In Manipur, repealing AFSPA takes a backseat as political leaders shift focus to Citizenship (Amendment) Bill

In contrast to the recent elections in Manipur, AFSPA takes a back seat as civil societies and families continue their decades-long wait for justice

Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.

Read more articles from the series here

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Imphal: When icons break, beliefs shatter. Irom Sharmila represented Manipur’s isolated plight best till she gave up her 16-year fast to death protest. The spark for her long fast was kindled on 2 November, 2000, when two youths — 17-year-old Tokpam Shantikumar and Sinam Chandramani Singh, 19, a national child bravery award recipient in 1988 — were gunned down by paramilitary forces along with eight other civilians.

The two youths were waiting for a bus to attend their physics tuition class when a bomb targeting a three-truck convoy carrying Assam Rifles security personnel exploded a few metres away from the bus stand. The explosion reportedly injured two security personnel. Within an hour, a carnage followed as ten innocent civilians including the two teenagers were gunned down by paramilitary forces, stirring human rights struggle against Indian security forces, that continues to this day.

Five of the eight victims of the Malom massacre. 101Reporters

Photographs of five of the 10 civilians killed in the Malom massacre, which prompted to Irom Sharmila's fast for 16 years to get AFSPA repealed from Manipur. 101Reporters

With the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in force throughout the state barring the Imphal Municipal area, with two army divisions stationed there, and close to 30 insurgency groups representing the different ethnic groups operating in the small state of just over 2.7 million people, what concerns the citizens the most is they be allowed to live their lives peacefully.

Sovereignty from India is no longer an issue even with many of Manipur’s insurgent groups. In fact, two powerful tribal militant groups, the Zomi Reunification Organisation (ZRO) and Kuki National Organisation (KNO), that have a ceasefire agreement with the Centre have written to the BJP and its chief Amit Shah to field a candidate of their choice, HS Benjamin Mate, vice-president of BJP's Manipur unit, in the Outer Manipur seat, a reserved ST seat.

In its letter, KNO reminded BJP of the help it gave the party on making inroads into Manipur. Mate has been chosen as the BJP candidate from Manipur's outer parliamentary constituency.

Most Manipuris are haunted by the memory of their loved ones lost, senselessly in most cases, over the past two decades. But holding the security forces to account for past killings is not even on the political agenda this time around. Now, it's the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, that is at the forefront in campaign speeches.

Rahul Gandhi, during his visit to Imphal in March, never brought up AFSPA and the BJP is also consciously mum about it. Perhaps, wisely so, since the BJP had promised in its manifesto released before the 2014 General Election to Lok Sabha about repealing AFSPA.

Ahead of the state Assembly election in 2017, it tempered down this promise to say that it will work towards creating an environment where AFSPA could be repealed. The BJP had then said it would file chargesheet in 1,528 fake encounter cases which had not been investigated. The CBI has issued at least four chargesheets but the Central and state governments are yet to grant sanction for even an investigation, let alone prosecution.

Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh, speaking to media persons in November last year, said, "Manipur is a peaceful state now, but the country’s security must be a priority. The financial and arms supply by foreign countries cannot be ruled out."

A memorial stands at the site in Malom where eight civillians were gunned down by the Assam Rifles. 101Reporters

A memorial stands at the site of Malom massacre where ten civilians were gunned down by Indian security personnel. 101Reporters

A high-ranking state home department official said the government had taken the decision around that time to extend the term of AFSPA at least by a year on the basis of intelligence inputs from both central and state security forces. Manipur Pradesh Congress Committee general secretary Meghachandra Keisham alleged that the NDA government allowed extra-judicial powers to Assam Rifles in several northeastern states under the CrPC in the aftermath of strong opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the region.

Responding to a question in the Lok Sabha this January about the repeal of AFSPA, Minister of State in the Ministry of Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, said that at present there are no plans to withdraw the Act.

Presently, AFSPA, 1958 is operational in entire States of Assam, Nagaland, Manipur (except Imphal Municipal area), three districts - namely Tirap, Changlang and Longding of Arunachal Pradesh and the areas falling within the jurisdiction of the eight police stations in the districts of Arunachal Pradesh, bordering the State of Assam.

