On behalf of Lok Raj Sangathan I wish you all a warm welcome. I thank the organizers, People’s Democratic Movement, for giving me the opportunity to participate in this important discussion on “Democracy and AFSPA”.
I have fond memories of my earlier visits to Manipur and rest of north-east to participate in seminars and mass rallies on the very same issue of AFSPA and democratic rights.
I was part of a seminar that was held in Imphal on December 8-9 in 1994, 18 years back. It was organized by the Committee on Human Rights (COHR) about which all of you must certainly be aware. Dr L. Pardesi who is in the chair now, was the chairperson in that seminar too. The seminar was attended by the cream of the city’s intellectuals – advocates, professors from Guwahati and Manipur Universities, journalists, doctors and professionals. Many speakers presented papers on various aspects of human rights. All of us unequivocally condemned the military occupation of Manipur and asserted that people of Manipur have the right to self-determination and the right to live a peaceful life.
In this seminar, Lal Singh, Secretary of Communist Ghadar Party of India, pointed out that the people of Manipur and India are not the terrorists. The real terrorists are in the parliament led by P.V. Narasimha Rao, then Prime Minister in the Congress government. Late Shri Naorem Sanajouba, who was the Dean of Law at Guwahati University at that time, an excellent fighter for human rights, spoke very passionately about the fighting history of people of Manipur and the central government’s attempts to break their unity. Justice Ajt Singh Bains, retired judge of Punjab High Court and Hony. Chairperson of Lok Raj Sangathan raised very important issues about the violation of human rights in Manipur.
On the next day, December 10 – international human rights day — there was a huge mass rally of 10,000 people. The rally went through the main roads of Imphal. Everywhere you can hear slogans, “Repeal this draconian law”, “withdraw military and para-military forces immediately”.
Why I am recalling this seminar and people’s rally in so much detail is that it left a profound impression on me. It was my first visit to Imphal and my first face-to-face exposure to the people of Manipur, their rich heritage, history and culture. The movement in the north-east was really gaining momentum in those days.
In these 18 years a lot of water has flowed under the bridge. The main issue however is that AFSPA is still there. People are being shot and killed in cold blood. The writ of the army still runs in this region.
The Congress governments, both in the Centre and the state, do not want to withdraw AFSPA though the vast majority of the people of Manipur and the north-east have been against it and have been opposing it through seminars, mass rallies and demonstrations and various other angry outbursts. Irom Sharmila has been on a fast for so many years. When Manorama Thangjam was brutally assaulted and killed by the Assam Rifles, there was a huge uproar and thousands of people poured out on the streets in protest.
A National Campaign Committee for repeal of AFSPA consisting of Lok Raj Sangathan activists and other individuals visited Imphal in December 2004. The team met ApunbaLup, Irom Sharmila and Thangjam Manorama’s family and investigated two recent killings by armed forces. At the end of the visit, the team concluded that it is not possible to give a human face to this Act. It gave a call for immediate repeal of the Act and to intensify the campaign all over the country.
This was the time when the Jeevan Reddy Commission had come up with its report and recommended the repeal of AFSPA in the face of huge protests. But the central government headed by Manmohan Singh refused to take any steps. It is reported that the current President Pranab Mukherjee, who was the then defence Minister, opposed the withdrawal of this Act saying that “it is not possible for the armed forces to function” in “disturbed areas” without such powers!
And yet, the state government has been talking about ‘suitable review’ of the provisions of the Act instead of repealing it outright.
In the state Assembly elections, the Congress promised the people that if it is elected to power, the AFSPA will be withdrawn. But like all political parties of the ruling elite, the Congress talks sweetly on the eve of elections, and once it is elected goes back on all poll promises. In 2004, faced with massive protests the government removed AFSPA from Imphal. But now bomb blasts are being organised by vested interests and Ibobi Singh has threatened to reimpose AFSPA in Imphal.
It is now 31 years since AFSPA was imposed on Manipur. The ruling elite has been able to continue with this draconian law, because whenever people rose up against this, they were able to divide and conquer them. The central and state governments encouraged various militant groups to create suspicion and hatred between different peoples of the region. Just recently we saw in Assam how the ruling establishment used the issue of immigrants from Bangladesh and spread terror among both the peoples of north-east and among muslims. Organising communal and sectarian violence is a preferred weapon of those in power to keep the people divided and retain their power.
I remember Dr Sanajaoba used to say that Naga, Kuki and Meetei are sons of the same mother. When a naga butchered a Kuki, Meetei’s heart beat and when a Kuki butchered a Naga, Meetei shed silent tears. Along with the annexation of Manipur in 1949, the Indian state also created divisions among the people here, British-colonial style, so that they can quell their struggle for national independence effectively. This situation has to be changed.
