Irom Sharmila Chanu’s protest fast against the gunning down of 10 innocent bystanders at a bus stop at Malom by troops of the Assam Rifles is on the edge of completing 10 years. Just to briefly recap the genesis of the entire sordid drama, the troops were retaliating to an ambush attempt by some insurgents who remotely detonated a bomb they placed on the road, from across a pond beyond which was an expanse of paddy fields, using a long flexible electric wire. The bus stop unfortunately was about 100 metres ahead of the blast site. No trooper was injured, but the security personnel still took out their ire on the bystanders ahead of the road with savagely tragic consequences. Sharmila who went on a fast from that day, wants nothing less than the repeal of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, which she and so many others are convinced is not only unfit for a democratic society, but also the cause for the climate of impunity with which the uniformed government forces, not necessarily only the Army, conduct themselves. Indeed, while the Army is very little visible in the Imphal municipality area, constituting of seven Assembly segments, where the Disturbed Area Act has been lifted since mid 2004, and along with it automatically the AFSPA, the vacuum the Army left behind in counter insurgency operations has been filled in by state government forces, in particularly the Manipur Police Commandos. Sure enough, public outrage and allegations of atrocities, at least in the capital region, has now shifted to the ways of the police commandos. The daylight murder in which the life of a young man, reportedly a former underground cadre, Chongtham Sanjit, was brutally put an end to at BT Road earlier this year, in what is now becoming more than obvious to be a case of fake encounter, is still fresh in everybody’s mind. The CBI had indicted the police commandos in the crime and a judicial enquiry is also underway to determine the exact nature of the events of that fateful day that led to the atrocious act of the police.
There is an interesting inference to be derived from the two instances of morally unwarranted violence perpetrated by the two sets of uniformed government forces. We qualify the adverb “unwarranted” with “morally” because the legal legitimacy of such violence when interpreted against the AFSPA, becomes fuzzy and nebulous. The fact is, the Malom case comes under the AFSPA but the BT Road case does not, although the public tend to confuse this difference. The AFSPA applies to the Army and Central paramilitary forces on counter insurgency duty but not the state police. The difference we talk of is not at all about the degree of brutality of the two crimes, but in the atonement process that followed. After 10 years, nobody has been held responsible, and nobody appropriately and transparently penalised in the Malom case. In the BT Road case, the atonement process is much more accountable to the public and those directly responsible are already in the dock and may face more severe music. It is another matter that even this may not be enough, for the accountability hierarchy is being allowed to be stopped much too lower down in the chain of command, thereby sparing the rod for those at the top. Even so, the very fact that there is an accountable and transparent legal mechanism which can be set against even those who perpetrate violence in the name of the state, itself acts as a strong purge of public emotion and fury. In the case of those covered by the legal immunity provided by the AFSPA, this has never been the scenario, thereby in the absence of a similar catharsis, the public fury and bitterness sink in and contaminate the entire being of the society. This is one of the strongest basis of all the animus against the AFSPA.
From the above two examples again the obvious question that follows is, why can’t the military, which is undoubtedly an important tool of the state, be made to function like the police when on civil duty or when called upon to come in aid of the civil administration? Why can’t the Army in such situation be made accountable to the civil legal system which is accountable to the public at large just as the police are? The police despite not being shielded from the legal mechanism are still able to go on carrying out its mandated functions. The military, by virtue of its superior combat training and better array of weapons in command should be able to do the job better within the same legal framework. If not for anything else, this should be able to bring about the much needed sense of justice to the best possible extent. In spirit, the Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission, recommended just this. Sadly, the commission’s recommendations have been shelved on account of objections from quarters not explained but nonetheless obvious.