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With the Election Commission recently reprimanding Yogi Adityanath for referring to the army as Modiji ki Sena and banning the usage of military figures like Wing Commander Abhinandan on canvassing posters, there has been a renewed emphasis on the need to abstain from politicizing a secular and apolitical organization such as the army (Vishnoi, 2019; Anand, 2019). Elections in India witness the party manifestos often walking a fine line between such a genre of politicization, and thereby risking non-adherence to the model code of conduct, and cultivating and reaping a vote bank based on promises related to security. Such promises have been unfailingly mentioned in every election manifesto released by major Indian political parties, in an increasingly explicit manner following the 1996 elections and leading up to the current 2019 elections. The army’s indirect influence on Indian elections has been evident since the 1964 elections that oversaw the cultivation of votes based on the modernization of the army as a part of the 3rd Five Year Plan, following the humiliating defeat against China. (Mukherji, 2009)

AFSPA and elections 

Of late, a specific aspect of the military has been focused on exclusively by manifestos – the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. As of 2019, AFSPA is active in Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Jammu and Kashmir and a few districts in Arunachal Pradesh (Chakravarti, 2018). The 2015 electoral victory of Manik Sarkar of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Tripura, oversaw the act being repealed in the state, which represented the fulfilment of one of his promises while canvassing (Hazarika, 2018). Meghalaya and certain stable districts of Arunachal Pradesh also oversaw the act being repealed, thereby granting hope to Kashmiris, who aspire for a similar situation being promised in the upcoming elections (Singh, 2018; Pisharoty, 2017). The act continues to be implemented in the aforementioned states due to intermittent episodes of insurgency by militants of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) and their blockading of major roads and highways (Sarma, 2016). Legally, the period of 3 months of “relative peace, stability and public order” required for an assessment of the efficacy of the act, has not been observed in such states (Ramakrishnan, 2015).

The act has often been used to the advantage of several politicians, who use it to garner a favourable opinion for themselves by promising its advancement, amendment or withdrawal. In 2004 itself, Manmohan Singh canvassed for the Indian National Congress (INC), while promising to replace the act with “a more humane” one, following the outrage caused by the killing of Thangjam Manorama (Talukdar, 2004). In 2014, the act played a significant role in the dynamics of power in Kashmir. Mehbooba Mufti, despite explicitly declaring that the act has outlived its usefulness in the region, went ahead to ally her party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on the basis that there would be an attempt to examine the need for “denotifying disturbed” areas (Sharma, 2015). The coalition eventually fell apart due to rising differences in the stances of the parties with regards to AFSPA and a rise in indiscriminate killings by the police and armed forces, enabled to do so with impunity due to the act (Chakravarti, 2018). The significant vote bank comprised of the armed forces displays a tendency to support parties furthering AFSPA as well (Gopalaswami, 2014).  

2019 Party Manifestos and AFSPA

The BJP and the CPI(M) representing opposite extremities of the political spectrum, invariably have propounded two completely different approaches in their 2019 manifestos, while the INC has sought to obtain a middle ground with a multitude of contradictory statements in their manifesto. The promise to abrogate Article 370 coupled with a typical chauvinistic policy of “zero tolerance” by the BJP, contrasts is own pacifist shift and more conciliatory policies since 2014. This can be witnessed by the erstwhile Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh, witnessing 62 Naxals surrender after negotiation and the withdrawal of AFSPA from several North Eastern districts and states (Jacob, 2018).  In 2015, the BJP government at the centre continued negotiations that were already in motion, with organizations such as United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), NSCN (IM) and the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BDL), with Modi vowing to address regionalist interests, such as those of Bodoland, and resolve them in an amicable manner (Sharma, 2015). The tacit acknowledgement by the BJP of the infeasibility of employing incessant violent methods, as witnessed by its actions of recent, has however been overpowered by the need to appeal to a jingoist vote bank in their manifesto by the display of an uncompromising attitude, well-supported by governmental claims of Indian supremacy in the recent skirmishes between India and Pakistan.

