By URIKHIMBAM JENISON
The people of the North Eastern region of India, particularly Manipur, suffer the most since the imposition of the Armed Forces (Special Powers Act), 1958. It has been more than 50 years since the people of Manipur have been living with this lawless law or rather the Act to be precise. It is more like a snake ready to strike any time anywhere, while the people at large do not know where and when to run to escape from its poisonous fangs. The People in Manipur have not yet had the taste of living in freedom, only the bitter taste of conflict where the general public gets tangled between the devil and the deep blue sea.
The conflict continues in many forms. Since my childhood, torture, killing, rape, rape coupled with murder, unwarranted arrest, detention, firing, bomb blast, and extrajudicial killings have been the call of the day. The experiences I have been surrounded with, having read about them in daily newspapers and, sometimes, even watched news of the same on the TV news channel. When I was young, this used to be the news of the time, but when confronted by the ground reality as I grew older, I am compelled to get beholden to it and it made me restless. When I began to work in the fields where I would hear the cry of the victims’ families, it haunted me and continues to do so till today.
How many more will suffer under this draconian law and who will be the next prey of sufferings? Many cases go unreported, as the people shiver in fear of the armed forces by recalling brutal incidents which they had been through during the peak of insurgency in the 1980’s and 90’s. Although there are many cases of complaints filed in the concerned police stations, the related files and evidence are manipulated by the authorities concerned, resulting in delays. Getting justice in these cases is just a myth in this corrupt society. In many cases, police themselves become judge and jury, solving the cases by negotiating with the respective victims’ families and the perpetrators, collecting a percentage of compensatory money from both parties. As such, many of the cases are not fully investigated and justice could not be delivered to any of the victims’ families stuck in the protracted armed conflict. It is in this kind of society we are compelled to live because of the invocation of AFSPA in Manipur.
Although the AFSPA has been lifted from the region of greater Imphal ranging into 7 assembly segments, the disturbance and the restlessness are still being experienced by the people. Also, some other forms of violence do exist. The right to freedom of speech, right to freedom of assembly, and right to freedom of association are violated by the civil police, the commandos and the paramilitary forces. Many human rights lawyers, journalists, and social activists meet obstacles from State or non State actors while performing their task of attending issues of human rights violation. Death threats, infrequent physical attack, planting of hand grenades in front of gates, and receiving gun shots at residences are some of what is still being faced.
Every two kilometres, one is frisked by the police, and this is one of their routine works for collecting “taxes” from the passersby for their not having proper documents. Once a person is stopped, the police personnel find ways and means to point out minor mistakes to achieve their ends. The collected “taxes” are then distributed among themselves and the shares of their officers are also delivered on a daily or monthly basis. All the shops, street vendors, mobile cafes, public buses, rickshaw pullers, and restaurants are some of the areas from where they receive their “taxes”.
On the other hand, the different insurgent outfits also collect “taxes” from the same areas; they too extort from households and all kinds of vehicles owners, including trucks transporting livestock. If people fail to give the “taxes” then different forms of harassment take place, like pushing the truck down the hill, burning the vehicle, firing at the buses, and so on. During such courses of action, many casualties have been reported. At least Rs. 25,000 is spent per trip on the National Highways by truck owners, and it varies according to the products being transported. The interesting thing is the check post or the illegal tax collection counter which is located just beside the army or the police check post. As a result, prices of products for daily use are hiked and all members of society suffer.
People cannot speak out against these acts as they are gripped by fear, of both the civilian and military establishments and the insurgent groups. Ironically, although many Indian army companies and regiments are deployed, and also the recruitment into the police force is on the increase, yet, the disturbance also goes on increasing. There are 207 cases of crime against humanity recorded between the months of January and May 2015(sources from documentation by Women Action for Development an organisation working for Violence Against Women), out of it 128 cases are of crime against women and children in which 23 are reported dead and 99 cases of crime against male in which 58 are reported dead.
