Certain incidents in life have a deep impact on us even if they don’t directly affect us. On a hot summer morning in July 2004, a picture published on the front pages of newspapers left me stunned. The powerful image and the equally resonating story behind it had a notable impact on my conscience. Around a dozen women, stripped completely naked, held a big banner that read “Indian Army Rape Us”. My eighteen-year-old self that had just started getting acquainted with politics and current affairs couldn’t fathom what had led the women — apparently middle-aged mothers (judging from the contours of their physiques) — to bare their bodies for the whole world’s perusal. Our bodies are our personal fiefdoms whose exposure to strangers puts even the boldest man or woman to shame. What kind of circumstances could have led those conventional women to come out unclothed onto the streets, putting their dignity at stake?
Twelve years later, the footprints of that formidable protest in Manipur can be traced to the Supreme Court in New Delhi. On July 8, the apex court severely criticised the use of indiscriminate force by the Army and paramilitary forces in the North-Eastern state leading to cold-blooded murders of civilians. The top court objected to the failure of the police in filing first information reports despite countless complaints of fake encounters, torture, sexual harassment and enforced disappearances, and lack of any inquiry thereof. Expressing surprise that Manipur has continued to be a disturbed area over the past 58 years, it said indefinite deployment of the army for the purpose of restoring normalcy under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act or AFSPA was a mockery of the democratic process.
For the uninitiated, AFSPA is a law enacted for the country’s “disturbed areas” — seven states of the North East in 1958 and Jammu and Kashmir in 1990. The presence of armed militants in these states couldn’t be controlled by the police so additional support of armed forces personnel was provided by the Centre. Ordinary criminal laws were considered insufficient to deal with insurgency related problems, warranting enforcement of AFSPA. This law gives soldiers the power to fire upon or use force on any person who they consider to be acting in contravention of the law even if it leads to that person’s death. The army can also raid any building, destroy a property and detain any person on the basis of mere suspicion that he or she could be involved in insurgency activities.
While the use of deadly force by security personnel against militants is justifiable, what is unacceptable is that even if an official illegally uses indiscriminate force in an unnecessary situation leading to gross violations of human rights he cannot be brought to book without sanction from the Central government. In hundreds of cases where security personnel have blatantly defied the law killing unarmed civilians, they haven’t been prosecuted nor have law suits been filed against them as the Defence Ministry has never given approval. Moreover, no reasons have ever been furnished for denial of sanction.
The unrestrained powers given to security forces under AFSPA have ironically led to more distress as civilians in these states have alleged harassment for years which has made them aggressively critical and sceptical of the administration. Multiple cases of unlawful detention, torture, rape, molestation, enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings and fake encounters have been reported from Manipur and J&K but the victims have never got justice. What emboldens some security personnel to carry out human rights violations is the remote possibility of being charged or facing trial. The legal protection provided under this special law has resulted in no FIRs, convictions or punishments.
The above-mentioned protest by the agitated women was in response to the rape and murder of 32-year-old Thangjan Manorama, an alleged separatist. She was mercilessly raped and killed in custody by a paramilitary team, shot sixteen times with several bullets pumped into her vagina. Her body was later thrown in a field saying she was killed in an encounter while trying to flee. The retired district and sessions judge who headed the inquiry commission into the incident described it as “one of the most shocking custodial killing of a Manipuri village girl”. Many other incidents and massacres have been reported where the army and paramilitary teams have allegedly looted and burnt down villages, molested women, randomly picked up and tortured innocents and killed many in fake encounters in states under AFSPA. In Manipur, the Heirangoithong massacre, Operation Bluebird, Tera Bazaar Massacre, RMC massacre of 1995, Malom massacre and the massacres in J&K of Kunan Poshpora, Gawakadal, Bijbehara and the Shopian rape and murder case are just a few examples. The profundity of the human rights abuses faced by people in disturbed areas has been expressed by Irom Sharmila who hasn’t let a drop of water or a morsel of grain touch her lips since November 2000, demanding the repeal of AFSPA from her state.
According to statistics provided by the State of Manipur, from the year 2000 to October 2012 the number of civilians killed in the state is more than three times the number of police and army personnel killed; while the number of civilians injured is almost double. A three-member committee set up by the Supreme Court to inquire into over 1500 allegations of fake encounters has said that civilians without any criminal antecedents have been knowingly killed in cold blood. Many other judicial inquiries, including a dozen inquiries headed by retired judge C Upendra Singh, have also found security forces responsible for excessive use of force against innocents. However, no action has been taken against any of the accused. In fact, there have been shocking incidents of accused officers themselves investigating the allegations and registering FIRs against victims.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has said that most states have not been following guidelines issued by it with regard to proper procedure to be followed in AFSPA, such as requirement of a magisterial inquiry in all cases of death which occur in the course of police action, or all states being required to furnish six-monthly statements with respect to all deaths in police stations along with the post-mortem and inquest reports.
Great responsibility follows inseparably from great power, thus reads a decree made by the French National Convention in May 1793 during the French Revolution. Unregulated power without any checks and balances has a tendency to corrupt even the most sincere persons. The Supreme Court has rightly said that in Manipur there is an internal disturbance, not a war-like situation. The same applies to other disturbed states. The purpose of AFSPA is to control militancy and bring about normalcy. Unless the law is, if not repealed, at least amended to make security personnel accountable for the deaths and harassment of innocents, AFSPA will continue to generate more turmoil. Ironically, Sharmila’s hunger strike is a derivative of Gandhi’s Satyagraha and AFSPA has been drawn from an ordinance used by the British to suppress the Quit India Movement of 1942. Let’s wait and watch if history repeats itself.