The militarisation of Manipur

Laishramcha Jinine, Program Executive, Human Rights Alert, Manipur, India

People throughout Manipur live in fear of the sound of three to four olive green jeeps or vans roaring through a locality after dark, perhaps early in the morning, to pull up outside a house. The men inside break open the doors and windows, and whisk away someone’s son or a newly-married husband. The next morning the bullet-ridden body is found. The authorities claim that the person died in an ‘encounter’. Sometimes such incidents are carried out in broad daylight, and in front of eyewitnesses. The body may bear torture marks: burns on the genitalia, a stick inserted into the anus, nails torn off or broken fingers. The torture of one creates psychological ill health throughout the entire society.

Manipur, a small hilly land on the Indo-Burma border has been a controversial part of India since an accord was signed between the King of Manipur, Bodhchandra and the government of India on 21 September 1949. Armed opposition groups fighting for the liberation of Manipur from India claim that the accord amounted to annexation. The government of India has since sent large numbers of troops to Manipur under exclusive military legislation called Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 (AFSPA), itself derived from the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance of 1942, which was used by the British colonial government to crack down on the Indian nationalist movement. There is now estimated to be one member of the security forces for every 20 persons in Manipur, which has a population of some 2.5 million, most of whom are small-scale farmers. Out of these, the Chief Minister of Manipur, Okram Ibobi, has reportedly said that around 8000 civilians and 12000 army troops and insurgents have been killed since the conflict began in the 1970s up to 2005.

The military authorities in Manipur are not only above the civil administration but also the judiciary. They impose arbitrary restrictions on civilians’ access to their paddy fields, fishing farms and other work places. They conduct military operations without any administrative oversight, and often even prohibit the police access to their areas of operation. They make their own rules and enforce them without regard to whether or not they contradict or undermine those of the civil administration, national laws or otherwise. For instance, in 2006 the military stationed at Mayang, around 16 kilometres south of the state capital, Imphal, made local people carry a new identity card, and invalidated all other documents for the purpose of military checks, including electoral and student cards and even the government’s official cards. In other instances, Max Fajang, a session judge in Imphal East was pulled out of his chair and assaulted in the courtroom by security forces, and the present chief secretary of the state reprimanded an army captain who decided to shut down a power station, affecting the supply of electricity to parts of the capital and other areas of the state.

Office bearers of the Senior Citizens’ Forum, Mayang, Imphal West

Rajkumar Brajakeshwar Singh (President); Chrom Naollo Singh (Secretary); Asem Radhamani (Municipal Councilor), August 2006

We are under the shadow of the 22 Maratha Light Infantry Division of the Indian Army stationed at the BSNL office in Imphal. There are not many insurgency-related crimes in our area; however, all of a sudden the army called for a public meeting in which the commanding officer, Major James Thomas, ordered every man and woman between the ages of 15 and 40 to carry an identity card issued by the Mayang Municipal Council. His order was on 16 May 2006. He also said that the cost of preparing the cards must be borne by every individual and that they would start arresting persons not carrying the cards starting from two weeks after that date, and would start a combing operation to make arrests after three weeks. The municipality then informed everyone by loudspeaker announcements. The identity cards were first to be issued in Ward No. 12. Later every ward must have the cards issued. This will cost a huge amount to the already poor people in our village and municipality.

In fact this is not legal. The army cannot make such arbitrary decisions. The community now feels threatened and vulnerable. The officer has also now ordered everyone to report on anyone from outside our village entering it between 6pm and 8am daily. This kind of order is unacceptable. People have a right to move around. We have relatives staying in distant places. We have business relationships with various people. How can the officer expect to get a report of every relative visiting us? This is ridiculous. However, we have to comply or they will arrest us on any charge.

In practice the army is more powerful than the government. We feel that we are under constant watch. Before the army came, everything was peaceful. Now we have to be scared of these people. The central government and the state administration have no concern for our people. Democracy has no meaning in this state. This state is ruled by the army.

