Disturbed Area status: An unwelcome gift

There was nothing new nor any element of surprise when the State Government decided to extend the Disturbed Area status tagged to the State with the exception of Imphal Municipal area for one more year with effect from December 1, 2020, but of course it came as an unwelcome New Year’s gift from the State to all the people. The Government’s decision sounded not only dull and redundant but it also cast a gloomy shadow on the new year. But extension of Disturbed Area status has been going on as a routine State affair regularly and periodically for the past many, many years. As usual, the Government’s notice by which the Disturbed Area status was extended says “Due to the violent activities of various extremist/insurgent groups, the entire state of Manipur is in such a disturbed condition that the use of armed forces in aid of civil power is necessary”. It needs no reminder that promulgation of Disturbed Area status allows enforcement of the infamous Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act which gives immunity to the armed forces. Although the disturbed area status is reviewed periodically, nothing changes on ground for the same notification (of disturbed area) is issued and re-issued after each review. The situation is rather ironical if one takes into account the oft-repeated claim of the incumbent Government that the State’s law and order situation has improved remarkably since it came to power. As early as November 2018, Chief Minister N Biren went on record stating that time had come to review the AFSPA in the State because of the prevailing peace, but time had not yet come to lift it totally. Two years on, nothing has changed for the better as indicated by the latest notice for extension of disturbed status. The constitutionality of AFSPA which has its legacy in the British colonial era has been questioned many times at the United Nations and many other international forums but the Government of India sees no fault in enforcing the Act in some selected territories of the country.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance 1942 from which AFSPA was derived was first promulgated by the British on 15 August 1942 to suppress the Quit India Movement. Insurgent activities and violence are the two fundamental premises which determine whether a particular area should be categorised as ‘disturbed’ or not.  But the very concept of ‘disturbed’ is not something unambiguous, and we fear its fundamental concepts and understandings are twisted and even distorted to suit the State’s interest. In another word, the State has been employing different yard sticks in different parts of the country for invoking the dreaded AFSPA. Lack of consistency and uniformity when it comes to giving sweeping powers to the military smack of racism and discrimination. This is what is informed by the much softer subjective treatment of Naxalism as opposed to the free hand given to the military in Kashmir and the North East.  Our basic and consistent argument for years is, why Kashmir and the North East can’t be spared from AFSPA if the same infamous Act is not necessary in tackling the country’s biggest threat (Naxal movement).  By restricting the infamous AFSPA to only Kashmir and the North East for a protracted period, the Indian State has drawn a sharp line of division between these two so-called troubled regions from the rest of the country where peace purportedly prevails.  It is really disturbing that impunity is given legal and political sanction or institutional support in Manipur and some other areas in the form of the Armed Forces (Special) Powers Act 1958. The State Government and the Central Government must at least accept that Manipur is no more ‘disturbed’ than the Red Corridor where Maoist militants have unleashed militancy to the maximum. Juxtaposition of the North East and the Red Corridor gives a notion that either AFSPA is sectarian or racist or both.