The Narendra Modi government has recently reduced the number of disturbed areas under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, or AFSPA, in Assam, Nagaland and Manipur due to “significant improvement in the security situation and accelerated development” and political agreements with insurgent groups. AFSPA continues to be applicable in 40 per cent of the area of Assam, bulk of Nagaland and Manipur, and three districts and two police station areas of one district in Arunachal Pradesh.
Public protests and the anti-AFSPA stand of all Northeast state governments following the sordid Mon district incident of 4 December 2021 forced the long-overdue review of the areas under the law. Speculation is rife that similar action is likely in Jammu and Kashmir soon.
The widespread appreciation of the government’s initiative by the public and the media offers an opportunity for a review of India’s counter-insurgency strategy.
Current counter–insurgency strategy
It is empirical wisdom that insurgencies, particularly in democracies, require a politically negotiated solution. The bane of India’s counter-insurgency strategy has been initial political dithering, break in law and order beyond means of civil administration, declaration of disturbed areas and predominant reliance on the armed forces backed by the AFSPA to indefinitely manage the disturbed areas. Governments of all hues did not seem to have any confidence in the capabilities of the Central Armed Police Forces, which were employed in a peripheral supporting role through the state police.
Political outreach was either absent or prolonged to such an extent that resentment against the fallout of military action itself became cause enough to fuel the insurgency long after the initial causes of ethnic/religious identity and secession ceased to be the principal drivers. Lack of transparency in dealing with overzealous actions/abuse of the AFSPA further queered the pitch and an enabling law as per the Justice Jeevan Reddy report, became “a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness.”
In the absence of political solutions, the armed forces, driven by the zeal for mission accomplishment, assumed the responsibility for resolving the problem through military means. Insurgencies in the northeast are a classic example. Elected governments with fully functional administration have long been in place. Agreements have been signed or are in final stages with most insurgent groups. The once-secessionist insurgencies in the northeast have been reduced to a criminal industry involving the runt of erstwhile insurgent groups, politicians, police and the bureaucracy. Yet, the armed forces continue to function in a quasi-independent manner without political oversight.
Surprisingly, the armed forces have consistently opposed the removal of the Disturbed Areas Act and application of AFSPA despite clamouring for an increase in personnel to carry out its primary mission to safeguard the nation against external enemies. This dichotomy is a result of their perception of being the “solution” and apprehension of the return of violence.
It is time for the government to review its counter-insurgency strategy.
The way forward
Elected governments are in place in all northeastern states and the BJP is either in power or sharing power as part of the North East Democratic Alliance. Jammu and Kashmir too will have an elected government in the near future.
In my view, the current internal security threats and residual insurgencies in the northeast and J&K do not warrant deployment of the armed forces.
The draconian and poorly drafted, archaic AFSPA must be repealed and replaced with a model act with adequate human rights safeguards to cater for the rarest of rare situations when deployment of the military is warranted. This act must be unique for the armed forces and not apply to “other armed forces of the Union” as specified in Section 2 of AFSPA.
Post the Kargil War, in 2001, the ‘Group of Minister’s Report On Reforming The National Security System’ recommended that the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) should be the lead counter-insurgency force and the armed forces must revert to their primary task. It was decided by the government that the CRPF will be increased by 64 battalions, and it will take over the responsibility for counter-insurgency in J&K and northeast by 2005. Today, the strength of the CRPF is over 3 lakh strong. However, it is only responsible for the counter-insurgency in the Red Corridor.
External threats are looming large, and the armed forces are transforming for wars of the 21st century. I find no reason as to why, with better training and leadership, the CRPF can’t take over the responsibility of dealing with all internal insurgencies beyond the means of the state. Its strength can be increased if required and the Rashtriya Rifles and Assam Rifles – a combined force of nearly a 100 battalions – can be merged with the CRPF. Functionally, the CRPF must not be viewed as an extension of the state police. Its command and control must be suitably modified to enable it to function directly under the elected government. It must either function under the Code of Criminal Procedure or an appropriate new act.
The government must carry out a holistic review of India’s counter-insurgency strategy, transform the CRPF (if not done in the last 8 years) and relieve the armed forces for their primary mission.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.