Of all the current raging issues, AFSPA is one of the most debated and probably one of the least understood as well (The Act can be accessed here). Much has been said about it in various Op-eds, Primetime TV Debates, Tweets and Blogs. The most visible symbol of Anti-AFSPA side of the debate is the fast undertaken by Irom Chanu Sharmila in Manipur, who is fighting for it’s removal since last 11 years. J&K CM Omar Abdullah stoked the debate further by pushing for it’s removal from J&K. The Mainstream media both TV and Print, have been increasingly taking an Anti-AFSPA stance and building up a rhetorical crescendo of sorts. Within govt itself differences of opinions have emerged which is well known.

Last couple of years have seen a new-media revolution of sorts where more and more people are taking to not only expressing their opinions on issues such as AFSPA, but also made it possible for them to participate in debates. And coupled with ease of accessibility of relevant information, the natural corollary to such a progression should have been an informed debate on such issues instead of the mainstream media pushing rhetorical one sided arguments and Op eds down our throats through a one way communication. However despite the ease of accessibility of information there appears to be a lot of misconception surrounding AFSPA that needs to be dispelled.

Too much focus on projecting a positive image while undermining the work being done on ground may not be best for a lasting solution.

There are two major misconceptions about AFSPA that shape Public Opinion:

1. Any Army Jawan can open fire to kill anybody without impunity.

2. Anybody can be arrested for an indefinite period.

AFSPA doesn’t give powers to any or every Army Jawan to open fire, make arrests or carry out search. Only a person commanding at least a Section can order such an act (Sec 4). Although arrests can be made under AFSPA but the person detained has to be handed over to Police with least possible delay (Sec 5). Many provisions in the Act are not put to use by the Army depending on circumstances or it’s assessment. For e.g. Prohibition of assembly of five or more persons (Sec 4(a)) is not being enforced in any of the area under AFSPA. And Army has not carried out any operations whatsoever in many cities including Srinagar and large areas within AFSPA zone.

Since it’s inception in 1958 Army working under AFSPA has helped restore democratic institutions in states like Punjab, Mizoram, Nagaland, Assam, Manipur and J&K which is a commendable feat and it proves the merits of the Act. What we should keep in mind is that the situation in insurgency affected areas is not a law and order problem but akin to a war being fought on at least two planes, one is on the physical plane where opposite forces fight for control of territory where their writ could run, the other plane is psychological, over perception and projection of an image conducive to their respective causes, and they are not mutually exclusive.

If AFSPA is removed, it projects a positive image that democracy peace and normalcy has returned, it is capable of giving us a momentary high that we have won it over the psychological plane, not to mention thumbing nose at the insurgents. But are we looking for a momentary high or a long term sustainable peace? Too much focus on projecting a positive image while undermining the work being done on ground may not be best for a lasting solution. IMO it’s better to win on the physical plane, including winning hearts and minds, before we start celebrating over the other.

The common ground between the supporters and detractors of AFSPA is that, AFSPA can only be a temporary phase to bring normalcy to a disturbed area, restore democratic institutions and create an atmosphere where these institutions can function normally. The main disagreement is on the timing of it’s removal. Increasingly, the public, rightfully, is emerging as an important stakeholder whose opinion has started to matter a lot in issues such as AFSPA.

Some cynicism apart, the public including those in AFSPA zone like J&K and North East as well has generally resisted well to react in a knee jerk fashion to the rhetorical arguments and appeals to emotions through fast and imagery.

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Sanjay Chetia

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