The AFSPA allows security forces to arrest and enter property without warrant and permits shooting to kill in circumstances where their members are not at imminent risk. In fact, the 1958 law–which was restricted in application to the northeastern states–significantly loosened the restrictions on application that had been placed upon the 1942 colonial-era ordinance. More vaguely-defined powers were added, including the right to use force to kill a person on suspicion of disturbing public order or carrying weapons, to search any place without a warrant or destroy any place on suspicion of it being used by opposition groups. Also, the power to take action, which previously had to be authorized by a captain or above, was delegated to lower ranks, including junior commissioned officers and non-commissioned officers.

No person can start legal action against any members of the armed forces for anything done–or purportedly done–under the AFSPA, without permission of the central government. In this the act contradicts both the Constitution of India, which guarantees equality before the law (article 14), and the equivalent section in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (article 16), to which India has been a party since 1979. It also patently violates non-derogable provisions of international human rights law, including the right to life, the right to a remedy where a violation occurs, and rights to be free from arbitrary deprivation of liberty and from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

How this works in practice can be seen in the infamous case of Thangjam Manorama. Sometime in the night of 10-11 July 2004, the paramilitary Assam Rifles took Manorama from her house, issuing an arrest memo to her family. Her dead body was found covered with scratch marks, a deep gashing wound, probably caused by a knife, and seven fatal bullet wounds into her back, one of which passed through her vagina. The next day, July 12, the home department of the government of Manipur appointed a commission of inquiry presided over by a retired district and session judge, C Upendra Singh, as per section 3 of the Commission of Inquiry Act 1952. However, the Assam Rifles challenged the authority of the commission (writ petitions [c] nos. 5817 & 6187 of 2004), asserting that a commission established by the state government had no authority over the Indian Armed Forces, as per section 6 of the AFSPA: “No prosecution, suit or other legal proceeding shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the Central Government against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of powers conferred by this Act.” The Gauhati High Court endorsed section 6 of the AFSPA on 23 June 2005, and thereby denied the possibility that Manorama’s killers would be brought to justice.

AHRC Urgent Appeal:
Torture & murder of a woman by armed forces in India

UA-096-2004, 29 July 2004

Dear friends,

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received information from the Centre for Organisation Research & Education (CORE) on the extrajudicial killing of a 32-year-old woman named Thangjam Manorama by the personnel of the paramilitary force 17 Assam Rifles on 11 July 2004. Her body was found at around 5pm at Keirao Wangkhem Road near Ngariyan Maring Village, after she was picked up by the armed forces in the early morning of July 11. Manorama’s family believes that she had been raped and then killed by the army personnel.

According to the report from CORE, a curfew was imposed in Greater Imphal, Bishenpur and Thoubal Districts of Manipur, India since 15 July 2004 in wake of widespread public protests against the torture and extrajudicial execution of Manorama. Large numbers of people came out on the streets, defying the curfew… Over 100 people were injured in police firing on July 16, while the police tried to disperse the people at various places including Kongba, Sangakpham, Tera, Uchekon and some on the outskirts of the state capital, using tear gas and rubber bullets.

The Manipur state administration and military agreed to inquire into the case of Manorama. However, almost all judicial inquiries ordered in prior cases of arbitrary execution are pending disposal since the army has not cooperated, and it is believed that this case also will not end in justice. Your urgent action is required to pressure the government of India to take genuine action to correct this matter…

Military personnel also escape independent and impartial justice by having recourse to military tribunals rather than civilian courts. Under the Constitution of India (article 136[2]) offences committed under the Army Act 1950, Air Force Act 1950 and Navy Act 1957 are excluded from the jurisdiction of the high courts and the Supreme Court. Similarly, the Indian Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code do not give criminal courts jurisdiction over defense personnel in respect to offences committed under these acts. Even if armed forces personnel are detained by local police, they must be handed over to the military authorities for court martial. The only way by which the decision arising from a court martial can be challenged in the ordinary courts is through the writ jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and high courts granted under the constitution (articles 32 and 226).

