Indian Armed Forces Special Powers Act under scrutiny

The Indian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has recently come under intense scrutiny, as a result of being too often used in areas declared ‘disturbed’. The AFSPA, first introduced in the north-east in 1958, was extended to Jammu and Kashmir in 1990. In 1997 the Supreme Court ordered a six-monthly review of areas declared ‘disturbed’, but this ruling is often breached.

According to Kavita Srivastava, rights activist and a leader of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), the AFSPA gives the military wide powers to arrest without warrant, shoot to kill and destroy property, while protecting its personnel from prosecution. As a result, “a culture of impunity has, over the many years, been fostered in the affected areas,” Srivastava said.

On September 17 India’s army chief Gen. V.K. Singh defended the AFSPA as an ”enabling provision, not an arbitrary one”. He hastened to add that it was for the government to take a ”correct decision” on changes to the Act.

An all-party group of India’s top political leaders scheduled to visit Jammu and Kashmir on September 20-22 was expected to call for a review of the AFSPA, and for inquiries into the many killings and human rights abuses that are alleged to have taken place under its shield.

In March 2009 the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, called for repeal of the AFSPA, describing it as a “dated and colonial-era law” that breached ”contemporary international human rights standards.”

Some estimates are that over 100,000 Kashmiris may have been killed by the armed forces since 1989, when separatism took a violent turn. According to the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice more than 8,000 people have also gone missing during this period.

PUCL general-secretary Mahi PalSingh said he believed that the prolonged imposition of AFSPA in Kashmir has perpetuated the cycle of violence between citizens and the armed forces and that the space for political negotiations in that state can be opened up only after it is repealed.

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