WHEN EX-REBEL Chongkham Sanjit Singh was killed in an ‘encounter’ on July 23 last year, many in the Northeast Indian state of Manipur and beyond were appalled by the ‘audacity’ of police commandos.
Some wondered if there was much ado about the AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958); it did not apply to the police commandos, and the Manipur government had in August 2004 removed the Act from Imphal municipal areas within which Sanjit was eliminated.
Rights activists argued it was all the more reason why AFSPA needed to go. “For 53 years since it was imposed in this region, this Act has helped soldiers get away with murder. Worse, the feeling of immunity has percolated down to the civil administration and to militants, and everyone seems to be deciding on life and death. The lack of accountability has also led to social, political and administrative corruption,” says Imphal-based rights activist Babloo Loitongbam.
“You don’t need a law to kill with impunity, but what needs to be done is fix responsibility, and this can be done only if the original sin – AFSPA – is taken away,” Loitongbam adds. “When the armed forces, otherwise the most disciplined of set-ups, has no legal protection to abuse the law, even the ultras will cease behaving like them.”
AFSPA as an ordinance was first implemented in the Northeast (erstwhile Naga Hills) in 1957, almost a year before it became an Act. Barring Imphal municipal areas, it remains enforced in Manipur, Nagaland and Assam. In the other states of the region, it is in force within 20 km of the border with Assam. Besides, areas under 22 police stations in Tripura and Naga rebels-troubled Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh.
Figures collated from Home departments and rights organizations in the Northeast say counter-insurgency operations claimed at least 38,000 militants and civilians during the past five decades. A third of these have been attributed to extra-judicial killings. There have been some 1,200 rapes too, including that of Thangjam Manorama Devi killed in custody in July 2004.
But armed forces officials swear by AFSPA. “This is like a bullet-proof vest for soldiers going to war. Any Act that ensures certain kind of insulation for a soldier in conflict situation is necessary. As long as he is within his legitimate duty, there are no problems. Even with the Act, we have allowed civil law to take over wherever we have crossed the line. We are answerable to the society, after all,” says Assam Rifles Director General Lt Gen KS Yadava.
He claims greater social awareness, joint operations with local police and more representation of locals in the armed forces have helped cut down on cases of alleged rights violation.
But what if locals are made to kill locals, as in Sanjit’s case? “That’s why the AFSPA has to go. It is doing nothing but promote gun culture and war-mongering,” says Irom Sharmila Chanu, the face of the anti-AFSPA movement who has been on hunger strike since November 2000 for the repealing of the “draconian” Act.
(A truncated version of this report appeared in Hindustan Times when AFSPA clocked 20 years in Jammu & Kashmir)