On November 4, a three-judge bench of the Meghalaya High Court asked the Central government to impose the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in the militancy-afflicted Garo Hills districts of the state. The court observed that Central government could enforce AFSPA in the Garo Hills region in order to deploy the armed forces to aid the civil administration to maintain law and order. It said the imposition of AFSPA would be only for the purpose of enabling the civil authorities in the state to effectively deal with militancy so that there would be rule of law. Since then, several civil society groups have objected to the High Court’s observations.
Who is funding terror?
The question to ask is why has the situation in the Garo Hills taken a nosedive? When militancy in Assam, particularly in Bodoland, is largely under control, when the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) is in talks with the Centre, when militancy in the Khasi-Jaintia Hills was brought under control, why is it that the Garo militants remain intransigent? What or who is fuelling their continued acts of terror? Why is the state government unable to act decisively to tame these militants?
This is an answer that only the political establishment can give. Many of them had been hand in glove with militants, using them to win elections. Now these Frankenstein’s monsters have begun to bite their masters.
The high court has correctly observed that law and order needs to be urgently restored in the Garo Hills, but it is fair to ask if AFSPA is the only solution. This is an issue that needs urgent debate. The court order is an indictment on the state government, which has miserably failed to tackle militancy there. But this peremptory order has triggered sharp responses from human rights groups such as the Asian Human Rights Council and others including some local NGOs of the Garo Hills.
It is an indictment of this country’s establishment that an oppressive act like AFSPA continues to be used against it own people and I say this because this provision allows the state to get away with grave human rights violations, including rape and torture and killing by the armed forces. That in 21st century India AFSPA is still proposed as a solution for restoring the rule of law also reflects the convoluted thinking in the judiciary.
Naturally, the Meghalaya High Court ruling has come as a thunderbolt. AFSPA is unlikely to achieve better results than a coordinated counter-insurgency action that is sharp, quick and can hit the militants where it hurts them most. Their sources of funding need to be blocked and there are ways of doing so. Their access to arms must also be blocked. The chief minister of Meghalaya, Mukul Sangma has blamed the porous border with Bangladesh which allows militants to make a quick escape and bring in arms. He has in fact thrown the ball in the Centre’s court ,asking it to seal the borders urgently.
The situation in the Garo Hills has turned so vicious that civil society voices have virtually been silenced. In this murky and complex situation, the court order has only created greater unease. The Meghalaya High Court needs to read the documents that keep track of abuses by security forces in states where AFSPA is in force and correct its erroneous stance.
Patricia Mukhim is a Shillong based journalist