ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Manipuri: Mockery of Law

Mockery of Law The photograph of a group of middle-aged, stark naked Manipuri women, standing in front of the Kangla fort in Imphal and carrying a banner reading,


Mockery of Law

he photograph of a group of middle-aged, stark naked Manipuri women, standing in front of the Kangla fort in Imphal and carrying a banner reading, “Indian Army rape us” in July last year must be one of the most soul searing to have appeared in the Indian newspapers. It brought home to the world the desperation, despair and cold rage of a people who feel they are being brutalised by their own army.

The Mothers of Manipur were forced into that protest after the Assam Rifles were accused of raping and killing a young Manipuri, Manorama Devi. Since November 2, 2000, Irom Sharmila Chanu, another Manipuri, has been on a hunger strike, moved to do so by the killing of 10 Manipuri young men by soldiers of the Assam Rifles paramilitary in Malom that day. Arrested for attempting to commit suicide, Sharmila was confined to a hospital room in Imphal and force-fed through a tube attached to her nose. Every year she is freed and immediately rearrested on the same charge. However, earlier this month, on that one free day, she travelled to Delhi and is now continuing her fast in the capital in order to gain more public attention and solidarity for her people and her cause: the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA).

The Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee set up to review the AFSPA in 2004 submitted its report in June last year to the union government. However, the document has not been made public and according to a number of media reports the committee asked for the repeal of the act that is a “symbol of oppression (and) instrument of high-handedness”. In fact, the committee rejected the army’s arguments on why the act should be continued and even said that while the Supreme Court may have upheld the constitutional validity of that law, it “is not an endorsement of the desirability or advisability of the Act”. It also called for greater accountability for acts committed by the army where it is deployed to fight terrorism. These media reports have not been denied.

Lord Linlithgow, then viceroy of British-ruled India, had promulgated the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance, 1942, which gave powers to the armed forces to arrest and even kill civilians on suspicion. After independence, certain modifications were made in the Ordinance and the government of free India brought in the AFSPA. Suspicion of disturbing public order or carrying weapons can invite death and any place can be searched without warrant or destroyed if it is suspected that it is being used by armed groups. The power to take action is delegated to as low a rank as junior commissioned officers or non-commissioned officers and they are protected from prosecution for their actions.

The act was at first applicable only to “disturbed” areas in Manipur but by 1980 it covered the entire state. Internationally too, the United Nations Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International have both come down hard on the Indian government for the brutality let loose under the act. Amnesty’s first report (1991) on the subject was titled ‘Operation Bluebird: A Case Study of Torture and Extrajudicial Executions in Manipur’. Whether it is the Independent People’s Inquiry Commission of 2000 or the records of Manipur state human rights commission and the national human rights commission, they all speak of arbitrary powers aiding the repression of a people trapped by this act.

There is yet another unhappy and important aspect to the continued and overweening army presence. Ethnically and culturally, the people of Manipur have a distinct identity. By all accounts, the army has failed to respect and appreciate the distinctness. Not only this, the women in the north-eastern parts of the country have always been in the forefront of community and social life. Again, this is something that is neither understood nor appreciated. The seventh national conference of autonomous women’s movements in Kolkata in September endorsed the demand for repeal of the AFSPA, signed by 120 women’s organisations.

For six years Sharmila has neither eaten food nor sipped water and for nearly 26 years (though parts of the state were under the act much before 1980) the people of Manipur have lived in the shadow of an all-powerful act that gives unlimited powers to the army with zero accountability. The struggle for the repeal of such a repressive act is not the battle of the Manipuris alone. It is a struggle that every Indian must actively support. EPW

Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006

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