the law", a violation of Article 14 which is right to equality before law and equal protection from the law.
In his book, Internal Armed Conflict in India, lieutenant general Rostum K Nanavatty states that:
“The Indian Constitution lays special emphasis on the unity and integrity of the nation. The constitution does not provide for territories to cede. It cautions that the right to freedom…maybe restricted in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of the country.” He goes on to enumerate how each citizen has a fundamental duty to uphold and protect the sovereignty and unity of the nation.
I agree, but if only we lived in a perfect world. In a conflict zone, the truth is often the first casualty and therein lies the problem with AFSPA.
(Reprinted with publisher's permission.)