A staggering 37 bomb blasts across the state were also reported during the month of January to May 2015 in which 4 civilians were killed and 54 others injured. These incidents speak of the fact that Manipur has become “A Land of the Dead” and the people of the State find it to be a place where they have become more and more insecure living in. “The Right to Life” spelled out in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution is violated with impunity by State and non-State armed parties, and sadly the Government of India has failed to protect its own citizens in the world’s largest democracy.
To highlight one case among those recorded, the gang rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama in the year 2004, by the 17 Assam Rifles personnel, shows the highhandedness of the Army and the paramilitary forces deployed for counter insurgency work and to protect the country from external aggression. It seems the courage and might of the Army is shown only to the vulnerable groups and the innocent people. Personnel receive promotions and bravery awards for killing and torturing innocent civilians. In the year 2009, 74 police officers of Manipur were awarded with President’s Police Medal and State’s Police Medal for gallantry – the highest recorded gallantry awards in India.
The unbridled powers received by the army and the security forces under the cloak of AFSPA can also be seen in the work sites of many developmental projects. Taking over power in the work site, the forces are used to drive off the villagers from their inhabited lands. The areas belonging to the indigenous people and the rights of these people are invariably violated, ever since the imposition of AFSPA in Manipur. The forests, rivers, land, and resources are sources of livelihood for the indigenous people. However, the Army and the state security forces have become used to forcefully evict forest dwellers from their land and villages. At the same time, trees are indiscriminately felled in the name of hunting out insurgent groups.
As we can see, the ongoing construction of “Thoubal Multipurpose Project” is a clear example of taking over power of the affected villages in the downstream and also upstream of the Dam. There are four posts of Indian Reserved Battalions, four posts of Assam Rifles, one post of Border Security Force, and one Police Station opened especially for the forced construction of the Dam. More than 1,500 hectares of paddy fields and 500 hectares of forest land will be affected both in upstream and the downstream portion of the Dam. The free, prior and informed consent was not given to the villagers who will be adversely affected once the Dam comes into operation (they have already begun to lose their lives and livelihood). It is to be noted that Hydro Power Project of Singda Dam, Khuga Dam, and Khoupum Dam are some of the projects which had failed to give electricity/power since being commissioned. Who will benefit from Mapithel Dam and other Dams constructed and being constructed in Manipur? Definitely, not the indigenous community who are suffering the pains of such “development” projects. Some of the engineers working in the Mapithel Project have expressed their views that even if the villagers oppose building of the Dam, it will not be a problem as the Armed Forces are more in population than all the local villagers put together.
On 25th and 26th December 2014, eight human skulls were discovered during excavation work in the former school complex of the Tombisana High School, which used to be occupied by Indian paramilitary forces in the peak of the insurgency. This is also one of the outcomes of the excessive power given to the security forces and the army. In the remote areas of all the nine districts of Manipur, it is seen that the government schools are occupied by the Army. Building bunkers in the surroundings, check posts to keep a watch on passersby, and manning the educational premises with sophisticated weapons is clear violation of the right to education for children.
The security personnel behave indiscriminately; it seems they are ordered not to respect the people. The people living in the villages are mainly engaged in cultivation of rice and other crops and these cultivations of crops need careful supervision, particularly, during water crisis. The people living in the area face problems, as they are told by the deployed Army to work during a specific time period in a day as they are not allowed to go out before 6 a.m. and cannot return after 5p.m. The engagement with crop cultivation consumes time and sometimes overnight supervision is needed to protect the crops from destruction by herbivorous animals. Villagers are told to report every movement of their work and it is made mandatory to produce ID card to enter the own village. This leads to mental illnesses and people cannot live normal lives. They are emotionally and mentally upset, anxious, and their whole system of life and livelihood is disturbed due to the conflict.
The sign boards with the phrase/slogan, “RESPECT ALL AND SUSPECT ALL” being in use by the Army in their respective check points, are existing realities, and the negative attitude manifested toward the civilian population is noticeable all along the Imphal–Churachandpur Road.
