The brutal rape, torture and murder of Thangjam Manorama of Manipur has shocked decent people throughout the world. The valiant, unceasing protests that have followed it have focused the spotlight on the notorious Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that has been in force in the North East from 1958 onwards.
A demonstration against the brutal and anti-people Act was held by many organizations in Mumbai on 24th August. The first of the meetings on the same issue was on 25th August, organized jointly by Media for People, Majlis, Akshara, YUVA and Focus on Global South. It was held in the Press Club. Over 60 people attended. Nandita Shah from FAOW and Ritu Diwan were in the chair. The speakers were Nandita Haksar, a Human Rights activist in the Northeast from 1984 onwards and a Supreme Court lawyer, and Artex Shimrey, adviser to the NE Students’ Organizations.
The second meeting was organized the next day by Aawaaz-e-Niswan, Bombay Sarvodaya Friendship Centre, Ekta, Forum, Indian Centre for Human Rights and Law Justice and Accountability Matter, Program of WRAG, Lok Raj Sangathan, Maharashtra Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti, Maharashtra Sarvodaya Mandal, Mumbai Jilla Sarvodaya Mandal, Mumbai Lok Samiti, Narmada Bachao Andolan, Nirbhay Bano Andolan. In addition to the two speakers above, Dr. L.P.Singh, a respected leader of the North East Coordination on Human Rights and Justice Daud, the vice-President of the Lok Raj Sangathan and a prominent Human Rights activist, also spoke in this meeting
Mr. Artex Shimrey addressing the meeting
Dr. L P Singh addressing the meeting
(Click on a picture to enlarge it)
Some views of the audience
Justice S M Daud (Retd.), Vice President, Lok Raj Sangathan addressing the meering
Nandita Haksar explained that originally, the British passed an ordinance similar to the AFSPA in 1942. The AFSPA (Assam and Manipur) was passed in 1958 by the Congress government. It was applied to all the states in the NE in 1972, when the new states were formed. The then Home Minister, K.C. Pant, had introduced the Act in 1958 to deal with the Naga national movement. At that time itself, it had been challenged as unconstitutional. There is no provision for review when an area is declared "Disturbed". This Act has been in force from 1958 to date!
The Act is illegal, unconstitutional and also an infringement of Human Rights as defined internationally. All the 18 members of the Human Rights Commission had said that the Act was an infringement of human rights, but the India government said that it needed it for "border areas". This notorious Act has seven sections. Section 3 declares that even when there is an elected government in the state, the Central government can go over its head and declare an area "Disturbed". As per section 4, even a havildar, on mere suspicion, can shoot to kill, do body searches (men can search women even in their bedrooms), seize people, maim them and destroy structures that are "suspicious". According to section 6, the Army cannot be taken to court.
Nandita insisted that here is no room for reform of this Act – it must be repealed. She pointed out that never in human history have there been any safeguards from military rule. Human Rights violations have been there right from the beginning. Phizo’s village has been burned 7 times. Women are mass raped, while men are tortured and killed. Mizo villages have been strafe bombed.
People have always challenged this Act politically as well as legally, while the Supreme Court has always upheld it. For 4 years, 6 lawyers worked fulltime and produced 10,000 pages of evidence against the army. It was of no use. Just before the judgment was to be pronounced, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court rang up the judges assigned to the case and told them not to give the judgment. They were transferred. Subsequently the same Chief Justice became the head of the National Human Rights Commission!
This Act had also been imposed in Punjab and Chandigarh. In Kashmir this Act is applied with the addition of communal torture. She pointed out that the Indian state knows all there is to know about torture – every atrocity in Abu Ghraib is carried out, for instance, in Tihar jail.
Nandita pointed out that the AFSPA was not introduced in response to militancy – militancy arose in response to such laws. No underground organization has done to the people what the Armed forces do routinely. Every armed struggle movement had started out in a non-violent way, but they were not heeded. For example, the demand for recognition for the Boro and Manipuri languages was not granted. 99.9% Nagas had voted against becoming part of India, but their voice did not count and Nagaland was forcibly added on to the Indian Union. A Union cannot be forced – it has to be voluntary. Movements for self-determination arise when people find that their legitimate demands are not granted. The AFSPA was introduced in the context of the movement for self-determination. It reflects the policy of the Indian government towards the North East. The Indian state is authoritarian in nature and has space only for one class and identity.
With a lot of passion, Nandita pointed out that our democratic space is being closed. The struggles in the NE are keeping our democratic space alive.
She said that the Manipuris are a very cultured people who hold women in high esteem. It is the only state in India that has a public holiday on International Women’s Day. The women there have a history of leading struggles against the army, against alcoholism, etc. We have to support the Manipuris in their just fight.
In conclusion she said that the issue is of Indian democracy. It is urgently necessary to discuss the question – What kind of democracy do we want?
Artex Shimrey has a first-hand experience of the atrocities carried out by the Armed Forces. When he was a student, he and his friends were picked up one day for no reason and incarcerated for 5 days and nights. Chili powder was forced into their nostrils and they were beaten up for hours on end. They had to sign bonds declaring that they were not tortured. They would not have been released otherwise. This is the usual "precaution" taken by the Armed Forces, who also force their detainees to sign on blank papers.
With deep anguish, Artex pointed out that 38 million people in the seven states of the northeast have been under armed rule for nearly 48 years. The world’s largest democracy is given license to kill, rape, molest and loot. The main targets are HR activists, student leaders, journalists, those in the underground movements and their relatives.
