Those fighting for the complete removal of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA-1958) in India’s troubled Jammu and Kashmir and North East, may find a moral backing in the Justice Verma Committee’s recommendations. The three-member panel set up to look into the possible amendments in the criminal laws related to sexual violence against women has called for an immediate “review of AFSPA” in conflict zones to deter sexual violence against women by members of the armed forces.“The armed forces or uniformed personnel must be brought under the purview of ordinary criminal law,” the committee has recommended.
Justice Verma Committee, comprising Retired Justice J S Verma, Retired Justice Leila Seth and Solicitor General Gopal Subramanium, was constituted on December 23, 2012 following an alleged gang rape of a 23-year-old girl in Delhi on December 16 which triggered nationwide protests. The panel report, over reforms in anti-rape laws, was submitted on Wednesday (January 23) to the Indian Home Ministry.
AFSPA grants the military immense powers of arrest, search, the right to shoot to kill, and to occupy a property in counter-insurgency operations. The Indian government has often claimed that its troops need such powers as the army has been deployed to defend the national security, at serious risk from armed combatants, in Kashmir and the North East. But rights activists and victims of the armed forces’ abuse continue to call AFSPA a ‘draconian law’ which is not in conformity with the international laws signed and ratified by India.
The panel observed that offences against women in border areas / conflict zones and their legal protection has been “often neglected” and “we notice that impunity for systematic or isolated sexual violence in the process of internal security duties is being legitimized by the AFSPA, which is in force in large parts of our country.”The panel reported, “It must be recognized that women in conflict areas are entitled to all the security and dignity that is afforded to citizens in any other part of our country. India has signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.”
Justice Verma committee sought, “Sexual violence against women by members of the armed forces or uniformed personnel should be brought under the purview of the ordinary criminal law.”The panel has called for “imminent need” to review the continuance of AFSPA and AFSPA-like legal protocols in internal conflict areas as soon as possible. It asked for an immediate resolution of jurisdictional issues and for simple procedural protocols to be put in place to avoid situations where police refuse or refrain from registering cases against the paramilitary personnel.
The panel has sought review of Section 6 of AFSPA which bars legal proceeding against any member of the armed forces acting under the AFSPA, without the permission of the central government. This section has often left victims of the armed forces’ abuses without a remedy.
Justice Verma committee has recommended that no prosecution, suit or other legal proceeding shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the Central Government, against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers conferred by this Act.
“Provided that, no sanction shall be required if the person has been accused of committing an offence under Section 354, Section 354A, Section 354B, Section 354C, Section 376(1), Section 376(2), Section 376(3), Section 376A, Section 376B, Section 376C, Section 376D, Section 376D or Section 376E of the Indian Panel Code, 1860,” reads the committee in its 630-page report to the government. Section 376 IPC deals with the punishment for rape while Section 354, IPC deals with assault and use of criminal force against women with intent to outrage her modesty.
The recommendation on AFSPA has come at a time when the central government, especially the defense ministry continues to view AFSPA as an anti-militancy law and the Defence Minister Arackaparambil Kurien Antony even making it clear recently that the government “is not going to decide in haste over the removal of this anti militancy law” from Jammu and Kashmir where the Act is in force since 1990. The government maintains the same stance for the North East too.