Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and Centre's Apathy
– Krishna Singh T.
The people of Manipur are on the streets against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (1958), a draconian Law that has spelt repression in Kashmir and several areas of the North East for almost 50 years. The current wave of protest was sparked off by the gruesome custodial rape and killing of Manorama Devi. Now a student leader Pebam Chittaranjan, who immolated himself, is another martyr of this movement, whose death only fanned the flames of protest higher.
However, the Central Govt. has rejected the demand to repeal the AFSPA. Let alone the Congress, even the CPI(M) has opposed scrapping the Act, with Sitaram Yechury saying “the Act could not be repealed because it would hamper the Govt.'s ability to declare areas as ‘disturbed'”! “Special powers” for those in uniform have always meant that even the most “commonplace”, basic rights of people will be crushed. “Peace” is always “disturbed” when people resist the idea that oppression is inevitable, whether it be agrarian labourers in Bihar , or the people of North East or Kashmir .
From the streets of Manipur, we carry a report from an observer.
The grotesque narrative began nearly five decades ago when the parliament of the world's largest democracy decided to enact the most draconian law in its post-“independence” phase. ‘Independent India' hardly took into account the concerns of the people of the North- East when it emulated its colonial master – the British imperialists – who enacted the inhuman Armed Forces Special Ordinance in 1942 to crush the Indian freedom movement. The axe fell on the 22 nd of May,1958 when ‘independent India ' enacted a much more heinous version called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Ever since, it has been an unending saga of massacres, rapes, torture and extra-judicial killings resorted to by the Indian Armed Forces against the people of the North-East in the name of counter-insurgency operations.
The recent episode of Thangjam Manorama Devi, who was arrested on flimsy charges, raped, tortured and shot dead in cold blood by personnel of the 17 th Assam Rifles, is yet another instance in the endless killing spree continuing in the region since 1958. Entire villages were burnt in Nagaland, Mizoram was carpet bombed in 1966, hundreds were massacred in Manipur – whether it was Miss Rose, the young teenaged girl from Ukhrul district in Manipur who commited suicide after being raped by an Indian Army officer or the Heirangoithong massacre in the early 1980's where hundreds were mowed down by the CRPF during a game of volley ball or the infamous Oinam episode in Senapati district of Manipur in 1987 where the Assam Rifles cordoned the entire village for months altogether and raped, killed, tortured and maimed hundreds of people including women and children or the 1994 incidents in Yankhullen, Willong and Sajouba villages in Manipur or the 1995 massacre in the Regional Medical College in Imphal or the Malom massacre in 2000 where 10 persons waiting for buses at a bus stand were shot in cold blood by the Assam rifles or the shelling of Kohima town and Mokokchung killings by the Rastriya Rifles in Nagaland or the massacres in Nalbari, Nagaon and Bongaigaon in Assam – the mindless brutalities have not ceased.
Solidarity Actions with North-East People
On 26July by the WB state unit of AIPWA held a protest procession and burnt the effigy of the Assam Rifles at Esplanade, Kolkata, and demanded repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958!
The day before Independence Day, 14 August, an Assam Rifles team was due to play a football match at Basirhat in North 24 Parganas district, but the CPI(ML) Unit there launched a timely signature campaign to say rapists should stay away, and the match was cancelled.
On Independence Day, AISA burnt an effigy of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at Manipur House in Kolkata, demanded punishment of rapist jawans of Assam Rifles and repeal of the AFSPA. AISA leaders condemned the stance taken by the CPI(M) on this question.
A sit-in and hunger strike was also held in Kolkata by AISA, RYA, AIPWA Paschimbanga Gana Sanskriti Parishad on 20 and 21 August in solidarity with the protesting people of Manipur and the North-East.
Manipur's Battle Is India 's Battle
Manipur is witnessing an unprecedented mass upsurge. Sixty-two years after the original Quit India movement, the spirit of the freedom movement seems to have truly come alive in this north-eastern state. Indeed, Manipur is fighting for freedom. Freedom from the draconian military rule that the Indian state has imposed on this state for the last four and a half decades. Manipur is one of those Indian provinces where the armed forces enjoy special powers and the people are thus forced to live permanently at the mercy of the army in a supposedly free and democratic country.
