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

Armstrong Chanambam | Mar 24, 2019 | 8 min read

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MANIPUR: AFSPA CONTINUES, HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVISTS DEMAND AN END TO IT

When icons break, beliefs shatter. Irom Sharmila represents Manipur’s isolated plight best, when she gave up her 16-year fast to death protest. The spark for her long fast was kindled on November 2, 2000, when 17-year-old Tokpam Shantikumar and Sinam Chandramani Singh, 19, a national child bravery award recipient in 1988, were waiting for a bus to attend their physics tuition
class. A bomb targeting a three-truck convoy carrying Assam Rifles personnel exploded a few metres away from the bus stand where they were waiting. 
The explosion reportedly injured two security personnel. Within an hour, carnage followed as ten innocent civilians including the two teenagers were gunned down by paramilitary forces, stirring a human rights struggle against
the security forces, that continues to this day.

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 citizens is being allowed to live their lives peacefully. But all the loved ones lost, senselessly in most cases, over the past two decades, is a memory that haunts the Manipuri people.

Sovereignty from India is no longer an issue with many of Manipur’s insurgent groups. In fact, two powerful tribal militant groups, the Zomi Re-unification
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, H S Benjamin Mate, a 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.

But holding the security forces to account for past killings is not even on the political agenda this time around. Now it is the citizenship amendment bill that is at the forefront of the campaign speeches. In Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Imphal in March, he never brought up AFSPA and the BJP is also consciously mum about it. Perhaps wisely so, since the BJP made promises in its manifesto during the recent assembly
elections in 2017 and also in the 2014 general elections about repealing AFSPA.
The BJP had then said it would file charge sheets in 1528 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.

Chief Minister N Biren Singh, speaking to media persons in November last year, saidManipur 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 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.

Manipur’s geography puts them in an unenviable position as compared to the other north eastern states.  To the north is Nagaland once a hotbed of insurgency where the state government no longer supports extension of notification declaring Nagaland as ‘Disturbed Area’ under AFSPA, 1958 despite the act still being enforced, Mizoram to the south, again an insurgent prone state now reasonably peaceful, Assam to the west which hasm ade peace with all its insurgent groups, andt he border with Myanmar to the east, which is where Manipur’s few activei nsurgent groups run to for refuge and supplies.

Demands for scrapping the AFSPA have been ongoing 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 tragic losses in the past. Human rights activists insist that they are not seeking compensation or vengeance but justice for all those killed in fake encounters.
And that the only way they can get justice is complete repeal of the AFSPA. The initiative for this 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.

Two prominent human rights groups
in Manipur who have been raising the issue of fake encounter deaths are the
Extrajudicial Execution Victim Families Association (EEVFAM) whose secretary Edina Yaikhom lost her husband in a fake encounter in January 20, 2009, and
Human Rights Alert headed by Babloo Loitongbam, its executive director. Edina 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 in a scooter,” said Edina. “Late in the evening, as I ventured out of my house into the street to soothe my wailing child, one of my husband’s
friends said my husband has been picked up by the police probably for not
possessing driving licence and other documents. I rushed to my aunt’s house and inquired from those serving with the police we were acquainted with about the whereabouts of my husband. 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. When they called me from the morgue to ask about the colour of the shirt he wore, I thought my husband had succumbed to injuries after being beaten in police custody. 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 persons killed were not their cadres," she added.

The EEVFAM, a human rights
collective was subsequently formed on July 11, 2009 seeking justice for many
others like Edina whose family members were killed in fake encounters.
Traumatized by her husband's death, Edina said she was paralysed in the
left side of her body for two years. “I continue to serve as the EEVFAM
secretary because I am passionate and committed to the cause”.

Edina said the people are well
aware of the atrocities committed against under this act beginning from 1979 till 2012. “Many women have been raped and killed, there have been many forced disappearances,” said Edina. “Many families continue to suffer. It is not easy for families 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. 

Babloo Loitongbam of Human Rights
Alert pointed out that draconian laws were imposed on Manipur even before the AFSPA was introduced in 1980.
He was referring to the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Ordinance ,1958 promulgated in May 22, 1958 to contain insurgency in the Naga Hillls, then a part of Assam, and some districts in Manipur.  "It was imposed in Churachandpur district at the height of Mizo insurgency in the sixties. Finally, it was imposed in all of Manipur by 1980”.

"Unfortunately, human rights violations cases in the hill districts were not well documented,” said Babloo. “However, the gang rape of Rose Ningshen by three BSF officers in March 4, 1974 which led to
her suicide forced Macha Leima, one of the oldest women’s social organisation in Manipur, into action and led to the formation of Tangkhul Shanao Long, an apex
body of all women organisations belonging to the Tangkhul tribe in
Manipur," Babloo said.

"In Nagaland, the state cabinet took a decision and urged the Centre to remove AFSPA,” argued Babloo. “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 lack of political will. The present CM is proudly claiming that there are no more killings under his rule. The killings have stopped because HRA and EEVFAM joined hands in moving the Supreme Court which came down heavily on the security forces.

(EOM)





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