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Manipur: A Deathly Trouble



Separatists in Manipur must be having their last laugh. Once again, the armed forces in Manipur have provided the militants a reason to celebrate by committing gross human rights violation on July 23 when they killed Chongkham Sanjit, a 27-year-old youth in a so called ‘encounter’ which is allegedly fake. Since 1980, when the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) 1958 was actually applied in Manipur to tackle insurgency, the success of counter-insurgency operations has been minimal. Instead, it has only given way to civil unrest as is seen in several cases including the Monorama Devi murder at the hands of security forces in July 2004 and the naked protest that rocked the nation. Such mass agitation against security forces on the other hand only help the militants to draw public sympathy. The impact of the enforcement of AFSPA in Manipur has, if anything, been questionable.

The people of the region have been suffering at the hands of both militants and security forces for decades, but the substantial rise in alleged fake encounter cases in Manipur since 2008 has become a matter of serious concern. This is reflected in the present widespread protest against the killing of Chongkham Sanjit, a former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) militant, along with Rabina Devi, a pregnant woman, by a heavily-armed detachment from Manipur’s Rapid Action Police Force in Imphal on July 23. The citizens living in Manipur today are seen sacrificing the very fundamental right to life in the name of counter insurgency exercised by the armed forces.

Since 2008 till July 2009, the number of “fake” encounter cases registered by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) shows that Manipur reported the second highest number of such incidents. Compared to Uttar Pradesh – a state much bigger than Manipur – which has consistently been reporting the highest number of alleged fake encounter cases, Manipur has witnessed a substantial rise - from only one case during 2007-08 to 16 in 2008-09 and six during the first four months (April-July) during 2009-10. The statistics is really alarming.

On August 2, people came out to the streets against trigger-happy cops in Manipur demanding a probe into the July 23 ‘fake encounter’. The flare-up was triggered by the reproduction of photographs, first published in Tehelka, a Delhi-based portal, then in Imphal-based newspapers showing policemen leading Chongkham Sanjit to a pharmacy and emerging with its body. Joining the protest, Apunba Lup, a conglomerate of more than 30 civilian organizations, demonstrated its first phase of agitation with a 48-hour general strike paralyzing Manipur on August 3 and 4. Curfew was imposed at 10 pm on August 4, and it was declared for an indefinite period since August 5. Organizations across Manipur including leaders of Manipur People's Party (MPP), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Congress and CPI(M) separately called on Governor Gurbachan Jagat on August 4 and urged him to intervene and stop killings of civilians in "fake encounters". Representatives of Apunba Lup have submitted a memorandum to the Governor on August 11.

The Government’s reaction came with an order of magisterial enquiry, then a judicial probe into the incident and suspension of six commandos of the Manipur Police involved in the incident. But can such action stop fake encounters in the State? It seems that the Government is more keen on dousing the movement rather than dealing with the root cause. As the Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh said, “Considering the public outcry and the Opposition’s demand, we have decided to hold a judicial inquiry into the incident.”

The action by the security personnel on July 23 is not without precedence in Manipur. In 2000, Irom Sharmila started a fast after the killing of 10 civilians, including an 18-year-old National Child Bravery Award winner, by Assam Rifles. Since then, she has been protesting against the draconian AFSPA. Sharmila is still continuing with her fast. In the most striking agitation against AFSPA, on July 15, 2004, forty women congregated on the main entrance of Kangla Fort, the headquarters of the Assam Rifles’9 Sector protesting against the custodial killing of Thangjam Manorama who they alleged was raped before being killed. Of them, a dozen elderly women shed their clothes on broad daylight and held banners that read “Indian Army take our flesh”, “Indian Army rape us”. It was an unprecedented instance of fury and frustration at the excesses by security forces in the name of counter-insurgency measures. The massive protest spread all over the State cutting across communities demanding repeal, or withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 from Manipur.

The Government’s response was not satisfactory. For the masses, the authorities were simply out to crush their democratic rights. The government ruled out the possibility of repealing or withdrawing the Act and maintained a wait and watch policy. The response of the government to such public outcry in the past cases has only raised the belief among the public that security forces in the state are not there to secure their lives, but to put their lives in jeopardy. As the deceased Sanjit’s mother, Inaotombi Devi, said, “Life is very cheap in Manipur.”

In December 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that the Government is considering to amend the controversial law and remove its most stringent provisions. The announcement came after the clear advice of the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee, which reviewed the Act. The Review Committee said: "The Act, for whatever reason, has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness."

At a time when the use or misuse of the Act has become a serious matter of public concern and the source of a sustained mass agitation, the Centre’s assurance that the Act would be modified and re-emerge with a ‘human face’ should act as an antidote to the public hysteria against it. Moreover, when such counter-insurgency activities like fake encounters are being exploited by the insurgents to their own advantages, the big question remains as why the Government is not hurrying up to modify the AFSPA and have it in a new avatar.