When the Assam Rifles jawans abducted the thirty-one year old Manorama Devi from her house, raped, tortured and killed her, and then threw away her brutalised body, they were merely going through the motions of a routine exercise that the security forces have been told is both their right and duty. Yes, this is what the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, is all about. The only plea the army has for meting out this treatment to Manorama is that she was an activist of the PLA. Under the AFSP A the army can act merely on the basis of suspicion and it enjoys complete immunity from the law of the land.
It was therefore all routine – perfectly ‘legal and constitutional' – for the army, but the women of Manipur chose to challenge this routine. In the past, the women of Manipur have waged several brave battles against colonial rulers, battles that have become famous in Manipur's history as ‘nupi lan' or women's war. In a spirited act of protest, on 15 July a group of women reached the Assam Rifles headquarters in Imphal, took off their clothes and unfurled banners that screamed “Indian Army, Rape Us” and “Indian Army, Take our Flesh”. This was merely the beginning of one of the greatest mass movements in ‘free' India against the Indian Army and the Indian state.
The people of Manipur are not demanding merely posthumous justice for Manorama. They know what the army did to Manorama was not an accident or aberration. They are therefore demanding an end to the AFPSA itself. This Act was passed by Parliament in 1958 after a debate that lasted only seven hours. Like many other features of the Indian state, this Act too is a relic from the colonial era which has been preserved and reinforced by the post-colonial state. And like most other draconian laws, it was also mooted as a temporary measure with highly restricted applicability. But now it has become a permanent weapon of the Indian state to defend ‘public order' in any area it considers ‘disturbed'. Introduced for Assam and Manipur, over the years the Act has been applied virtually in the entire North-East, Punjab , Jammu and Kashmir and even Andhra Pradesh.
The AFSPA is the mother of all black laws in India . When the Act was legislated in 1958 to ‘combat' insurgency there was only the Naga movement in the north-east. Over the forty-five years the Act has been in force, it has only contributed to the rise of more and more insurgent outfits in the region. While parliamentary democracy requires the army to be kept away from the tasks of internal policing and administration, the AFSPA virtually introduces military rule in a democratic garb. Manipur alone has witnessed a series of massacres and ‘disappearances' The Army itself says that till date it has had to punish 66 of its men in the north-east as they were found guilty of excesses even though it asserts that only 25 of the 451 complaints received were found valid in its internal scrutiny.
The fighting people of Manipur and especially the brave sisters of Manorama and Sharmila (who has been on a protest fast since 6 November 2000 ) deserve all our support and solidarity for their exemplary courage and determination. The central government's response to the Manipur agitation has of course been typically arrogant. Incidentally, Manipur at the moment is ruled by a coalition (Secular Progressive Alliance led by the Congress and backed by the CPI) which is quite akin to the UPA combination at the centre. The Centre is therefore also trying every trick to browbeat the state government and prevent it from recommending a withdrawal of the Act from the state.
On the eve of the fifty-seventh anniversary of our freedom from colonial rule, let all of us join the fighting people of Manipur in demanding an end to draconian laws. There can be no place for black laws like AFSPA, TADA or POTA in a democracy.
