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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 40 New Delhi September 24, 2016

The Anti-AFSPA Movement in Manipur: Common Cause, Diverse Strategies

Saturday 24 September 2016

by Deepti Priya Mehrotra

The Manipuri people’s struggle against the AFSPA holds that this counter-insurgency law has created more unrest in the State than it has curbed. The anti-AFSPA movement is raising issues of justice, accountability, and fundamental rights to life and liberty, all critical to the future —and indeed present functioning—of Indian democracy.

Irom Sharmila is the visible face of the anti-AFSPA movement: her sixteen-year long fast helped create worldwide public awareness. She has decided it is time to experiment with a new strategy: contesting elections, winning power and instituting good governance. This will be no easy path, yet well worth a try.

Soon after she broke her epic fast, on August 9, 2016, expressions of solidarity for Irom’s cause started pouring in: from the National Association of People’s Movements (NAPM), Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR), women’s groups, human rights and civil society groups in Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata... and more.

During this time of intense churning, I spent a few days with her in the hospital room in Imphal, where Sharmila was surrounded by caring friends, activists and ordinary locals, all relieved she is giving up her fast. Reactions to her decision to contest elections were more mixed.

Meira Paibis—elderly-women activists who have opposed the AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958) over the decades—visited Sharmila on August 11, 2016, reaffirmed respect and affection for her, while expressing allegiance to a politics of constructive protest, rather than the electoral path. Meira Paibis patrol the streets in town and villages, alert to any disappearance or violence; they formed Sharmila Kunba Lup in 2008, held solidarity fasts, sit-ins and mass rallies; they had organised the powerful nude protest of 2004, demanding an end to sexual crimes by securitymen, under cover of the AFSPA. That diverse strategies are being deployed towards the same goal is one of the tremendous strengths of the people’s movement against the AFSPA in Manipur. Apart from non-violent protests, such as Meira Paibis’ and Irom Sharmila’s, legal strategies are also being employed.

Public Interest Litigation on ‘Fake Encounters’

Exploring the legal route to justice, two organisations—Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association (EEVFAM) and Human Rights Alert (HRA)—filed a writ petition in 2012 in the Supreme Court of India, seeking justice for 1528 cases of extra-judicial killings by security forces and the State Police during 1979-2012.

The Hegde Commission, appointed by the Supreme Court, probed a sample of six of the cases (the first six) and stated in its Report (2013) that not a single encounter was genuine; none of the killings was in self-defence; and not a single victim had a terrorist background or even a criminal record. Among the victims were 12-year-old Md. Azad Khan, a student of Class VII of Phoubakchao High School, allegedly dragged out of his house on 8.1.2009 by about 30 security personnel, beaten up, kicked and shot dead; and 20-year-old Khumbongmayum Orsonjit, an oil refiller in Tata Indicom, shot while he was out on work, with ten bullet wounds on his body. The Hegde Commission noted: “Though the Act gives sweeping power to the security forces..., it does not provide any protection to citizens against possible misuse of these extraordinary powers. Nor is there any monitoring system to review the use/abuse/misuse of these powers....”

It categorically stated that “legal bounds are being transgressed in counter-insurgency operations in the State of Manipur....”

The Hegde Commission appreciated that the “civil society in the State not only has a palpable presence but has raised the level of social consciousness well above the average in the country....” This is quite a remarkable obser-vation and, I think, well-founded.

Interim Judgment by the Supreme Court

On July 8, 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that all the 1528 cases of alleged ‘fake encounters’ in Manipur are to be thoroughly probed. In its judgment the court noted: “It does not matter whether the victim was a common person or a militant or a terrorist, nor does it matter whether the aggressor was a common person or the state. The law is the same for both and is equally applicable to both.... This is the requirement of a democracy and the requirement of preservation of the rule of law....”

The Apex Court pointed out that if security forces have been deployed for an indeterminate period of time, as in Manipur, clearly there has been a systemic failure in governance.

An “internal disturbance”, as declared in Manipur (since 1958 in parts of the State; in 1980 throughout the State), is not equivalent to or akin to a war-like situation. To quell internal disturbance, use of excessive force or retaliatory force by the Manipur Police or the armed forces of the Union is not permissible; an allegation of excessive force resulting in the death of any person must be thoroughly inquired into; and proceedings can be instituted in a criminal court.

This interim judgment has far-reaching implications for human rights in Manipur, and wherever security forces are deployed in counter-insurgency operations, such as the North-East and Jammu and Kashmir.

Following the judgment, civil society organi-sations are working across all nine districts of Manipur to gather necessary evidence from victims’ families, neighbours, security forces and State Police. A team of lawyers and students of the Jindal Global Law School (JGLS) has voluntarily joined to help systematically document the cases, for presentation to the Supreme Court. Anubhav Tiwari, Research Associate, JGLS, notes: “At present, cases are completely opaque. Not only AFSPA but also UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) and the Army Act are being used to perpetuate a culture of impunity.”

People’s Aspirations for Peace

Leika Yumnam, an indigenous rights activist in Manipur, strongly feels: “We need to focus on how to give the anti-AFSPA movement a boost.”

Journalist A. Mobi, addressing a consultation on the AFSPA (14.8.2016) organised by the Youth Forum for Protection of Human Rights (YFPHR) and North East Dialogue Forum (NEDF), urged fresh thinking and new strategies for increasingly effective struggle against the AFSPA.

Anti-AFSPA is the one cause that unites people across Manipur—and Nagaland too. On August 11, 2016, the Naga Students’ Federation (NSF), Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA), NPMHR and Naga Hoho held anti-AFSPA rallies at Kohima and Dimapur (both in Nagaland), Chandel, Ukhrul, Senapati and Tamenglong (all in Manipur).

K. Temjen Jamir, editor of a Dimapur-based newspaper, stated: “No civilian can feel secure so long as the Act remains.... We’d like to tell the Government of India that we live in peace and we’d like to continue living in peace.”

Deepti Priya Mehrotra is a political scientist and author of Burning Bright: Irom Sharmila and the Struggle for Peace in Manipur (2009, updated and revised edition 2015)

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