Then and now: Congress sang different tune on AFSPA when it was in power


The release of the Congress partys manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections 2019 by Rahul Gandhi, promising to amend the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and scrap the sedition law have created quite a buzz i n political circles. The ruling BJP and defence veterans have alleged that grand old party wants to weaken the morale of security forces and divide the nation by making such promises. Social media was also abuzz with varied opinions on some of the proposals mooted by the Congress party, with many alleging that the Congress was compromising on national interest as it wants to win the election at any cost. The Congress manifesto, under a section titled Review of Laws, Rules and Regulations section, says that it specifically promises to amend the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 in order to strike a balance between the powers of security forces and the human rights of citizens and to remove immunity for enforced disappearance, sexual violence and torture. What Congress manifesto 2019 proposes Omit Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (that defines the offence of Amend the laws that allow for detention without trial in order to bring them in accord with the spirit, and not just the letter, of the Constitution as well as International Human Rights Conventions, it says. Addressing the media following the release of the Congress manifesto, senior BJP leader and Union minister Arun Jaitley dubbed the election document dangerous and unimplementable. He said that it was aimed at the balkanisation of India. Jaitley alleged that the Congress manifesto drafting committee headed by former Union minister P Chidambaram took inputs from the tukde tukde gang, a reference made to February 2016 JNU incident where anti-India slogans were raised. Congress president Rahul Gandhi later visited the university to express solidarity with the members of the group who came under the scrutiny of law. The Congress does not deserve even a single vote for promises like doing away with sedition law, Jaitley said. The Congress manifesto was prepared by former Home minister P Chidambaram. He later told reporters that the amendment to the AFSPA was important to strike a balance between the rights of the security forces and human rights. Change in Stand on AFSPA While the proposal by the Congress to amend AFSPA has come under severe scrutiny from the BJP, it is notable that the proposal is not new and was mooted by the central government-appointed Group of Interlocutors for Jammu and Kashmir in 2012. Set up in 2010, the group of interlocutors, which comprised journalist Dileep Padgaonkar, academician Radha Kumar, and former information commissioner M. M. Ansari, favoured amendment of the Public Safety Act, review of Disturbed Areas Act, and re-appraisal of application of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The report was made public by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2012. The ministry was headed by Chidambaram who also happens to be heading the Congress manifesto committee that came up with the proposal on Tuesday. While the proposal is not new, it is interesting to note the complete reversal in the Congress partys stand on AFSPA. Back in 2012 when the Congress-headed UPA was in power, the recommendation to review AFSPA had come under severe criticism not just from the Congress opponents but from within the party as well. While the Congress maintained that the view was of the group of interlocutors and not of the government, then Health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad had taken a strong view against any move to tinker with AFSPA. Azad, then a member of the Manmohan Singh Cabinet, had said that the decision pertaining to the withdrawal of AFSPA and security forces should be left to the security agencies and Defence Ministry. This is a very difficult decision which Government of India shall have to take. People are against the decision of withdrawal of forces in particular areas and there are people who are for continuation forces in the entire state. But I think it is only for the Defence Minister, whose role and decision is most important because in the state of Jammu and Kashmir different parties including our own have different perceptions. People of Kashmir have one perception on security forces, people of Jammu have one perception and people of Ladakh region have a totally different perception. On the subject of withdrawal, non-withdrawal or partial withdrawal, there are again different opinions. In these circumstances, who is the best to judge? The best judge is security agencies, the best judge is intelligence agencies who know how to maintain the territorial integrity of the country. They are the ones who keep an eye on the situation not only on our side of India but on the other side of the country also. And it is ultimately the Defence Ministry who shall have to take a decision. Azad added that no one can imagine what the situation will be in Jammu and Kashmir if the security forces are withdrawn. It will be very difficult to think about what will be the situation after the withdrawal of the forces from a particular region, area or block, he said. The AFSPA was enacted by the Parliament of India in September 1990 when militancy was at its peak in the border state. The Act grants special powers to the armed forces to use force and even open fire on anyone who violates the law of the land. It also grants them protection from prosecution against such acts. While the BJP reacted sharply to Congress promise, former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti welcomed it. Omar said that the Congress should have done this before 2014 when he was the Chief Minister of the border state. Abdullah said that he had favoured lifting AFSPA from the state and Chidambaram had supported him but a few Congress leaders from the state plotted against his views. Without naming the Congress leaders, Abdullah said, I wish they would have mentioned this issue (in the manifesto) earlier when I was the Chief Minister. At that time, when I demanded AFSPAs removal, some Congress friends had conspired against it. I do not want to name them. But, I got support only from (former Union Minister P) Chidambaram saab. Besides promising to amend AFSPA, the Congress manifesto also said that it will do away with 1870 sedition law if it wins in the Lok Sabha polls. This invited sharp rebuke from BJP which said that Congress wants to protect Jihadis and Maoists.

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