The cultural lives of the people are also affected due to the motives and practices of the armed forces. Kwatha Village, located along the Imphal-Moreh Road, Chandel District is inhabited by indigenous Meitei tribe members. There are not more than 75 households with a population of only 400 people and the Village is the oldest Meitei village in the District. Meitei community celebrate Lai Haraoba festival for worshipping the forest god. The festival is celebrated in honour of the sylvan deities known as Umang Lai. The festival represents the worship of traditional deities and ancestors. In this village, the temple and the ground where the people worship were occupied by the Indian Army for many years and the people were not allowed to celebrate the festival in season. Kwatha Village is just 18 km from the Myanmar border and people have experienced many humiliations from both the Army and the insurgents. Therefore, the people living in the Village ask many questions such as: are we part of India or are we slaves of India? This is not only because of insensitive activity that violates Article 25 of the Indian Constitution but also because of actions that violate Articles 19 and 21. Other constitutional provisos being breached by the Army, paramilitary and State police are not highlighted out of fear.
As India shares a border with Myanmar, the customary trade practiced since time immemorial, continues till today. Many small-scale business women do business for their living by importing clothes and other household materials. These practices are hampered due to the numerous army check points. Now there are 3 major check points on the Imphal-Moreh Road. It has been made mandatory by the Assam Rifles to have their personnel check every vehicle passing on the Imphal-Moreh Road, the travellers have to provide valid ID cards and vehicle registration documents to travel. The civilians who are travelling have to walk 100 metres to cross the area of the check post and even the sick, pregnant women, and those dealing with a medical emergency are not spared. During the process of checking, involvement of women officers is not seen till today, even in the case of checking women.
The right to freedom of movement is violated ever since the imposition of AFSPA in Manipur. People are not free to move in their own state where they have been born. Earlier last year, the state’s Minister of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Francis Ngajokpa was also detained by the Army posted in the Imphal-Moreh Road. If an honourable Minister of Manipur state can be prevented from travelling freely on the Imphal-Moreh Road, one cannot imagine the degree of harassment meted out to ordinary people on a daily basis.
It is also to be noted that these checks cannot be wished away given that illegal trade of redwood, teak, gemstones, drugs and arms have been in operation with many reported cases. All said and done, it is anyone’s guess on the quantum of illegal trade taking place and the amount of money illegally gained, as such matters, go unreported. The biggest reported haul took place on 24 February 2013, when a team of Thoubal police commandos intercepted a consignment of drugs worth Rs. 25 crores from a convoy of vehicles led by one Lt. Colonel Ajay Chowdhury, the then Army PRO.
There is a growing rise of widows and orphans in Manipur, as husbands and fathers have been mercilessly killed by Army personnel and, unfortunately, the government has failed to curb the extreme violence of both armed State and non-State forces. In trying to make a living, widows have to come to the streets to find work so that their children do not starve. However, their lives are cut short.
As they need money for survival, they are compelled to find whatever work they get.
Insurgents use them for transporting arms; smugglers use them for transporting drugs; human traffickers use them for transporting young girls to be forced into flesh trade; and they are also used as spies by both State and non State parties. These are just a few of the jobs they are forced into. Can they refuse to undertake such illegal activities? The answer is an emphatic “NO”. They need money as stated earlier but also, they will face the most drastic consequences from either or both parties, should they refuse to participate or decide to pull out.
To date, the justice delivery system has failed to deliver and “justice delayed is justice denied”. Even worse, the system seems to be turning against the people caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Though the government has brought out many policies and schemes in favour of women and children, unfortunately, in Manipur, women and children fail to enjoy these privileges and rights.
There are many untold stories in Manipur. Only stories of pain and suffering can be heard from the people surviving under Military Rule under the garb of AFSPA. Statements and slogans that “All citizens should be equally protected and their securities are to be assured” are only mythic ones. If it isn’t so, then why is the cry of the people to repeal AFSPA not being heard till today by the Government of India.
Why AFSPA in a democratic country? Is Manipur only a colony of India and that its people are to be made subservient through Military Rule as provided by AFSPA?
Urikhimbam Jenison is a Human Rights Activist, can be contacted at [email protected]