Indians in remote state plead for curbs on army
By Simon Denyer
Local human rights activists say the law, and the abuses committed under Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, have fuelled alienation and insurgencies in Manipur
SANAMACHA’S mother collapses in tears as she strokes and clutches a photograph of her youngest son, sitting on the grass in his school uniform.
Through her sobs, this wrinkled old woman remembers how hard her son studied for his exams, how he combed his hair in a centre-parting even though everyone said it made him look older, and how he had promised to look after her in her old age.
Just before midnight on Feb. 12, 1998, 15-year-old Yumlembam Sanamacha was dragged from his rural home in the Indian state of Manipur by army troops. He was never seen alive again. Human rights activists say the army appeared to have mistaken Sanamacha for an insurgent with the same name.
Yet to this day, Sanamacha’s parents have never recovered his body – nor seen anyone punished for his death. As Arubi weeps, her 76-year-old husband Jugol squats outside their house, wiping the tears from his red eyes.
Their wounds seem as fresh as ever.
On Saturday, at least 2,000 people from this remote state in northeastern India marched through the capital Imphal, renewing their plea for curbs on the army’s powers, and an end to violations of their human rights.
The object of their anger – the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA). Introduced to combat militancy in the northeast, human rights groups say the law has given the army the licence to kill, torture and rape, without fear of prosecution.
Amnesty International says the sweeping powers bestowed upon security forces under AFSPA have fostered a climate where they commit human rights abuses “with impunity”.
Its Indian branch organised Saturday’s march to launch an international campaign to persuade India to repeal the law.
Many local human rights activists say the law, and the abuses committed under it, have fuelled alienation and insurgencies throughout northeastern India, especially in Manipur.
“When this law was introduced, there was one insurgent group in the northeast, now we have 50 groups. Then there were 100 militants, now we have at least 20,000,” said Babloo Loitongbam, director of Manipur’s Human Rights Alert. “Instead of fighting insurgency, it has spawned insurgency.”
‘Indian army, rape us’:
Something snapped in Manipur last year after 32-year-old Manorama Devi was pulled from her home by soldiers in the early hours of the morning and found dead a few hours later, her bullet-ridden body left beside a paddy field. The army said she was a militant and was shot while trying to escape but most people in Manipur believe she was raped and shot at point-blank range. One inquest found semen on her dress. For two months, Imphal erupted in protest. Old women took off their clothes in front of the army barracks and paraded a sign saying “Indian Army, Rape Us”.
Hundreds of protesters were beaten and hundreds more arrested. One man died after setting himself alight in protest.
The law allows security forces to shoot to kill – even when they face no imminent threat. No one can start legal action against any members of the armed forces for anything supposedly done under the act, without permission of the central government. In practice, that permission is almost never given.
Ironically, the law is based on legislation first introduced by British colonial rulers in 1942 to curb India’s spreading freedom movement. Today, many Manipuris feel it is used against them by modern-day “colonial rulers” in distant New Delhi. ‘Army needs protection’:
Manorama’s elderly mother, like Sanamacha’s, can only wait for a justice that might never come. Until then, Shakhi Devi says she has not completed the Hindu rituals of mourning. “My daughter was snatched from me, she was harassed, tortured and spoiled,” she said. “She is gone, but I want to make sure she rests in peace. But I am still waiting for justice to be done.”
The Indian army in Manipur says Manorama’s death was an “unfortunate incident”. Although it has used AFSPA in court to block the publication of a state government inquiry into her death, it says it does investigate and punish rights abuses.
“Manorama has taught us a good lesson,” spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Santanu Dev Goswami told Reuters. “We have to carry out people-friendly operations.” But Goswami insists the law, which only applies in the northeast and in Kashmir, is required. The army has been called in by the state government to fight insurgents and maintain security – not the job it was trained to do. It cannot be expected to put itself at the mercy of “vested interests” who might fabricate evidence against innocent soldiers.
“We need legal protection,” he said. “Every day, every night we put our lives in danger, fighting our own brothers and sisters to bring them into the mainstream. Every time you kill a militant you cannot go to court.”
In practice, human rights groups say it is unarmed civilians who are being denied proper legal protection. Since Manorama’s death, Human Rights Alert says it has documented 11 cases of extra judicial killings where villagers and relatives were pressured or bribed into immediately signing documents promising never to bring legal action.
“This is the latest government strategy to make sure there are no human rights violations under AFSPA,” said Loitongbam. “Poor villagers have no clue what is being written.”
The government set up an “expert committee” to examine AFSPA after the Manorama scandal. On his Independence Day address on Aug 15, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised to take “all necessary steps” to ensure human rights were not violated under the act. But he gave no hint of repeal. “No one in Manipur is secure as long as AFSPA stays,” said lawyer and human rights activist RK Anand. “People are not going to accept anything less than the repeal of the act.” reuters