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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 50 December 9, 2023

Manipur’s Saga of Rape and Murder and the Capricious Cops That Let The Culprits Free | KS Subramanian

Saturday 9 December 2023, by K S Subramanian


The ongoing saga of rape and murder in Manipur is now widely known but little is known about the laws and the cops that lets them go on, namely The Armed Forces Special Powers Act, (AFSPA) 1958 and the central paramilitary agency Assam Rifles (AR) 1835. Please see my books ‘Security, Governance and Democratic Rights: says on the Northeast’ (ed.) Niyogi, 2014, and ‘State, Policy and Conflicts, Essays in NE India’ Routledge, 2016. We are not dealing here with the rest of the Northeast though only briefly with Nagaland.

To start with, the recent massacre of innocents in the Mon district of Nagaland was by the Assam Rifles unit, the 21 paras, which reflected the contradiction between official policy and its actual implementation in the Northeast (cover story, Frontline, December 31, 2021).

I was posted as a senior police officer in Manipur and Tripura but had no power to take action if the men of any central agency committed serious crimes: they were not accountable to the state government. Thus, the men of these central forces might indulge in rape and murder but the state police have no power to intervene to take preventive or punitive action. Only the central agencies themselves are empowered to do so.

The Manorama case

The AFSPA which has been described as a ‘truly nasty and terrifying piece of legislation’, came to prominence in a major case in Manipur in 2004 in which a young woman, Thangjam Manorama, was arrested and killed by the men of the Assam Rifles (AR) who alleged that she was a member of a terrorist organization who had committed an offence, which could only be dealt with by a central police agency. Manorama was easily taken away from her home in the dead of night and killed within hours of doing so because of the immunity provided by the AFSPA to the perpetrators acting in a ‘disturbed areas’. Paradoxically, though the AR and AFSPA are under the ‘administrative control’ of the Union home ministry, its ‘operational control’ is with the defence ministry in Delhi.

A significant aspect of the protest against the murder of Manorama by the AR men was that a group of disrobed women paraded in front of the AR headquarters in the state capital, demanding that they too be raped and killed like Manorama was.

In another major case in 2000, a young woman named Sharmila Chanu undertook a hunger strike against the AR for killing a group of innocents standing at a bus stop and demanded the repeal of the AFSPA.

The brave woman remained on her strike for 16 years in support of her demand for the repeal of the AFSPA which was unsuccessful. The army authorities remained adamant that they would remain in place as long as the insurgency lasted in Manipur. Sharmila could only be persuaded by women give up her hunger strike after 16 years: a disgrace for the central police forces. The AFSPA is still in place.

In another major incident in the state capital in 2019, two innocent youngsters, named Sanjit and Rabina, a pregnant woman, were shot dead at a busy marketplace by the state police and the AR under the immunity provisions of the AFSPA, in the name of fighting insurgency. The state police chief maintained that they had shot down the two youngsters who were ‘undesirable’ persons.

To resume our story. Since the 1990s, several international human rights organisations including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights appealed to the Government of India to revoke the AFSPA as an unjust law. The government defended the law.

The AFSPA is not the only law in India that violates human rights. These have been discussed at length in civil society.

The Jeevan Reddy Committee, set up in 2005 considered repealing the of the AFSPA but merely recommended that the law be incorporated in another repressive law Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) of 2004. This was not accepted since the government held that Assam Rifles was the main central agency concerned with security in the Northeast. The AFSPA has been alleged to provide a framework for security in Northeast India. This has led to the inevitable militarisation of daily life in the region causing huge psychological burden on ordinary people. Insurgency in Manipur seems thus to have become a hugely beneficial proposition for politicians, bureaucrats and middlemen who continue milk the central government of enormous funds. The simple solution would be to sit down and talk to the insurgent leaders and listening to their problems.

As noted, the Jeevan Reddy Committee above, which had reviewed the imposition of AFSPA ironically wanted its basic provisions be incorporated into the rival Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 2004 (UAPA), to make it appear less discriminatory in the Northeast. The recommendation of the Committee was not accepted presumably because of opposition from the army and the Ministry of Defence, one of the two main central agencies allegedly claimed that they are concerned with security in the Northeast.

AFSPA thus continues to provide a framework for military occupation in the Northeast and the inevitable militarization of daily life in the region causing huge psychological burden on ordinary people. Insurgency in Manipur was thus perceived as a hugely beneficial proposition for politicians, bureaucrats, and middlemen who could milk the central government of enormous funds.

The existence of the AFSPA undermined the role of the state police forces in the management of internal security. The then army chief General V. P. Malik, who had commanded an army division in counterinsurgency operations in Manipur, reportedly told the Manipur chief minister in 2004 that it was ‘either the AFSPA or no counterinsurgency operations. The rigid stance of the army over the issue, prevented the central government from public release of Jeevan Reddy Committee report. The prolonged protest fast by Ms. Irom Sharmila and the powerful naked protest by the brave women of Manipur were not strong enough to persuade the government of India to remove the AFSPA from Manipur. Such is the power of bureaucracy!

The continuance of the AFSPA in Manipur has led to a vast increase in human rights violations and killings. One of the main beneficiaries was the state police force, which emerged with a large number of gallantry medals profiting from the absence of accountability under the AFSPA.

The AFSPA in the Northeast had been a huge tragedy. However, the Union home ministry responsible for the National Human Rights Commission, the work of the Assam Rifles and the AFSPA has provided huge funds annually for the management of ‘law and order’ in the Northeast!

(Author: KS Subramanian was Director-General of the State Institute of Public Administration and Rural Development in Tripura)

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