The CPI(M), has criticized the present centre in their manifesto by drawing a correlation between the rise of militancy and the attempts to suppress it aggressively while blaming the BJP for alienation of those participating in such activities away from negotiations. The party also proceeds a step further and in their manifesto, promises the scrapping of AFSPA in order to curb excesses by the Indian Armed Forces and according to complete respect to the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, thereby representing an approach that is poles apart from that of the BJP. However, their advocacy of a political solution to the problems of internal militant pockets of the nation overlaps with the evidently effective course of action that the BJP is sparingly implementing. Nevertheless, in the absence of a proposed plan of action with regards to negotiation, or a policy that could substitute the AFSPA, the manifesto is necessarily vague and ambiguous when one considers the feasibility of such promises.

The INC manifesto depicts an awkward situation where the promises highlighted have tried to reconcile the two extremes mentioned above. While advocating winning over Maoist cadres, in their manifesto and the banning of vigilantism, the INC’s promises for the 2019 elections represent a departure from their erstwhile policies that included the usage of Salwa Judum and a policy of non-negotiation, as exemplified by Chidambaram’s actions in the past as Home Minister. While abstaining from altering Article 370 in any manner and affirming that the whole of Jammu and Kashmir is a part of India, the manifesto also paradoxically speaks of a customized federal solution that will aim to resolve the issue of militancy. The manifesto also avoids the mention of AFSPA within the framework of centre-state relations completely, similar to its previous manifestos in 2009 and in 2014. Their vow to review AFSPA has unfortunately been vague with regards to a time frame and has only been mentioned in the context of Kashmir, with absolutely no reference to the act in the North East. Following Irom Sharmila’s electoral defeat in 2017, with her campaign primarily basing itself upon the repeal of AFSPA, the INC has possibly assessed the act as no longer being a substantial point of leverage for canvassing, while also considering the fact that militancy, according to the figures provided by the home ministry, has witnessed a decline (News, 2019)

How feasible are such promises?

Despite the advocacy of stern measures against militancy in the nation, the manifestos in 2019 have uniquely displayed a shift towards pacifism and reconciliation. There have been recent recognition of the inefficacy of an act such as the AFSPA which has tended to homogenize the problem of militancy in the nation. The law, finding its roots in the colonial era, is a draconian attempt to club the varied interests, methods, objectives and backgrounds of the militants together and designate all participants as equally culpable and expendable.

Considering the long term plan of action that the government must employ in their dealings with militancy within its borders, the conciliatory approach promised by the various political parties in their respective manifestos presents a better prospect of feasibility, as compared to one that furthers armed suppression, as witnessed by several instances both in Indian and in world history. In view of the standardization of the antagonism leveled against different militant groups advocating several different agendas by laws such as the AFSPA or by generic policies of “non-negotiation”, it is only conciliatory processes like these that provide the leeway for the necessary acknowledgement of the peculiarities and the intricate details specific to each region experiencing strife.

An official report released by the Government of India in 2019 found a strong, positive correlation between encounter deaths enabled by AFSPA and the rise of militant recruitment (Jaleel, 2018). A case study by Khalid Shah, on behalf of the ORF, investigated the backgrounds of several recruits such as Faizan Ahmad Bhat, Fardeen Khanday and Arif Dar Lelhari, and found a strong motivation amongst the children and adolescents in the valley to join the ranks of the militants after their exposure to the indiscriminate violence of the armed forces that acted with impunity (Shah, 2019). Almost half the recruitments into militant ranks in the Valley after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani came from within 10 km of the residences of killed militants or encounter sites and these recruitments took place within 40 days of the encounters (Jaleel, 2018).

The withdrawal of the law and the cessation of the designation of several districts in the North East as “disturbed areas” have been witnessed where considerable peace has prevailed for a substantial amount of time, due to the very fact that the often excessive and counter-productive violence wrecked by AFSPA has not been a regular occurrence. With a high correlation existing between stability and negotiations, as well as between armed suppression and growth in militancy, the Machiavellian ideal of inducing fear amongst the population as a means of control has remarkably failed in India. The provisions of the manifestos, to varying extents, second the notion that violence can only beget more violence and have tacitly acknowledged the need to reassess one’s modus operandi while dealing with militants.



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Image credit:The Hindu 

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Written By Anant Venkatesh

St. Xavier's College, Mumbai

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