Both the AFSPA itself and the security forces operating in Manipur and other parts of the northeast under its auspices stand accused of being racist. Although the situation of law and order in many other parts of the country is even worse than in the northeast, the law has not been applied in those areas. Nor do the troops stationed in Manipur systemically target the some one million persons who have come to the state from mainland India: the numbers of ethnic Indians among the killed, raped and tortured are few and far between; nor are their areas of habitation subject to the same sorts of indiscriminate firing as occurs in those places where the local people predominate. Article 2 of the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, which India joined in 1968, calls upon parties to take special and concrete measures in social, economic, cultural and other fields to ensure full and equal enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms by adequate development and protection of certain groups or individuals belonging to them. This obliges legislative and administrative measures to eliminate racial discrimination, equal treatment before the law, protection from violence and enjoyment of freedom of opinion and expression. None of these provisions seem to be of consideration to the government of India in its continued application of the AFSPA and deployment of troops in Manipur.

Recommendations to repeal the AFSPA have so far fallen on deaf ears. In 2004 the central government instituted a committee to review its application, chaired by Justice BP Jeevan Reddy. Although the committee, having made field visits in 2005, recommended that the law be repealed and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has given his support for this step, to date the act remains in force.

Over some forty years, the Indian government’s attempts to curb armed opposition in Manipur through increasing numbers of troops and increasingly onerous laws have not been successful. In fact, the scale of resistance and number of casualties has increased as the years have passed. Meanwhile, the government denies access to the region by international and regional human rights groups, and concerned individuals and journalists. The granting of access to the International Committee of the Red Cross is anxiously awaited by the hundreds of civilians displaced in the remote hilly areas who are threatened with starvation and death from preventable diseases due to the total lack of health care in the region.

People in Manipur are doing everything they can to obtain justice and get the army out of their land. Irom Chanu Sharmila has been force-fed for the last six years, having gone on a hunger strike after a massacre nearby Imphal Airport in November 2000. In the summer of 2004, mothers shed their clothes and protested naked in front of the former palace at Kangla: an extremely shocking incident in a conservative society. Others have burnt–or attempted to burn–themselves to death in defiance of the Indian Armed Forces. When will their demands finally be met? How many more must lose their lives to make their voices heard?

Irom Sharmila: Fast-unto-death in a corner of India

Kavita Joshi, Tehelka, 25 March 2006

An eye: piercing, intent. A nose, covered by a swatch of medical tape, as a yellow tube forces its way in. Lips, stretched tight as if in pain. A woman sits against a bare wall, huddled under a blanket, tightly hugging herself. This is my first impression of Irom Sharmila as I walk to her hospital bed.

She is incarcerated at the security ward of JN Hospital in Imphal, Manipur, in custody of the Central Jail, Sajiwa. It takes her immense effort to speak, but she tries her best. “How can I explain? This is not a punishment. It is my bounden duty at my best level.”

Irom Sharmila has not eaten for over five years now. For this, she has been locked up in jail by the government under very dubious charges and is being forcibly nose fed. Since November 2000, Sharmila has been on a fast-unto-death, demanding the removal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 (AFSPA).

AFSPA is a law that can come into force in any part of India declared as “disturbed”. The act allows anyone of any rank in the army or a paramilitary force under its operational command to shoot, arrest or search without warrant; and to kill on suspicion alone.

Furthermore, there is little scope for judicial remedy. The whole of Sharmila’s state–Manipur–has continuously been under this law since 1980 (with minor exceptions in recent times).

It’s been five years since that day which changed her life. November 2, 2000 was just another Thursday. Till, that is, a convoy of Assam Rifles was bombed by insurgents near Malom in Manipur. In retaliation the men in uniform went berserk: 10 civilians were shot dead.

