By Anshul Verma:
After the bone-chilling incident of 16th of December, the Government of India was forced to set up a three member judicial committee to re-look into the rape laws of the country. Amidst high profile action and expectations, the three member panel submitted its mammoth report on January 23rd in which a slew of measures were suggested to safeguard women and to help in achieving gender justice. Some of the recommendations included making rape a gender specific crime, reviewing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and stricter punishments in cases of eve teasing.
On the 1st of February, the Union Cabinet introduced an ordinance to combat sexual violence which incorporated a number of recommendations put forth by the Justice J.S. Verma Committee but it categorically rejected the more controversial findings of the committee which included the one pertaining to reviewing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 is described by human rights activists as one of the most draconian laws prevalent in India. The Act spreads over all insurgency hit areas of the North East and Jammu & Kashmir. Under this Act, the army personnel are granted special legal immunity while operating in insurgency hit areas and have powers like that of forceful detention. Many crimes carried out by Indian army men go unreported because of the legal protection which they enjoy under the AFSPA. The Justice J.S. Verma Committee had sought for special amendments in the Act to empower the judiciary to prosecute army personnel accused in cases of sexual violence in areas covered by the AFSPA.
There are three principal reasons why the Government of India is scared of enacting this measure. Firstly, the Indian Government is wary of the international outrage which the revoking of AFSPA could lead to. The Indian Army is accused of carrying out extreme human rights abuses in the valley of Kashmir where over 80,000 people have gone missing. In case the AFSPA is revoked, many of the gruesome incidents of human rights abuses and sexual violence would come to fore and the Indian Government would have to face major embarrassment and international condemnation for having shielded the culprits in military uniform for so long.
Secondly, after having barely managed to score an edge over General V.K. Singh in the now infamous ‘age row’, the Govt. is in no mood to again run into a clash with the armed forces. The Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, had thought of revoking the AFSPA from certain areas in Kashmir some time back but this idea was stonewalled by the Indian Army. Keeping in mind that it can no longer afford to upset its relations with the army, the Government would not take a step as big as revocation of AFSPA, an Act which is vehemently supported by Indian army officers as they consider it to be necessary while carrying out their operations against secessionists and insurgents.
Lastly and most importantly, the gaffe committed by Sushil Kumar Shinde by issuing a politically incorrect statement on ‘Hindu Terror’ has forced the Government into a defensive line of action. In order to neutralize the damage caused by Shinde’s comments, the Government of India ensured the execution of Afzal Guru whose clemency plea was an exceptionally controversial one. The UPA Government knows that its chances of coming back to power in 2014 are very less as corruption scandals and massive public protests have dented its reputation beyond repair. In such sort of fragile circumstances, the UPA Government does not intend to gift another populist issue into the hands of the Opposition. In case the UPA Government revokes the AFSPA at this stage, the Opposition led BJP would accuse it of being soft on terror. The BJP has made use of this strategy effectively in the past by hitting out at the Congress for revoking the POTA (Prevention Of Terrorism Act). The BJP has literally no voter base in Kashmir and the North East. They might try to consolidate the votes of some jingoists by trying to show the softening of Government’s stand on the AFSPA (if in case there is one in the future) as a classic example of vote-bank politics. In order to keep the Opposition at bay and to ensure that it is not seen as being soft on terror, the Government would dare not disturb the conundrum surrounding the AFSPA.