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AFSPA and Fundamental Rights in the Indian Constitution: A workshop report


32 teachers from 18 Kolkata schools participate in the interactive presentation segment of the workshop titled AFSPA and Fundamental Rights in the Indian Constitution at The Seagull Foundation for the Arts on June 21, 2023. The workshop unpacked some of the erased nuances of the fundamental rights chapter of the Indian Constitution that is taught at the school level.

The History for Peace workshop on ‘AFSPA and Fundamental Rights’, the first workshop from our Teaching the Constitution workshop series, held at the Seagull Foundation for The Arts on June 21, 2023, in collaboration with the Teachers' Centre, saw the participation of 32 teachers from across eighteen schools in the city. The workshop began with a 1 hour and 15-minute long interactive presentation on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The presentation discussed AFSPA's relationship with the fundamental rights chapter of the Indian constitution (particularly articles 32 and 34), its colonial legacy as a law that was introduced by Lord Linlithgow on behalf of the British government to control anti-colonial, mass uprisings during the Quit India Movement of August 1942, various cases of human rights abuse that have taken place within its scope in Kashmir and the northeast, and the local and international efforts over the past several decades to push for its repeal. Teachers navigated contentious discussions within the framework of the presentation, especially the notion that bias can affect decisions made by those on duty, who are operating within an official capacity. The brutal murder of George Floyd by white police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, United States in June 2020, which raised global awareness of the extent of anti-Black racism within the police forces, was particularly instructive as an analogous example in this discussion on bias. It empowered participants to confront their complicity within systems of nationalistic privilege and cut through their own biases. Upon being asked how this realization made them feel, especially considering that they are Indian nationals who have been raised to valorise ideals of nationalism, one teacher said, "I feel defensive. I feel very defensive at first. But when I hear what is going on, when I hear the stories of their experiences, I only feel empathy."

The discussion was followed by a group activity—a role-play debate that featured four teams into which the participants were divided. Team 1 represented the Government of India, Team 2 represented the Supreme Court of India, Team 3 represented international human rights organizations, and Team 4 represented local civilians and activists in AFSPA-affected areas. Each team was given fifteen minutes to develop a brief, four-minute-long, oral presentation that made a persuasive case for their stand on the AFSPA. The other teams could ask questions for a minute after the presentation, which each team could answer during the rebuttal round. Teams were urged to focus on individual voices within each team and make a note of dissensions and disagreements that arose within each subgroup as they developed a presentation.

Team Government of India emphasized the need to empower the military to take action against anti-nationals and secessionists and stood by how AFSPA is currently being implemented and executed. The team also called out human rights activists for partaking in 'shady work' and enabling terrorism under the guise of human rights activism in the 'disturbed areas.' The government also emphasized that the reason Kashmir is economically prosperous today is because of the strength of the military in the region.

Team Government of India discusses the material on their handouts and debate talking points in preparation for their presentation.

Team Government of India rebuts the six questions raised by the other teams in response to their presentation. The opposing teams primarily questioned the government on why AFSPA had failed to accomplish peace in AFSPA states in the past several decades.

Team international human rights organizations made a case for rights-literacy and awareness building in AFSPA areas, particularly in schools, so that young people are aware of, and can mobilize against the injustices to which they are subjected. The role of the teacher is very important, they argued, because teachers in India will be able to open the eyes of children to the horrific experiences of their counterparts in AFSPA-dictated areas, which they would never learn from their textbooks. They also called for the need to continually raise the issue of AFSPA at global human rights fora.

Team international human rights organizations discuss how human rights work cannot be separated from the political context of such work, and consider how to make a case for the rights of people in AFSPA-torn areas without occupying space within Indian national politics. Dissenting members of the group question whether this is possible considering how human rights issues are international issues.

Team civilians and local human rights activists presented a skit featuring the case of a Meitei woman, who, after being assaulted by an AFSPA-protected soldier, had been turned away by the police and had failed to get her case registered. Upon going to a civil rights attorney to understand the legal options available to her, she was told by a sympathetic lawyer that his hands were tied because there were no legal routes through which she could challenge the police. Only upon approaching a local civil society organization was she able to get her case documented. The organization also assured her that her case would be sent to international human rights mechanisms.

Team civilians and local human rights activists sketch and rehearse the idea for their skit on how AFSPA impedes a Meitei victim from seeking legal remedies for human rights violations by uniformed officers.

Team Supreme Court of India took a measured approach to the law, arguing that AFSPA is a 'necessary evil’ that is needed by the country, to protect its national integrity and security, considering the divisive society India inherited post-independence. However, special legal mechanisms must be put in place by the government that can limit its abuse, including the creation of fast-track courts which can provide speedy justice to victims of abuse. Team Supreme Court also poignantly claimed that there was no difference between some of the acts undertaken by armed forces under the AFSPA and the terrorism which they had been deployed to control.

Team Supreme Court of India considers the many sides to the AFSPA debate and seeks a balanced and fair approach to its constitutionality. This team is asked to speak last so that they can weigh the opinions of all the other teams.

A representative from Team Supreme Court of India presents their position on the AFSPA after reflecting upon the points of view presented by the other teams.

During the reflection exercise which followed the debate, most teachers claimed to have enjoyed and learned new things from the interactive presentation. They lamented about the little time they had been given to prepare for the debate. Most claimed that they would like to take the lesson into their classrooms, even if they cannot integrate it into the history and civics syllabi they teach. Teachers from CBSE also voiced their concerns about introducing such a politically charged conversation in their classroom, especially because the National Education Policy has deleted the chapter on fundamental rights from the syllabi of several classes.

Here are some reflective questions that triggered thought-provoking conversations at the workshop, that you can take into your classroom:

  • Why did a postcolonial, independent government, adopt the same law, that the British used to incriminate Indians for resisting the colonial government? If India now needs the same colonial-era law to control people in the northeast and Kashmir, do you think that some indigenous people in the northeast and Kashmir might believe that they are being suppressed by a colonial force? As an Indian national, how does it feel to think of India operating as a colonial force?

  • How does bias play a role in AFSPA? Do you think armed officials of the Indian army could hold similar biases and prejudices against certain communities or people (Kashmiri Muslims, indigenous Kuki tribes in Manipur who want liberation from the central government's rule, etc) as white police officers against Black Americans?

  • Imagine you live in an AFSPA-controlled area. A loved one tells you that they experienced an instance of a violent assault at the hands of uniformed armed personnel and are now unable to register an FIR at the local police station. How would you react to such a situation? Would you protest? How?

  • How do you feel having participated in the debate? Did you agree with your assigned position? Did you empathise with a different side? How has this exercise changed your perspective on fundamental rights?


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