The struggle for justice in India’s Manipur

Manipur protest

By Graham Peebles

The primary pillars of a genuine democracy are social justice, freedom of expression, freedom to protest and political participation.

India, with a population of 1.3 billion people, is regularly hailed as the largest democracy in the world. At first glance, the government’s pretensions to democracy would appear to be justified. After all, there is, on paper at least, an independent judiciary, a free media, a thriving civil society and, of course, the cornerstone of any democratic state, the haloed parliamentary elections.

Where elements of democratic necessity are lacking, democracy is absent, and if there is a single tenet upon which the democratic dream is built, it must surely be justice: legal and social justice, both of which are essential.

In large parts of India not only is there little or no social justice, but the observation of judicial law is also lacking as government agencies and security forces trample on federal law, the Indian constitution and a range of internationally binding agreements. State violence, injustice and corruption have long taken root with impunity in vast tracts of the country, most notably the northeastern and central states where local people, herded together under the terrorism-tainted banner of “Maoists” or “rebels” are waging a tribal uprising against government military and paramilitary forces.

State criminality and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act

Manipur, like its neighbouring states in the northeast, is awash with government paramilitary forces. For over five decades its people have been petitioning and fighting for self-determination. They bear witness to the plague of state criminality, violent injustice and corruption surging through the country. Rape, torture, false imprisonment and extrajudicial killings are widespread and used as methods of government oppression and control.

In March 2012 the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heynes, spoke of the “excessive use of force by police, including deaths in custody, as well as traditional practices affecting women, such as “honour” killings and dowry deaths”. He called for justice for victims and for the government to set up a credible commission of inquiry into extrajudicial killings, which should investigate “past violations, propose relevant measures to deal with these and work out a plan of action to eradicate practices of extrajudicial executions”.

According to Heynes, those most at risk of abuse are “women and minorities – religious minorities, as well as Dalits [so called untouchables from the lowest caste]… Adivasis [and] human rights defenders, including right to information activists… and their protection deserves special measures”.

However, the only “special measures” these marginalized people and advocates of justice are receiving in corporate India are to be found in the draconian articles of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) 1958., which grant immunity to security personnel accused of committing offenses against innocent civilians.

Human Rights Watch states that the law “grants the armed forces the power to shoot to kill in law enforcement situations, to arrest without warrant and to detain people without time limits”. Soldiers acting with impunity are, HRW says, are “routinely engaging in torture and other ill-treatment during interrogation”.

Introduced in 1958 in Nagaland, the AFSPA was applied to “disturbed” districts of Manipur in 1980 and then into Jammu and Kashmir, until it permeated much of the northeast of India. The “emergency” law, which parliament and the people were promised was to be in operation for only six months, has lived on for 61 years and is responsible for hundreds of deaths, rapes and false imprisonments. It is still being used to shield security personnel committing criminal acts. Like all unjust acts, the AFSPA, far from easing tension, has exacerbated the situation and fed insurgent groups. As the Hindu newspaper says, “In 1958 there was one ‘terrorist’ group in the North East. Manipur had two groups when the state was brought under the Act. Today, Manipur has more than 20 such groups, Assam has not less than 15, Meghalaya has five of them and other states have more groups.“

Working for justice

The government, perhaps keen to conceal the conflict taking place in Manipur, refused the UN special rapporteur permission to visit the state in 2012.  However, through the committed work of human rights groups and political activists in the region, the struggle for justice and the outrage against widespread human rights abuses, are kept persistently present. The figurehead is the heroic Irom Sharmilla Chanu. An “icon of public resistance”,  as the New York Times called her, she bravely represents the people of Manipur, particularly the women of the state in their struggle for justice against the hated AFSPA, the excessive military presence and the violent abusive methods of security personnel.

The right to protest is another prerequisite of democracy, alongside justice. Peaceful or otherwise, protest is strongly discouraged in India by a government eager to suppress dissent and present a sparkling-clean market-friendly image to the world. Within three days of Sharmilla’s peaceful protest, she was arrested, charged with attempted suicide – illegal in India – and imprisoned without trial for one year, the maximum sentence. This bizarre process has been repeated ever since, resulting in her being held in judicial custody for the last 12 years. She was last released on 12 March, only to be rearrested two days later.

Sharmilla’s well-documented political protest against abuse and injustice in Manipur, and specifically against the internationally condemned AFSPA, was fuelled by the shooting of 10 civilians in the village of Malon, near Manipur’s capital, by the Assam Rifles. They are one of a number of government forces in the state that have been implicated in a barrage of cases (yet to be investigated) of murder, rape and torture, most notoriously, the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama in July 2004.

Sharmilla’s peaceful action is the loudest cry in an army of voices calling for the repeal of the AFSPA. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) states that the AFSPA, “continues to increase militarization in the northeast, augment impunity and facilitate human rights abuses, including rape and other forms of torture, forced disappearances and killings of civilians”. There is broad recognition in India, HRW reports, “that the AFSPA should be repealed because it has led to so many abuses. Prime Minister Singh should overrule the army and keep his promise  [made in 2004] to abolish this abusive law”.

Various Indian bodies have recommended repealing the law, including among others, the Jeevan Reddy Commission (back in 2005), which described the situation in Manipur as “grave” and the Prime-Ministers Working Group on Confidence-Building Measures. In January this year the Justice Verma Committee on Amendments to Criminal Law found “that the AFSPA legitimized impunity for sexual violence, and recommended an urgent review of the law”.

An unjust law worth fighting 

Reviews, recommendations, proposed amendments – all of these fail to demand that the law, which is an abhorrence to any society, democratic or not, be scrapped totally, and thorough investigations of past state criminality be initiated. This commonsense view is one that not only the conscience of the UN holds, but is also one the Supreme Court of India, which acknowledges that the conflict in Manipur is a fight for “self-determination”, also shares.

It is, it seems, the army generals who are devoutly attached to the AFSPA. The Hindu reports that P. Chidambaram, the former union home minister and now finance minister as saying that the “army chiefs have taken a strong position that the Act should not [even] be amended”, but retained in “disturbed” areas – ignoring the fact that the army is causing the disturbance.

Christof Heynes, during his visit in March, made an unequivocal demand for the law to be scrapped, saying “the repeal of this law will not only bring domestic law more in line with international standards, but also send out a powerful message that, instead of a military approach, the government is committed to respect for the right to life of all people of the country”.

The application of the law denies “the right to life” he said. His statement echoes a chorus of comments made by the UN since 1997. In 2007, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged the government to repeal the Act, and in March 2009 Navanethem Pillay, the high commissioner for human rights, demanded that it be repealed.

However, these and many similar calls have been resolutely ignored. The inviolable sanctity of the nation state, together with the unrepresentative and out-dated Security Council, are constraining the UN and overriding the human rights of the people, which the UN was founded to establish and safeguard.

In Manipur, the most basic of the 30 rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, (UDHR) – the right to life, liberty and security  – as well as the right “to be protected from arbitrary arrest, and to be free from torture and other ill-treatment”, are being trampled on by government security forces with impunity, thanks to the AFSPA,.

These inalienable rights are to be found not only in the pages of the UDHR, but within the hearts of just men and women throughout the world. They are everyone’s birth-right, beyond caste, class, income or position, and must be observed.

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