What is particularly disturbing is the attempt made by the State to repress the voice of the masses protesting against this gross injustice. At the moment, Manipur is burning. The people, long agitated by the dehumanizing impact of this draconian Act, shouting for justice, embarked on the path of peaceful, non-violent democratic means of protests – dharnas,hunger strikes, public meetings, civil disobedience – and were cornered and pushed to the wall by the State apparatus bent on crushing the voices of dissent and protest in the most brutal fashion. Instead of making efforts to address the issue and redress the long-standing grievances of the people, the govt. has gone all out to repress the protest through the most violent means. Using its massive coercive machineries the State has brutally assaulted the people with lathis, rifle butts, live and rubber bullets, smoke bombs etc. Today, a routine sight on the streets of Manipur is the arrest of large numbers of protestors including women and students, making them stand in lines and thrashing them unconscious; another modus operandi is to make the protestors lie down on the road and fire AK-47 and 56 bullets in a row inches away from their heads, resulting in injuries from the shrapnel and cracked pebbles flying up from the road. With blood dripping down their faces the protestors are then subjected to torture till they collapse. As many as 80 to 100 protestors are treated everyday with minor and major injuries which include wounds and fractures. On the 14 th of August, at Takhel Leikai, 4 students were brutally tortured by the police who also fired rubber bullets on their faces from point blank range. Rubber bullets are hard and tough and weigh around 150 grams. The 4 students collapsed immediately. On the same day BBC correspondent Gita Pandey and NDTV cameraman Sankar Ghosh Dastidar and several other media people were threatened by the Indian Reserve Battalion for covering these shocking brutalities. A 24-year-old girl called Memetombi died from injuries sustained through rubber bullets. A few days later, 9 women protestors who participated in the shocking protest in front of the Assam Rifles Gate at Kangla in July were arrested and tortured after being hunted like dogs. The govt. charged them of having links with insurgents and tried to malign the entire protest against the inhuman Act as a move instigated and sponsored by the insurgents. After trial, the judge released all 9 of them, explicitly saying that no evidence to support the govt.'s baseless allegations could be found. The police had absolutely no material evidence whatsoever to support the govt.'s allegations. Infuriated by the judge's decision, the govt. is booking the protestors under the draconian National Security Act and has launched massive combing operations to hunt down any protestor protesting against the AFSPA. Without pressing any formal charges nearly 96 protestors including women and students have been detained without trail. Those arrested have not been brought before the law courts for trial, thus violating one of the basic rights in a democratic order – the right to a free and fair trial. This relentless wave of brutal repression is a direct attempt to gag the voices of the people whose aspirations the State cannot even reflect. It is a heinous move to forcefully snatch even the basic right to protest and express dissent peacefully. Not satisfied with this, the govt. has clamped an indefinite ban on the local cable network for telecasting daily news programme thereby effacing even the right to information. What more can one speak of Indian democracy vis-à-vis the recent onslaught against the people of Manipur. The streets of Manipur have literally turned into battlefields as the people have taken up the task of defending themselves against the wave of terror unleashed by the State. It is an unequal battle where the people are using catapults or slingshots and stones to defend themselves against the rubber and live bullets, tear gas shells and smoke bombs of the State.
The Union Home Minister Mr. Shivraj Patil said recently vis-à-vis the AFSPA and the ongoing protest – “A law in order to be effective must be just.” In this context, one can immediately interrogate the basic assumption behind the “justness” of the AFSPA. It is a law that virtually allows the Indian Armed Forces to place themselves above the rule of law. No legal proceedings can be initiated against them as per the provisions of the Act. The history of this Act has seen a total collapse of the rule of law keeping in view the numerous crimes committed by the Indian Armed Forces. Whereas a Union Cabinet Minister is subject to the rule of law as seen recently in the case of Sibhu Shoren formally arrested on the basis of a warrant issued by a district judge, the Assam Rifles are above the law. As repeatedly seen for the last 46 years of the AFSPA, in this custodial raping and killing of Thangjam Manorama Devi, the Assam Rifles have refused to respond to the Judicial Commission set up the Manipur govt. to probe the death. Summons after summons have been sent by the Judicial Commission to Assam Rifles to appear and testify before the Commission. Instead the Assam Rifles have challenged the Manipur govt.'s legality of instituting a probe in which they are involved . It is a clear signal that they are guilty and do not want the truth to be established in a court of law. Their act of refusing to respond to legal proceedings eventually establishes the fact that the rule of law cannot be applied to them and they can violate and abuse the law whenever they want to do so. The cornerstone of democracy is meaningless for them.
Coming back to Mr. Shivraj Patil's statement, 46 years of AFSPA has amply proved that it is not at all effective in tackling insurgency in the North-East. It has miserably failed to check, curb or contain insurgency in any manner. In absolute terms, insurgency has been on the rise since the last 46 years of the Act's existence in the region.It only antagonizes the masses, the poverty stricken common man in the land. Oppression and exploitation aggravates and exacerbates because of the centre's apathy and failure to address the core problem vis- a- vis the misery of the people under this dehumanizing and crippling piece of legislation.