The conflict-torn northeastern state of Manipur with a population of 3 million was in the news again recently. Police commando Herojit Singh, who is facing trial for the July 2009 extra-judicial killing of two innocents in a crowded market place in the state capital Imphal, confessed to killing them on the orders of his superior officer Jhalajit.
This has opened a can of worms on the larger issue of the role of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 (AFSPA) in the ‘disturbed areas’ of Manipur in facilitating extra-judicial killing of innocents by security forces.
The AFSPA, which provides immunity from prosecution to security forces in dealing with the ‘insurgency’ in Manipur, has promoted a culture of impunity and non-accountability in the state.
The terms ‘insurgency’ and ‘security forces’ are loaded concepts reflecting the standpoint of the rulers. ‘Insurgent’ has implications of violence (justified or not in individual cases) as well as illegitimacy and insurrection. Insurgency ‘is a cycle of reciprocal violence, in which the players are the state establishment on the one hand and its challengers on the other’. Leaders of militant movements do not describe themselves as ‘insurgents’ but rather as patriots, freedom fighters or defenders of the people.
The AFSPA, descended from a repressive colonial law of 1942, provides special powers and immunity from prosecution to the army in using force by even non-commissioned officers to the extent of causing death; search of premises without warrant; and other such actions. The Act was imposed on the whole of Manipur in 1980 when serious unrest emerged in the Hill areas inhabited by the Naga ethnic groups and the Valley areas inhabited by the dominant Meitei ethnic group.
The sense of immunity from prosecution available to central armed forces under AFSPA has percolated to the state security forces as well. Hence, Manipur Police Commandos have freely killed people on their own without fearing the consequences. Instituted for the purpose of containing insurgency in the state, the Manipur Police Commandos have digressed from their original purpose to embark on a path of fulfilling personal agendas of getting police medals and other recognitions for career advancement.
In 1972, the central government, ignoring state governments, empowered itself to declare any state or part thereof in the Northeast as ‘disturbed’ under the AFSPA. As of 2008, much of the region was designated as ‘disturbed’. Despite the law, however, militant groups have flourished and even grown in numbers. The Act amounts to a de facto martial law and affects relations between civil society and government and also relations between India and the neighboring China, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan.
The operation of the Act was eventually withdrawn in the Imphal municipal area of Manipur but the state police commandos operating along with central paramilitary forces have continued killing so called ‘suspects’ taking advantage of the immunity provisions of the AFSPA for central forces.
After independence in 1947, the politics of assimilation and integration of the Naga Hills and Manipur into the emerging Indian state provoked violent response with separatist tendencies. This led to the perceived need to impose AFSPA to ensure complete immunity to armed forces in dealing with civil society and armed opposition groups.
In 2013, the Extrajudicial Execution Victim Families Association of Manipur led by Neena Ningombam sought justice from the Supreme Court of India for the 1528 innocents, including 31 women and 98 children, extra-judicially executed by the security forces during 1979-2012.
The Supreme Court of India examined several selected cases of these extrajudicial killings in the state and found security forces guilty of illegal killing of innocents in all of them.
Earlier in 2009, a fact finding team had found that over 200 ‘suspected’ militants had been illegally eliminated by the security forces in Manipur. The state police chief and chief minister defended the use of AFSPA.
On November 2, 2000, in protest against the notorious Malom massacre by the central paramilitary force the Assam Rifles (AR), a heroic young woman, Irom Sharmila, embarked on an indefinite hunger strike demanding repeal of the ‘nasty and terrifying’ AFSPA. Fifteen years later, Sharmila’s hunger strike continues. So does the Act.
In July 2004, following the torture, rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama, a Manipuri woman, by the Assam Rifles personnel and the naked protest by Manipuri women in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters in Imphal, the government of India set up the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee to examine the role of the AFSPA. The Committee came out with a stinging critique of the Act and recommended its repeal. But no action followed.
The then army chief general V.P. Malik, who had commanded an army division in counterinsurgency operations in Manipur, reportedly told the state chief minister in 2004 that it was ‘either the AFSPA nor counterinsurgency operations’.
The movement for independence of Manipur from India started in 1964 when the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) was set up. Other militant outfits followed in the late 1970s. In the hills of the state, the Naga underground militant outfits, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) and National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) are active along with several Kuki outfits and others. The tremors of the movement for independence in neighboring Nagaland spread to the Naga-inhabited districts of Manipur.
As the state forces failed to contain the movement, the army was called in. To facilitate army operations, the AFSPA was introduced.
In 2009, Manipur witnessed the deployment of about 60,000 military and paramilitary troops with only about 5,000 civil policemen. The basic purpose of policing and service delivery to the public remained downgraded.
With the prolonged imposition of the AFSPA in Manipur, the cycle of violence spread in terms of geography and intensity. Enforced disappearances, arbitrary executions, torture, rape, housebreak, loot, and arbitrary detention became everyday features of life in Manipur. And yet, few perpetrators of these gross violations of human rights were ever prosecuted. Thus, the armed forces enjoy complete immunity.
Militant groups and their factions indulge in extortion, kidnapping for ransom, kangaroo courts and summary executions, bomb blasts and other terror tactics, which promote discontent among the public.
The previously vocal civil society organizations were immobilized with charges of siding with the banned organizations. Unofficial sanction was given for the elimination of suspects by the police.
In 2008, the state witnessed the elimination of more than 285 ‘suspects’. Eyewitnesses say that ‘suspects’ were first arrested, taken to another place and then murdered. Domestic laws and international human rights standards were routinely flouted. Respect for the law on conflicts and the basic tenets of international humanitarian law were ignored by both state and non-state agencies.
In 2008, an international NGO noted that “security forces are bypassing the law and killing people on suspicion that they are militants instead of bringing them before a judge. In the name of national security and armed forces morale, the state protects abusers and leaves Manipuris with no remedy to secure justice.”
Though several state police forces have come into existence in the Northeast, the colonial and outdated Assam Rifles (AR) continues to function under the dual control of the home and defense ministries.
An Independent People’s Tribunal (IPT) on Manipur noted that in 14 cases, including those of the two innocents mentioned at the outset, the perpetrators were Manipur Police Commandos who are not covered by the immunity provisions of the AFSPA.
The IPT’s verdict was that areas in Manipur had witnessed torture, extrajudicial execution and enforced disappearance of a number of people. Prima facie the excesses had been committed by the personnel of the army/ Manipur Police Commandos.
The IPT recommended repeal of the AFSPA; prevention of misuse of the provisions of special security legislations; and several other human rights-centric steps.
India’s peaceable Act East policy together with its Vision: 2020 policy for the Northeast are flagrantly violated by its addiction to the AFSPA in Manipur.
The writer is a former Director General of Police in Northeast India and author of ‘State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India’ Routledge, 2016.