(Excerpts from a 2009 report on fake encounters)
By Irengbam Arun
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act is a direct descendant of the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance 1942 that the British rulers promulgated to suppress the Indian Freedom Movement during the Second World War. The later was a temporary measure to tackle an emergency situation and was extended to the whole of India. The Act is not only a much more draconian law but also applicable only to a distinct geographical region on a permanent basis.
Certain modifications were made to the 1942 Ordinance:
1. The provision for declaration of emergency was replaced by the term ‘disturbed area’;
2. More vaguely defined powers were added (including the power to use force to even kill any person on suspicion of disturbing public order or carrying weapons, ‘to search any place without warrant or destroy any place on suspicion of being used by armed groups) to the old Ordinance;
3. The power to take action, which was authorized to an officer of the rank of Captain and above in the old Ordinance, was delegated to lower ranks including Junior Commissioned officers and Non-commissioned officers.
4. The area of operation was confined to ethnically distinct North East region; unlike the 1942 Ordinance, which was applied to the whole of India.
As a result of these modifications, the 1958 Ordinance became more deceptive and harsher than the colonial Ordinance of 1942. Parts of Manipur were also declared ‘disturbed areas’ under the Act since its inception. Then it gradually spread to the other areas.
In 1970, the State Home Department through a series of notifications declared parts of Manipur South (now Churachandpur) District, Manipur West (now Tamenglong) District, Manipur East (now Ukhrul) District, Manipur North (now Senapati) District, and Sadar Hills Sub-division of Manipur North District as ‘disturbed areas’ under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. In October 1975, the entire Tengnoupal (now Chandel) District was declared disturbed. In May 1978, the whole area of Manipur South District, Jiribam Sub Division of Manipur Central District and Tengnoupal District were covered. The whole of Manipur has been a ‘disturbed area’ since 1980, with no sign of respite from it in the near future.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958 was enacted specifically for Manipur and the other six States in the region. It negates every constitutional and legal provision concerning human rights when a State or a part of it has been declared a ‘disturbed area’ under the Act. Under this Act, the subjective opinion of or a mere suspicion by a Non-Commissioned Officer of the Indian armed forces is enough for the arrest without warrant, torture and killing of any person even before he has committed any offence, and for the destruction of any property.
With its prolonged imposition, the cycle of violence had only increased both in geographical spread and intensity. Enforced disappearances, arbitrary executions, torture, rape & molestation, house breaking, looting, arbitrary detention, etc., have became a part of everyday life in Manipur. And yet, few perpetrators of these gross violations of human rights ever got indicted or prosecuted. For all practical purposes, the armed forces enjoy complete immunity under the Act.
The report by Human Rights Watch “These Fellows Must Be Eliminated: Relentless Violence and Impunity in Manipur” [15th September, 2008] documents the failure of justice in the state where for 50 years the army, empowered and protected by the AFSPA, has committed numerous serious human rights violations.
Human Rights Watch observed that “Soldiers and police are protected by laws granting immunity and officials (are) unwilling to hold them accountable for serious crimes. These laws perpetuate human rights abuses, which drive civilians to seek the protection of one or other armed group.” It further opined that “Security forces are bypassing the law and killing people on suspicion that they are militants instead of bringing them before a judge. In the name of national security and armed forces morale, the state protects abusers and leaves Manipuris with no remedy to secure justice.”
Although the operation of the Act was ultimately withdrawn from the Imphal Municipal area, the state police commandos operated along with paramilitary forces and continued killing suspects with a rare sense of bravado otherwise interpreted as a symptom of the climate of impunity percolating down to the state forces also.
And, it has become the culture to snub out the public hue and outcry following a controversial incident by another new controversial incident. When a new controversial incident occurs either in the midst of agitations following a previous controversial incident or at the stage when public outcry has tapered down, the previous incident is always pushed to the back seat until it peters out and fades into oblivion.
Although there are other forms of human rights violations in the past one year like illegal detention and torture in the year under study we shall be concentrating on the so-called ‘encounters’ between state forces and suspected cadres of banned groups resulting in the death of 1-3 persons in every encounter which have been questioned from certain quarters. A disturbing scenario has emerged within the last few years, especially during the year 2008, a pattern that shows an escalating trend in the number of questionable killings in the state as compared to the previous years.
Certain distinctive features, like the following, could be gleaned from the case-sheets of the so-called encounters.
a) Isolated locations as encounter sites;
b) Absence of casualties on the part of police commandos or central security forces, even though arms were recovered from most slain suspects;
c) Recovery of either 9 mm pistol or hand grenades in most encounters;
d) The state party was in most encounters a combined force of police commandos and central security forces;
e) Independent claims of the slain suspects being arrested earlier from home or locality or some other place;
f) Claims of money, mobile and other valuables missing from many of the slain suspects which they had on their persons while leaving home.
Any prudent and right thinking individual may infer from these premises that a systematic genocidal tendency has materialized within the various sections of the Manipuri society based on misguided objectives and personal agendas largely attributable to the security forces of the state. The right to enjoy a dignified existence has long since been strangulated by the relentless imposition of the draconian laws in the state.
And adding yet another spoke to the cycle of atrocities is the fear psychosis instilled into the minds of the masses. In the aftermath of ambushes or strikes against security forces by any of the proscribed outfits, the inhabitants of the villages within the vicinity of the place of occurrence are always compelled to flee for safety fearing retaliation from the security forces. It is a common occurrence for the security forces to ventilate their angst and wrath on innocent civilians in the aftermath of such ambushes.
Under the AFSPA, the armed forces are protected with immunity from their overt acts. However, this sense of not having to answer for their actions have percolated down to the state forces to such an extent that the Manipur Police Commandos are running amok killing people on their own without any thought to the impending consequences.
This infectious air of impunity has filtered down to the state security forces thereby creating a new state sponsored terrorist group in the form of the commandos. Instituted for the purpose of containing insurgency in the state, the Manipur Police Commandos have tangentially digressed from their objectives and embarked upon the path of self-gain policy and fulfillment of personal agendas.
EN Rammohan, a retired IPS who served as an Advisor to the Governor of Manipur once wrote, ‘… In Manipur, civil policemen and officers were selected and trained as commandos. Although they did a very good job initially, they soon deteriorated into a state terrorist force due to faulty leadership. They started extorting money from the business community, picking a leaf out of the insurgent’s book. What were the consequences for the hapless public? Here were five to six underground groups extorting money from the traders and here was a special wing of the police force, set up to arrest the underground, who also demanded their share of the extortion pool…’.
A number of the case studies reveal the Manipur Police Commandos acting independently in carrying out such alleged encounters without the assistance of the army or paramilitary forces. The state government also remains a mute spectator to such killings closing out its eyes and ears to the agitations and protests that usually follows such killings without taking up any action against the security forces for their overt acts. Thereby, the state security forces also enjoy the same immunity under the protective umbrella of the state government.
On the contrary, the number of killings of ‘suspects’ by the police are rather considered as achievements and the perpetrators are rewarded cash incentives, medals and gallantry awards by the state government which ultimately serves as solid stepping stones towards their promotion. The audacity of the state government in dolling out such incentives and awards to the very perpetrators of such atrocities fuels the security forces further into even more killings. What more premises are required than to draw the conclusion that such killings are state sponsored terrorism?