You are not alone in your struggles. Besides the people of the north-east, the people of Kashmir are also fighting for the repeal of AFSPA. Besides this draconian Act, the central government and various state governments are using various repressive acts to put down the struggles of the people and deprive them of their basic human rights with an iron hand. The government of Maharashtra has been using the MESMA to prevent workers in essential services from going on strike to legitimately fight for their rights. Other laws such as the Disturbed Areas Act, the sedition law, Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA), the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act , and so on, are used regularly to intimidate those who protest.
What kind of democracy is this when people can be shot at sight and arrested for expressing their views. The recent Assembly elections in Manipur were a farce, a travesty of justice. Just by holding elections under army rule, the government wants to claim that democracy has been restored! It is the duty of the ruler, what is called raj dharma, to ensure the safety and prosperity of people. When this is not done then the people have the right to their conscience. They have the right to demand that their views be counted, that their aspirations be met. The people of Manipur will be a willing part of the Indian Union only if their aspirations for peace, security, dignity and well-being are met. The Indian government has treated the people of north-east as second-class citizens, someone whose rights can be trampled upon, someone whose region can be neglected for decades, someone who will be made to feel that they don’t belong to any other part of India. So, what is wrong if the people of Manipur and the rest of north-east demand that the Indian government change its policy of discrimination and take steps to fulfil the needs of people in the region?
An important fact we have to realise is that these repressive laws are not the creation of a particular government or individual. They are a part of the colonial legacy that still hangs like a sword over us. Many will be surprised if I say that the power of these repressive laws flows from our Constitution. It may appear that because the pre-amble of the Constitution begins with “We the people..” that it has the full authority of people. This is far from the truth. Our Constitution was not made by a Constituent Assembly elected by the people and consent was not obtained by the people through a thorough discussion before its adoption. The Constitution retained all the colonial features of the Government of India Act of the colonialists. The real meaning of the “federal” nature of the Indian Union was discussed for days by the Constituent Assembly. They finally resolved that the various nations and nationalities in India do not exist and hence there is no question of the right to self-determination.
Article 19 of the Constitution says that freedom of speech, expression and assembly are fundamental rights. But in the same breath, the Constitution takes away these rights by arguing that “reasonable restrictions” can be imposed where necessary to deprive these rights. It is using this amendment to the Constitution that the rulers deprive our people of fundamental rights whenever they consider them a threat to their monopoly over political power.
So, we have to seriously study our Constitution and really examine whether the human, democratic and political rights can be restored to the people with a few amendments here and there or whether the Constitution needs to be completely re-written without any colonial hang-ups by an elected Constituency Assembly, truly representing the common man of India, and adopted after full discussion and debate among the people.
When a Constitution, the supreme law of the land, has provisions for introducing draconian laws to put down the legitimate struggles of the people, then the question comes to our mind: what kind of democracy does this Constitution permit? How can we say that India is the largest democracy in the world when the people are completely marginalised from political power and treated as mere voting machines?
In 2004, when the struggle against AFSPA was at its height, the then President of LRS, Justice Suresh along with Vice Presidents Prof Dalip Singh and Justice Daud, sent an appeal to PM Manmohan Singh to withdraw AFSPA. In the appeal they passionately argued
“The presence of the army for such a long period must necessarily result in fundamental freedoms being denied to the people. In fact there is no freedom and liberty as guaranteed by the constitution in Manipur state. It is a fact of life that in the Northeast, people are not in a position to lead a free life not only because there are various groups which are fighting but also because of the army”.
They then observed:
“It is wrong to assume that terrorism can be controlled by a terrorist law. Similarly it is wrong to assume that people’s democratic aspirations can be suppressed by the army. Manipur’s problem cannot be solved with the armed forces. It has to be solved democratically. Our government should decide whether they want the territory or the people. The army can only keep the territory and not the people. If the government wants the people to be with it then it must respond to people’s aspirations and desires. If they desire greater autonomy and more self rule then the government must find out ways and means to attain that”.
But we have seen in all these years that the government doesn’t want to keep the people. So, it is upto the people to decide whether they want to keep the government!
So, the issue here is not just the repeal of the AFSPA, but also the rewriting of a people’s constitution and the setting up of a people-centred democracy. We cannot wish away AFSPA without looking at the foundations on which such laws operate with impunity. If it is not AFSPA then some other draconian law such as UAPA or MESMA or Disturbed Areas Act or the sedition law will be used.
