Srinagar: Almost four months after the Human shield controversy sprouted in Kashmir, the Minister of Home Affairs has stonewalled information under Right to Information Act about the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) governing such situations.
The Ministry has refused to disclose the information about the Standard Operating Procedure (SOPs) employed by forces in conflict areas where militant groups are active following the complaints of ‘human shields’ came to fore.
The ministry has turned-down the RTI query on the ground that information is secret invoking security and strategic interests of the State as grounds.
“The Central Public Information Officer for MHA did not bother to send any reply even after two months. Later, when I filed the first appeal with First Appellate Authority of the Ministry, it was rejected invoking security and strategic interests of the State as grounds,” said Venkatesh Nayak, a human right activist representing Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).
He said the ministry told him that it had found that the information/documents, sought in the RTI application are ‘secret in nature and disclosure of such documents would prejudicially affect the security and strategic interests of the State’.
The ministry has taken the plea that information about Human shield issue is exempted under Section 8 (1) (a) of the RTI Act.
“The desired information/documents cannot be provided as per Section 8(1) (a) of the RTI Act, 2005,” reads a reply by First Appellate Authority (FAA).
The Section 8 of the Act lists out exemptions from disclosure of information.
Activist Nayak had sought information under RTI Act regarding Standard Operation Procedures (SOPs) governing the forces under specific circumstances in which they use civilians as ‘Human shields’ against militants or protesters.
The application has cited the controversy triggered by the video of a youth tied to an Army vehicle in Budgam in April.
He claimed that government has a policy on the issue of ‘human shields’ in militancy-affected areas.
“Almost four years before the Budgam incident occurred, an MP had raised a query about the alleged ‘use of civilians as shields’ by left-wing militant groups in other parts of India. The then Union Minister of State for Home Affairs revealed the existence of a draft SOP on ‘Maoists using villagers as human shields’,” Nayak said.
“The Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) have sensitized their field formations to take utmost care to avoid casualties/injuries and any form of harassment of locals while undertaking anti-Naxal operations even when they have been used as human shields by the Maoists…. The Government of India has issued instructions to all State Governments/CAPFs to adhere to the highest standards of human rights during anti-LWE operations and to strictly deal with aberrations…” the Activists said quoting the government reply to 2013 question by a legislator.
According to CHRI activist, the policy clearly applies to States affected by left-wing militancy.
“It is not clear whether similar instructions and the related SOPs apply to security people deployed in J&K as well. If the Government’s policy is to adhere to the strictest standards of human rights despite any provocation and avoid any form of harassment of locals even when they have been used as ‘human shields’ in other States, how can the use of a civilian in J&K as a ‘human shield’ by security forces themselves be reconciled with this policy?” he added.
“Is this policy of strict adherence to human rights standards by security forces not applicable to J&K due to its special constitutional status (under Article 370)? Or has the National Democratic Alliance changed Government policy vis-à-vis ‘human shields’ instituted under the previous United Progressive Alliance regime?” he asked.
Nayak argues if SOPs about the use of ‘human shields’ are placed in the public domain, victims will be able to demand accountability from the State when the SOPs are transgressed.
“Transparency will also help a fuller debate on the use of ‘human shields’ by any agency, be it State forces or non-State actors. It can act as a big confidence building measure in areas like J&K,” he said.
“I will submit a second appeal to the Central Information Commission, shortly, as MHA is not in a mood to reveal information.” Nayak added.