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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 38, September 13, 2014

Irom Sharmila, Released by Law, is Rearrested by Police

And thereby hangs the Tale of a National Shame

Saturday 13 September 2014, by T J S George


Vietnam: the Mai Lai Massacre is known as “the most shocking episode of the Vietnam war”. One morning in 1968, a platoon of US soldiers entered the sprawling Vietnamese village, saw men and women and children getting ready to go to the market, and began shooting without warning. A man was pushed into a well and a grenade thrown into it. Some 20 women and children kneeled before a temple deity praying. They were all shot in the head. Some 70-80 villagers were pushed into an irrigation ditch and machine-gunned. In all more than 400 villagers perished. Eventually 26 soldiers were courtmartialled, though they were softly treated. Only one, Lt. William Calley, was sentenced to life, but he too was freed after less than four years of house arrest.

Iraq: Photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq scandalised the world in 2003 as they revealed how Iraqis were abused by American and British soldiers. Particularly galling was the picture of a woman soldier holding a lash which was tethered round the neck of an Iraqi man lying on the ground naked. Americans themselves protested and the Defence Secretary offered to resign, admitting that unacceptable levels of abuse of prisoners were rampant in Iraqi prisons. Eventually seven soldiers were courtmartialled on charges of abuse and cruelty. The woman with the naked Iraqi on leash was sentenced to three years in prison and given a dishonourable discharge.

Afghanistan: In the summer of 2012, Lt Clint Lorance of the US Army asked one of his soldiers to shoot down two Afghans on motorcycles. He had been told by Army pilots that the Taliban fighters were moving about on motorcycles. Interestingly, some soldiers of his own platoon reported the matter to the higher-ups. They re-assigned Lorance to a desk job and stripped him of his weapon. Eventually he was courtmartialled on charges of murder, attempted murder and misconduct. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, forfeiture of pay and dismissal from the military. A unit of US soldiers in Afghanistan became known as the “kill team” because they took to killing Afghans for sport and keeping their body parts as trophies. One sergeant, bored by insomnia, went out for a stroll one night in the wee hours and shot 17 sleeping Afghans for fun. Most probably he returned to his bunker and enjoyed an undisturbed sleep for the rest of the night.

So much for the American way of life. How about the Indian way?

India: Just after midnight on July 10-11, 2004, a unit of Assam Rifles broke into a house in Imphal and seized a 32-year-old woman, named Thangjam Manorama Devi. She was blindfolded and her hands and legs tied up before the soldiers began assaulting her. Shocked family members were also brutalised. Around 3.30 am the by-now collapsed Manorama was bundled into an Army vehicle and taken away. Around 5 pm that day her bullet-ridden, clothesless body with knife wounds was found in a field with tell-tale evidence of rape. An outraged town took to the street en masse, engaging the police in battles and braving teargas and rubber bullets. In a scene that made history, some 30 middleaged women stripped themselves naked and marched to the Assam Rifles headquarters in Imphal shouting: “Indian Army, rape us too.

We are all mothers of Manorama”. Eventually, an inquiry was ordered. And eventually nothing happened because there was a law called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that gave the soldiers complete immunity.

Four years earlier Manipur rebels had bombed a unit of soldiers in a jungle operation. To wreak vengeance, a passing squad of soldiers shot down ten people waiting at a bus stop in Malom town in Manipur. One woman ducked and lay sprawled on the road to escape the bullet. She was spotted and shot in the head. Widespread protests broke out. Eventually nothing happened because there was a law called AFSPA.

AFSPA, a British idea, was enacted in 1958 when armed Naga insurrection was intense. More than half-a-century has passed and insurrections and rebellions have lost their steam. Judges have pronounced against the continuance of AFSPA. So have UN agencies, Amnesty, most newspapers and several state governments. It’s a shame that the Malom Massacre remains an open wound when the Mai Lai Massacre was at least acknowledged as a crime. It’s a shame that Irom Sharmila’s ordeal continues after 14 incredible years. It’s a shame that governments go and governments come, but AFSPA goes on for ever.

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