On 3 December, Attorney General of India Mukul Rohatgi told the Supreme Court, “The army is only discharging its sovereign function of defending the country from external aggression and terrorist attacks, it cannot be blamed if some people are killed. The killings are part of the sovereign function discharged by the Union of India through the army.” This was the government’s explanation for rejecting the 2013 report of the Justice Santosh Hegde Commission. The apex court had set up the commission to probe alleged extra-judicial killings in Manipur in the name of “encounters”.
The government’s defence of murder by ‘security forces’ is in a piece with its stand on the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which has been widely condemned across civil society for giving impunity to men in uniform carrying out heinous crimes as part of counterinsurgency operations. The attorney general’s submission in the Supreme Court was a rationalisation of this impunity as well as a plea for further militarisation of the conflict torn region.
Opinions are divided on the timing and political wisdom of the statement, though the regime in New Delhi seems quite happy with it. For the BJP-led government, it is just a prelude to more chest-thumping “surgical” operations against “anti-nationals”. It also serves a more partisan political purpose: such “bold” words from a representative of the regime, that too in a court of law, is likely to help galvanise the support of “nationalist” zealots for a government no longer as confident of its feet on the ground as it was when it took power in May 2014. Killing in the “national interest” gives strength to those who reach out to the people in the name of an “imagined nation”.
The devil in the details, though, unveils the following implications of the attorney general’s statement:
From Denial to Justification
The attorney general’s statement was the last attempt to defend the men who killed civilians in cold blood during peacetime. So far, men in uniform have got away with murder through a tangled process that starts with denial of involvement in the crime. When that fails to pass muster with public opinion, evidence is tampered with and impunity under AFSPA is invoked. If the crime still manages to make it to the courts, the complexity of the proceedings further brings down the possibility of justice.
In 2012, the Supreme Court responded to a writ petition filed against 1,528 alleged extra-judicial killings in the Northeast. It came as a breath of fresh air into the claustrophobic chambers of impunity in cases of State violence. A commission was appointed under Justice Hegde the following year to investigate the first six cases, all from Manipur. Testimonies and hectic hearings by the committee revealed that all six were indeed cases of extrajudicial killings.
Once the report was out, denial was no longer an option for the security forces. No wonder the central government’s focus shifted to devising a politically emotive statement aimed at inciting jingoism and mounting pressure on the judiciary to justify the killings. The Hegde report had to be consigned to the dustbin to protect the offenders from the law.
A Boost to Militarisation
What the attorney general said in court falls squarely within the familiar pattern of justifications for militarisation by the Indian State since 1947. The edifice of the ‘nation’ that won freedom from British rule was built on the military destruction of the then existing princely states in the Northeast and the suppression of recalcitrant tribes and other communities.
Yet, it was the insurgencies in Kashmir and the Northeast that are blamed for forcing the Indian State to militarise these regions and impose AFSPA on the people.
So, it’s no surprise that the current ruling party and its predecessors speak in one voice on the issue of militarisation. On 17 August 2004, the then home minister Shivraj Patil told Lok Sabha that it was “our bounden duty to see that the morale of the armed forces is not allowed to be attacked.”
Top officers in the security establishment in the Northeast, too, echo the same sentiment. For instance, in response to a Human Rights Watch report in 2008, former Manipur DGP Y Joykumar said “insurgency was an incurable disease” that left them no other choice than eliminating the insurgents. In 2010, the Director General of Assam Rifles, India’s oldest paramilitary force that spearheads counterinsurgency in the Northeast, said, “We (soldiers) function under orders and hence our interests need to be protected.”
The underlying logic of this mindset — buttressed by the dominant global narrative on the War on Terror — is that more militarisation is the only possible response to insurgency and whenever troops are deployed to fight insurgents, there would be some degree of indiscriminate killings and violation of rights, and so the security forces must be allowed some degree of impunity to be able to do their job.