Today we have a system of parliamentary representative democracy in this country. In this system of democracy, power is concentrated in the hands of the executive, in the hands of the Prime Minister, the President and the Cabinet. The legislature and the judiciary act as the instruments of the executive in making sure that power remains in the hands of the ruling elite. The executive can push through policies and legislation even without full consultation and consensus in the Parliament, through executive decrees. The executive is not accountable to the legislature which is elected by the people. In turn, the members of the legislature are not accountable to the people who have elected them. The role of the people in this political process is only to vote this or that political party to power.
Lok Raj Sangathan has been demanding that this political system and process needs a thorough overhaul. This party-dominated political process has to be replaced with a people-dominated political process. As long as the people are marginalised from political power, the institutions which the Constitution has created – the executive, legislature and judiciary – will not be accountable to the people.
The people of the north-east are already very political. Faced with bayonets and encounter killings every day, they are trying to become an organised force to assert their rights. I feel that there is a need now to create mechanisms that increase the scope for our political activity and end our political marginalisation in Manipur and elsewhere. An important part of this immediate step is recognising what this political system and process stands for and what it has done to keep us marginalised from political power and decision-making. Then, all of us will be convinced that this political system needs to be rejected and that an alternative is possible.
This is why Lok Raj Sangathan has put all its energy behind building local, village, district, city, national and all-India level organs of people’s struggle – the samitis and Councils. I feel this is the immediate practical task facing all political forces which stand for the empowerment of people. In Manipur itself, people have built their own organisations and activists such as the meira paibis, and others. Manipur’s history is full of people’s revolts against their oppressors like the Nupi Lal. And Manipuri women have been very active in asserting their rights. Manipur has its own traditional forms of governance by the people. Such people’s groups have to participate in all forms of struggle and activity that will assist to bring their agenda onto the centre-stage of political life.
What I would like to re-emphasise here is that in order to repeal all black laws forever, in order to build unity among the people of north-east, in order to set up the kind of government and political process that work for us, we have to organise the entire people of north-east. We can neither empower the people relying on the activities of some armed groups or on the useless debates of the ruling and opposition parties in parliament and the state Assembly.
The people of manipur are fed up with political parties and their two-timing. They give lot of promises on the eve of elections and then go back on them with excuses as the Ibobi government has done after the elections. This would not have happened if people had the right to select and elect their representatives and not the political parties. We must agitate for the principle that there can be no election without the people having a decisive say in the selection of candidates. Lok Raj Sangathan has tested in practice the method of selecting candidates at open mass meetings in the constituency, where every nomination is examined, approved or rejected.
Lok raj Sangathan has consistently championed a political process where the people will have right to recall their representatives if they do not serve their needs. We have demanded that people should have the right to initiate legislation to protect their interests and once such legislation is enacted, mechanisms should be created to enable people to ensure the correct implementation of such legislation. We have argued for the delimitation of electoral constituencies in such a way that the people will know their representatives fully and can ensure their accountability. We have also strongly argued that the state should fund the political process and not political parties.
At the same time we definitely believe that political parties have an important role to play in society. Instead of working for political power in their own hands, they should work for transferring power into the hands of the people. Instead of acting as gatekeepers between the people and political power they should act as facilitators for empowering the people.
We should prepare the ground for the election of people’s committees in every electoral constituency. These Committees should be mandated with the responsibility to organise the selection and election of candidates for election, to recall elected representatives when they don’t perform, and to initiate proposals for new laws and annulment or revision of existing ones. So, these Committees do not work only during elections, but are active before and after elections, as well.
Our organisation believes that this is the right time to study the limitations of the existing Constitution, its institutions, and electoral laws. This will enable us to develop a roadmap for setting up a Constituent Assembly, through non-partisan elections, with the mandate of formulating a new draft Constitution to be placed before the people of India for discussion and adoption. The people of each constituent would have a decisive say in how the political process would operate in their territory, and in the whole of India. For instance, the people of Manipur would decide on the final shape of the constitution of political power in Manipur, and decide along with other constituent peoples on the Constitution of the new voluntary Indian Union.
The times are calling for change. Massive struggles against corruption, price rise, malnutrition, setting up nuclear plants without the consent of people, land grab by monopolies and multinationals assisted by the government, stoking of river water disputes between fraternal people, state-organised communal and sectarian violence, and state-terror have all thrown up fundamental flaws in the existing system of representative democracy and economic orientation of the forces of the status quo. They have brought to the centre-stage the question of vesting sovereignty in the hands of our people.
I am very hopeful that the discussions we are having here today will contribute to that momentous task of vesting sovereignty in the people.
I thank you all for giving me this opportunity.