A White Paper on AFSPA, please

Venkatesh Nayak
The Central Government did it again in Nagaland. Barely had the excitement over the setting up of a committee to review the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) subsided, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs extended its application for the umpteenth time. For another six months, armed forces will continue to be able to shoot anybody dead on a mere suspicion of carrying fire-arms or explosives in Nagaland. In December, they did just that, resulting in the deaths of 13 coal miners who were returning from a hard day’s work.
Except for its composition, very little is known about this review committee. Meanwhile, the MHA, as always, has brazenly dispensed with the formality of publishing reasons for extending AFSPA in Nagaland. In sharp contrast, Gazette notifications extending AFSPA’s application in parts of neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh assiduously name the militant groups and describe the nature of their unlawful activities as justification. No such courtesy for Nagaland, though.
In 2018, I had sought details of the decision-making process that precedes AFSPA extension in Nagaland, and copies of materials that form its basis, such as field-level reports and correspondence with the State Government seeking its views on the desirability of extension. One would expect a robust consultative process to precede the decision to keep a lethal law hanging like the Damocles’ sword on the heads of the Nagas. I had also sought reasons for AFSPA’s extension despite the existence of the 2015 Framework Agreement (FA) under which the Centre is negotiating peace with various Naga groups. The MHA refused to divulge anything, citing National security concerns and argued that its reply to my previous RTI request for the FA applied to this case as well.
Earlier, in 2015, I had sought a copy of the FA also under RTI. Both the Prime Minister’s Office, where it was signed, and the MHA, under which the Centre’s Interlocutor for talks with Naga groups functions, denied having custody of that crucial document.When the Central Information Commission (CIC) threatened the MHA’s PIO with a penalty show-cause notice, the Interlocutor himself landed up at the hearing with a copy of the FA and explained how premature disclosure would jeopardise the delicately placed negotiations. The Interlocutor, now Governor of Tamil Nadu, admitted that the FA had been shown to scores of opinion-makers involved in the peace process, including Nagaland’s MLAs. Despite the RTI Act’s foundational principle that information which cannot be denied to MPs or MLAs must not be denied to a citizen, the CIC ruled against disclosure.
Three days after the Oting incident, I filed another RTI application seeking a copy of the FA and details of the consultation process around it. I also demanded a copy of the Hydari Accord signed with Naga groups in 1947. Once again, the MHA refused access to the FA on National security grounds. It said it did not have a copy of the Hydari Accord !
Democracy, it is said, dies a quick death behind closed doors. The mess in Nagaland is living proof of this aphorism. If, in 63 years, AFSPA has not been able to deliver, it is time for citizens across India to demand answers, along with justice for its victims. The Centre must publish a White Paper about AFSPA’s achievements and its impact on people’s lives and minds as the first step toward accountability.
Courtesy Deccan Herald