You could say that neither the killings nor the brutal combing operation that followed were new to the people. Manipur had been ravaged by umpteen such incidents in the past.

But for Sharmila, Malom was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. “There was no means to stop further violations by the armed forces,” she says. She began her epic fast.

From then to now, Sharmila’s frail body has become a battlefield. Within days of her fast, she was arrested on charges of ‘attempted suicide’ and put in jail. She refused bail; she refused to break her fast.

For five years now, she has been in custody, being forcibly nose-fed. Time and again, the courts have–rightly–released her. But she resumes her fast and is invariably re-arrested each time.

Kavita:  Why did you start upon this fast?
Sharmila:  For the sake of my motherland. Unless and until they remove the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958, I shall never stop my fasting.

Kavita:  Could you tell me something about the incident that sparked this off for you?
Sharmila:  I had gone there (to Malom) to attend a meeting. The meeting was towards planning a peace rally that would be held in a few days.

I was very shocked to see the dead bodies on the front pages of the newspapers. That strengthened me to step on this very threshold of death. Because there was no other means to stop further violations by the armed forces against innocent people.

I thought then, that the peace rally would be meaningless for me, unless I were to do something to change the situation.

Kavita:  But why choose this particular method? Why a fast unto death?
Sharmila:  It is the only means I have, because a hunger strike is based on spirituality.

Kavita:  What about the effect this has on you, your health, your body?
Sharmila: That doesn’t matter. We are all mortal.

Kavita:  Are you certain that this is really the best way, to inflict this upon your body?
Sharmila:  It is not an ‘infliction’. This is not a punishment. I think this is my bounden duty.

Kavita:  How does your family react to your fast?
Sharmila:  My mother knows everything about my decision. Although she is illiterate, and very simple, she has the courage to let me do my bounden duty.

Kavita:  When did you last meet your mother?
Sharmila:  About five years ago. There is an understanding between us that she will meet me only after I have fulfilled my mission.

Kavita: It must be very hard on both of you…
Sharmila: Not very hard… because, how shall I explain it, we all come here with a task to do. And we come here alone.

Kavita: Just why are you in custody? Why exactly?
Sharmila: It is not my will. But the state insists it (the hunger strike) is unlawful.

Kavita: But the government is saying that your fast-unto-death is attempted suicide, which is an offence…
Sharmila: Although they may think so, I am in no mood for suicide. In any case, if I were a suicide-monger, how could we communicate like this, you and I? My fasting is a means, as I have no other.

Kavita: How long are you prepared to go on like this?
Sharmila: I don’t know, though I do have hope. My stand is for the sake of truth, and I believe truth succeeds eventually. God gives me courage. That is why I am still alive through these artificial means (indicates the tube going into her nose).

Kavita: How do you spend your days in the hospital?
Sharmila: A lot of the time I practice yoga. It helps me keep my body and mind healthy (she points to the tube again). It is circumstances that make things natural. Though this is unusual (tugs the tube), it is natural to me.

Kavita: What do you miss the most?
Sharmila: People. As I am a prisoner here (in hospital), everyone is restricted from meeting me without permission. So I miss people a lot.

Kavita: If you had one wish that was yours for the asking, what would it be?
Sharmila: My wish? We must have the right to self determination as rational beings.

Kavita: Do you think the AFSPA will be repealed? Will you get what you are fighting for?
Sharmila: A lot of the time I realise my task is a tough one. But I must endure. I must be patient. That happy day will come some day, if I’m still alive. Until then, I must be patient.

(My time was over, and my crew and I were preparing to leave when Sharmila stopped us.)

Will you help me? I would like to read about the life-history of Nelson Mandela. I have no idea about his life. Will you send me a book about him? It is full of restrictions here. Make sure you address it to the security ward. If not, I may not receive it.

(We sent Sharmila the book from Delhi. Her friends tell us that it has reached her.)

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