All over the NE there are firing ranges for the armed forces to practice. The firing goes on day and night. People have no peace. No mental peace either, for they do not know whether the army is carrying out one of its anti-people operations nearby or whether it is just practicing. When the army carries out its search operations in villages, it uses the respected people of the villages as "human shields". No torture is too brutal to be used by the armed forces in the NE. In fact, as the next speaker, Dr. L. P. Singh pointed out, there is no torture that has been used anywhere in the world that has not been used there. Artex described how the army hurt the sentiments of the people when it carried out torture, including mass rape and sodomy in churches. How it hung people with arms outspread in churches and taunted them saying that they were being treated like Jesus Christ had been. Every family in the NE has undergone tremendous suffering, pain, humiliation and trauma.
The people have knocked on every door of the state including the Supreme Court and sent petitions to the highest authority of the land. They have even appealed to the UN. All to no avail.
The Indian state has inherited the colonial attitude of the British to the NE. The region has rich natural resources – forest, oil, uranium as well as water. These are looked upon as national resources. But when the people approach the Center for the solution of any of their problems such as floods, lack of development, lack of educational facilities, lack of employment opportunities, etc. the ministers loftily proclaim that these are not national problems. On the contrary, those who raise these demands are labeled "anti-national".
There have been a succession of governments at the Center, but none of them have repealed the Act and delivered justice to the brutalized people. The Common Minimum Program of the present government carried just four lines on the NE, saying that they will deal firmly with terrorism and protect the integrity of the states. The peace process does not figure there, because this government too wants the AFSPA.
The Indian state actively pursues the "Divide and Rule" policy of the British. It actively incites ethnic clashes amongst the people who have hitherto always lived in peace.
The people arrested by the armed forces generally do not belong to any banned organization. However they are forced to "surrender" and then to become informers. The only jobs in the region are in the army. Here too the youth are kept dangling for years on the waiting list. They are forced to report regularly and act as informers. After the Manorama episode, the Assam Rifles rounded up hundreds of villagers and made them march with placards that they gave them. These placards proclaimed, "We love the Assam Rifles!" "We demand the AFSPA". This when even a child in the NE knows and hates the Assam Rifles. All this was a part of the propaganda unleashed by the state. These were the demonstrations that were shown widely on TV.
The Planning Commission gives money to the Army for "developmental work". They are pumping in crores. There is no transparency, no accountability. The development is for the informers, not for the common people. The army is actively involved in alienating land from the tribals. Every major city in the NE has prime property taken by the armed forces, e.g. 30% of the prime land in Shillong is occupied by it. Army camps and barracks are located in the heart of every town in the NE. The army extracts forced and unpaid labour from villagers – carrying, clearing jungles along the roads, and destroying the environment in the name of "security".
Artex declared that everyone who lives outside the NE must ask the question, "Do we pay taxes so that the army can kill, rape, maim and loot the people of the NE?" One country, one culture, one religion, one language is being forcibly imposed there. But political problems have to be solved through dialogue. In conclusion he said that without truth there is no justice and without justice there is no peace. All of us have to join hands and fight for justice.
L. P. Singh gave a short account of the history of the NE. Before the "world’s first democracy" had given itself a Constitution and held its first general elections, tiny Manipur had already held its elections in 1948 and elected their Chief Minister. Manipur was forcibly annexed by the Indian state in 1949 and a king was imposed. So much for democracy.
He questioned the very basis of the AFSPA. What is "national"? How does killing common people increase "national security"? When there has been a ceasefire between India and the various armed outfits in the NE, why is the AFSPA needed? If this is democracy, then democracy has to be redefined! He stressed that if there are terrorists, they can only be punished by the due process of law. The state can’t become terrorist and summarily kill them. But in the NE, common people are being routinely killed. Are they terrorists? When the AFSPA has been in force for so many years, there have been so many bomb blasts. Then what purpose has it served?
Unity has to be on the basis of culture and brotherhood, not at gunpoint. All in the NE are united against the AFSPA. This time the people won’t be quiet till they win their demands, he declared. He pointed out that people are not happy in the rest of India as well. The root of the problems of people throughout the country is the same and we have to unite and fight for our rights and against injustice.
Justice Daud declared that the misuse of power comes naturally to the army. In the NE, people undeserving of the slightest power have been vested with the highest authority. The accuser, lawyer, judge and executor is the army! What sort of justice is this? He said that he is engaged in a review of all draconian laws.
In both the meetings there were interventions from the floor. One of the speakers pointed out that there was a trend in the progressive movement claiming that with the election of the Congress, the democratic space has increased. The example of the NE exposes how ridiculous this claim is. In fact the Honourable Prime Minister is in the Rajya Sabha as a member from the NE! Another said that we see fascism of the state in operation even in Maharashtra. The MCOCA that has been imposed here is an Act as black as the notorious POTA. And what about Section 144 that is never lifted from Mumbai? Every gathering of 5 or more people is illegal! One of the people said that if we accept divorce, we couldn’t oppose self-determination. Movements for Human Rights should join with those for self-determination.
At the end of the meetings everyone was unanimous that the AFSPA must be repealed and that all responsible for crimes committed under its umbrella must be suitably punished! A resolution to that effect was passed and signatures collected, on the suggestion of a member of the Lok Raj Sangathan.