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AFSPA's demise will be a victory for terrorists

September 06, 2010 19:30 IST
The shrill politically-driven rhetoric demanding that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act be repealed, if allowed to hold sway, may drive us deeper into the dark world of both Islamist terror and the Maoist insurgency, warns Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd).

With a raging debate about the revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, there is a need to examine the necessity of AFSPA in areas in the northeast and Jammu and Kashmir, from the operational point of view.

The shrill rhetoric of politically driven notes that invade us, if allowed to hold sway, may drive us deeper into the dark world of both Islamist terror and the Maoist insurgency, otherwise.

The AFSPA came into being in 1958, with its applicability being limited to certain northeast states where insurgencies had reached levels that were beyond the capabilities of the police and para-military forces. The provisions were later extended to parts of J&K.

There are provisions, even without AFSPA, that allow the army to operate in aid of civil authorities; however these require the adherence to certain basic rules that were found operationally impracticable in insurgency areas.

These rules allow the civil administration to requisition the armed forces assistance. In the eventuality of a law and order problem, a magistrate can hand over the situation, based on his judgment, to the armed forces to act as deemed fit by the army, thereafter.

The necessity of AFSPA's provisions are better perceived when viewed in the light of the mechanics of a simple counter insurgency day-to-day operation. But before that, a degree of familiarity with the basic tenets of counter insurgency operations is essential.

Foremost, these have to be swift, since the terrorist is a fleeting target, and would have melted if not dealt with immediately. Operations also call for secrecy of plans. Should the terrorist get a whiff of the forces' plans, he would either move out or lay an ambush along their route.

Such operations call for hard intelligence so that efforts do not go waste, and our forces do not execute long tactical marches through difficult and often dangerous terrain, only to draw a blank.

Finally, such operations call for tremendous initiative in the junior leadership. They have to respond to the situation with immediacy.

Taking an example now, when an operation is to be launched based on hard intelligence of terrorists being present in a house, if the army has to go to court and get a search warrant, obviously two basic tenets would have been violated. Neither will the army's plan remain a secret nor will it be a swift operation permitting success.

Going along with the same example further, on reaching the hideout, be it a house or bunker, if the officer leading his men has to await orders from a magistrate to open fire, the terrorist would either shoot him dead or run away, all guns blazing.

The provisions of AFSPA empower even a non-commissioned officer to search without a warrant and fire if required. The forces are also empowered to blow up a terrorist ammunition dump or hideout.

Progressing further, after operations, while returning, if caught in an ambush, a situation being faced by the Central Reserve Police Force repeatedly in Naxalite-dominated areas, it is not possible to await a magistrate's order to open fire and breakout of the ambush.

Such an approach can only lead to prohibitive casualties that will surely affect morale and initiative of the forces. In fact, it will be impossible to make a magistrate available in the dense jungles and urban ghettos where battles are often fought in a rural insurgency or urban terrorist environment.

For the provisions of the AFSPA to be applicable, an area has to be notified as a disturbed area; the powers for such notification being with both the central and state governments.

The clamour demanding that such powers be the state governments alone, has dangerous implications. In our milieu of appeasement politics, the state governments may not be ready to impose AFSPA keeping in view loss of political mileage.

While there have been cases of armed forces personnel violating human rights, it needs to be perceived that of the approximately 1,500 FIRs (First Information Reports) lodged for human rights violations, barely 2.5 percent were found substantiated enough for further action.

One hundred and four army personnel have been punished under the Army Act, already.

The provisions of the AFSPA require the central government's sanction for prosecution of armed forces personnel charged with violations. Such safeguards have been there in the Criminal Procedures Code for decades without a murmur from any quarter.

While many political parties are up in arms against the provision in AFSPA, the CrPC is not applicable in J&K; the environments in which insurgency operations are conducted make such safeguards necessary.

Immediately after any operation and especially so if it leads to the death of a terrorist or any collateral damage, over ground workers of various insurgent groups take the legal route. If the safeguards of AFSPA are not there, the army's leadership will be answering court summons far more often than leading operations.

It will also have a telling effect on one of the basic tenets of counter insurgency -- officers will not take any initiative to launch anti-terror operations. In effect, we will have played into the hands of the terror groups, comprehensively.

For a terrorist, support of the population is of utmost importance. He hides within them and feeds off them. Militaries try to wean away the population, and fully perceive that should human rights be violated, they lose ground to the terrorists.

No professional army with as much experience in combating insurgencies as we have would accept human rights violations by its rank and file.

It needs also be perceived that terrorists use the freedom, ethics, institutions and technologies of the free world to further their aim. An army fighting a terror battle is unable to use the complete compliment of its power.

To also have it operate without safeguards and operationally required provisions is as good as the state fielding its last bastion in a war none can win.

It may also be relevant to recall the way Sri Lanka defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. They used the full range of their military capability while accepting far higher civilian casualties. The Pakistanis have used air power and artillery in the North West Frontier Province before sending their men into such areas.

Air and artillery are primarily area weapons that in an inhabited area, are bound to cause huge collateral damages. The Indian Army uses small arms and personal weapons, mostly; a fact that has led to its suffering higher casualties.

Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd)