Civil rights activist from Manipur, Irom Chanu Sharmila also known as Iron Lady, was on a hunger strike for 16 long years demanding that the government of India repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from the state. Her reputation suffered after she joined politics but the cause remains as fresh as ever. The need to remove the draconian law still stands. The circumstance that made Sharmila (then 28 years old) go on an indefinite fast was something that many living in the ‘disturbed areas’ can relate to. It was the Malom Massacre that took away lives of 10 innocent people at a bus stop that triggered her to engage an indefinite strike.
Personnel of the 8th Assam Rifles allegedly shot down civilians following a bomb blast that took place in a nearby area. There has been no justice in sight even after more than 18 years since the incident. Dozens of alleged extra-judicial killing cases have been lodged against army personnel posted in the disturbed areas but the immunity given to commissioned officers, warrant officers, or non-commissioned officers in the armed forces by the AFSPA to shoot and kill people who are perceived to be likely to cause disorder, obstructs fair investigation.
However, the Supreme Court of India has repeatedly made it loud and clear that “fair trial” cannot be denied to any citizen. In 2016, it ruled out the concept of absolute immunity for the armed forces. The ruling came as a respite for people living in the north-eastern states and Jammu and Kashmir. Once again, the apex court recently turned down a petition filed by over 300 army officers and soldiers seeking to squash the FIR being lodged against them in connection with alleged extra-judicial killings in fake encounters.
The court’s action was a welcome move as the Act—however powerful it may be—certainly doesn’t authorise taking innocent lives, or doing so through fake encounters. Draconian laws like the AFSPA can also be counter-productive: atrocities perpetrated against civilians in the name of operations against terrorists have the potential to breed violence. Criminals are criminals whether in uniform or not. They should not be allowed to hide under the AFSPA if found guilty after a fair trial.
Nobody is above the law. It is time to repeal the infamous Act altogether as it has denied many individuals of the fundamental right to live, which is enshrined in article 21 of the Constitution of India.