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Understanding the AFSPA – India”s War on its Own People

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By Shagun Gupta:

For several months now, Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, has been campaigning to have the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (or AFSPA) withdrawn from the state. For eleven years now, Irom Sharmila Chanu, social activist from Manipur, has been fasting without fail to have the AFSPA removed from the North-East. An act that was only brought to maintain first and foremost peace in the so-called “disturbed areas” of the North East and J&K has a long history of dissent, continued violence and lost voices.

The AFSPA arrived into this world swaddled in acrimony and bitterness, and it has failed to divest itself of those qualities ever since. Indians, under the colonial rule of the British were themselves subject to scores of draconian and brutal laws. Interestingly, the origin of the Act in question is in these very same British colonial laws, as Delhi University’s Political Analyst Dr. A. S. Ojha points out, “The AFSPA was borrowed heavily from laws passed during the British colonial era and is a dark legacy”. The parliamentarians took just three hours in the Lok Sabha and four in the Rajya Sabha to approve this hideous Act. Yet, in the 50 years of legislative history, AFSPA is an example of patriarchal violence getting State’s legitimacy. Blanket powers are conferred to the Armed Forces and this has ostensibly resulted in innumerable incidents of arbitrary detentions, torture, rape, and lootings.

Under this Act, security forces have at their hands a dangerous mix of carte blanche powers with absolutely no accountability in carrying out their operations once an area is declared as “disturbed”. All the arbitrary and unconstitutional powers conferred to military personnel originate from section 4 of AFSPA. Under section 4(a), even a mere suspicion allows a non-commissioned officer (havaldar) the power to shoot-to-kill any person. He can use force against people who are not presenting any force. He can destroy any property, under section 4(b), if it is suspected of being used as a fortified position. Under section 4(c), anyone can be arrested without warrant if it is suspected that he has committed a cognizable offence. Under section 4(d), force can be used to enter and search any house on suspicion of it being used as a hide out.

Section 6 establishes that no legal proceeding can be initiated against any member of the military for their abuses. This section provides legal immunity and leaves the victims of the armed forces with no legal remedy.

These unreasonable powers and the ensuing violence have had terrible repercussions on people of these affected areas. Disenchantment among youths has led them to abandon their dreams and embrace guns, drugs, alcohol and prostitution. When innocent pedestrians are abducted during crackdowns and killed by security forces for promotions or shot in the streets in the name of law enforcement, it is the women who bare the brunt in reconstructing their lives and nurturing their families.

The 2005 Jeevan Reddy Report recommended the repeal of the controversial law. “The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, should be repealed,” it noted in its recommendations. “The Act is too sketchy, too bald and quite inadequate in several particulars”. The report further added that the perception gathered by its members during the course of its findings is that “the Act, for whatever reason, has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness”. But the government has remained silent for over five years now despite these recommendations.

However, it is not just the Jeevan Reddy Report but also all the International Court of Justice, Amnesty International, and Asia Watch that have implored the Government of India, time and again, to scrap this draconian law.

The level of violations has not only been more severe in the North-East owing to the fact that the act has been present in that area longer than it has in J&K, however human rights violations in Kashmir itself have been gross since 1990. The graphic and animate writing of Barbara Crossett in New York Times (India Moves Against Kashmir Rebels, April 7, 1991) is just one instance in this regard. She wrote a heart wrenching recitation regarding how on February 23rd, 1991, over 100 women in Kunan Poshpora, Kupwara were raped by soldiers of 4th Rajputana Rifles from 11 in the night till 9 am of the next day.

The movement against AFSPA has been burning since 1958 itself. There have been numerous student protests, appeals, strikes and mindless violence by agitated youth. And contrary to the popular belief that the act has been able to bring down violence, the extent of violence in the North East and Kashmir has in fact grown since the act has been put in place.

The only way to guarantee that the human rights abuses perpetrated by the armed forces in the North East cease is to both repeal the AFSPA and remove the military from playing a civil role in the area. Indeed with 50% of the military forces in India acting in a domestic role, through internal security duties, there is a serious question as to whether the civil authority’s role is being usurped. As long as the local police are not relied on they will not be able to assume their proper role in law enforcement. The continued presence of the military forces prevents the police force from carrying out its functions. This also perpetuates the justification for the AFSPA.

Moreover, the definition of key phrases, especially “disturbed area” must be clarified. The declaration that an area is disturbed should not be left to the subjective opinion of the Central or State Government. It should have an objective standard which is judicially reviewable. Moreover, the declaration that an area is disturbed should be for a specified amount of time, no longer than six months. Such a declaration should not persist without legislative review.

At a time when the majority is clearly looking for a move to end the AFSPA, few voices linger on supporting the act by means of amendment instead of complete repeal. “Today’s terrorist does not allow you the luxury of a magistrate’s presence”, notes Major General Rajendra Prakash (retd), arguing why AFPSA is necessary. The question is — How does a civilian differentiate between a soldier of the Army and a terrorist in the case of the AFPSA?

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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