“The notification declaring Manipur and Assam as 'disturbed areas' have been issued by the state governments. The State Government of Nagaland has not supported the extension of notification declaring Nagaland as ‘disturbed area’ under AFSPA, 1958,” he replied when asked which state governments were eager to see the act lifted from their areas.

Demands for scrapping the AFSPA have been going on for decades now, made infamous by the shocking protest in 2004 where a dozen women staged a nude protest against a brutal rape perpetrated by the army. In response to this, the Congress government had suspended AFSPA in seven Assembly segments in and around Imphal. But while incidents of human rights violations have been few in recent times, voters remember their past tragic losses. Human rights activists insist that they are not seeking compensation or vengeance but justice for all those killed in fake encounters.

And the only way they can get justice is the complete repeal of the AFSPA, they say.

The initiative for the withdrawal of AFSPA has to come from the state government, but neither the earlier Congress government nor the present BJP dispensation has raised the issue with the Centre.

"In Nagaland, the state cabinet took a decision and urged the Centre to remove AFSPA,” argued Babloo Loitongbam, executive director of Human Right Alert, one of the two prominent human rights groups in Manipur which has been raising the issue of fake encounter deaths.

“It is a different matter whether the Union government agrees to the proposal or not. The ground situation in Manipur does not require AFSPA. It is only a lack of political will. The present chief minister is proudly claiming that there are no more killings under his rule. The killings have stopped because HRA and EEVFAM (Extra-judicial Execution Victim Families Association) joined hands in moving the Supreme Court which came down heavily on the security forces,” he informs.

Edina, whose husband was killed in a fake encounter. 101Reporters

Edina Yaikhom lost her husband in a fake encounter in 2009. 101Reporters

Loitongbam is referring to a writ petition submitted in December 2012 before the Supreme Court of India which then appointed a special three-member commission to investigate six random cases of alleged extrajudicial executions from the over 1,500 cases detailed by petitioners. None of the victims in the six cases were found to have had any criminal antecedents nor were there any credible evidence to show that they had affiliations with any banned or unlawful organisations.

EEVFAM’s general secretary Edina Yaikhom lost her husband in a fake encounter on 20 January, 2009. She vividly remembers to this day the chain of events that led to her husband’s death.

"My husband went out with one of his friends on a scooter,” said Edina.

“Late in the evening, one of my husband’s friends said my husband has been picked up by the police probably for not possessing his driving licence and other documents. A policeman, we knew, said he had heard over the wireless of an encounter having taken place. He advised us to go check at the mortuary if my husband was among those killed in the encounter.

"My family members later identified his body in the morgue from the clothes he wore.

"I thought my husband had succumbed to injuries after being beaten in police custody but the next day, local newspapers reported that two unidentified cadres of an underground outfit had been killed in an encounter with the police at Makhan village in Senapati district and that the police recovered an AK 56 rifle, hand grenade, mobile phones and a scooter from their possession. However, the underground outfit clarified the next day that the two people killed were not their cadres," she added.

Traumatised by her husband's death, Edina said she was paralysed in the left side of her body for two years. The human rights collective EEVFAM was subsequently formed on 11 July, 2009, seeking justice for many others like Edina whose family members were killed in fake encounters.

"Many women have been raped and killed, and there have been many forced disappearances under the Act between 1979 and 2012,” said Edina, adding, “Many families continue to suffer. It is not easy for us to just forget and move on.”

“Irom Sharmila went on a fast for 16 years. In other places, if someone fasts for ten days, one meets their demands,” said Edina.

“Why is the government not deliberating on repealing the Act? Other states like Tripura, Meghalaya have lifted it already and it has been lifted from many areas of Arunachal Pradesh. Regardless of whether the BJP or Congress is in power, our politicians are concerned only about amassing wealth. In the last 70 years, nothing has changed,” Edina added.

The authors are Imphal and Bangalore-based freelance writers and members of 101Reporters


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