Manipuris will soon stand in line to vote for a new state government. As with voters elsewhere, during the campaign they will be promised jobs, development and new infrastructure. The one promise on which successive governments have failed to deliver, however, is one of bringing justice to the people of the state.
Manipur has remained under the stranglehold of abusive armed groups and inept politicians. In each election, the armed groups — and there are many, with a range of political demands, though they are mostly extortion gangs — have called for a boycott of the polls. Those who participate, candidates and voters alike, risk violent attacks.
Things are so bad that earlier this month, all newspapers in Manipur published a blank editorial, in response to threats from armed groups that insist that the newspapers publish their statements. Newspapers face a double whammy: some militants have also demanded that they not publish statements of rival groups.
In the hope that an elected government will finally do its job, that of providing security and upholding fundamental rights, Manipuris have ignored the threats and turned out to vote. Yet, the government has failed to ensure even the most basic rights of life and liberty. Armed groups aside, Manipuris remain at risk of arbitrary arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings by the government’s own security forces.
The state government and local administration have also failed to address grievances that feed public discontent and support for militant groups. All of these problems are made worse, though, by Manipur’s climate of impunity. The Central government, while claiming to be committed to protecting human rights, has largely ignored serious violations by its security forces, at best attributing abuses to a few “bad apples”. But even in cases involving “bad apples”, the government rarely investigates, let alone prosecutes those responsible. Manipuris want impunity to end. Not only has it shattered any existing faith in the justice system, many feel it has emboldened the security forces to commit further abuses. Impunity, fostered both by a lack of political will and by laws shielding the abusers, has led to an atmosphere in which security forces are effectively above the law.
The lack of accountability has become deeply rooted because of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the 1958 emergency law under which the armed forces are deployed in internal conflicts and enjoy broad powers to arrest, search and shoot to kill. The law is widely despised among the population because it provides soldiers who commit atrocities effective immunity from prosecution.
When the Central government isn’t ignoring Manipur, it tries to sweep Manipur’s problems under the carpet. In December, the police in Delhi went so far as to refuse permission for a solidarity protest to support a decade-long hunger fast by Irom Sharmila, who has demanded the repeal of the AFSPA ever since soldiers gunned down 10 civilians in Manipur on November 2, 2000. She is nasally force-fed in judicial custody.
The AFSPA has led to abuses and serious hardships in other parts of the country. In Jammu and Kashmir, the repeal of the law has become a crucial election issue. Chief minister Omar Abdullah has spoken out against it.
But in Manipur, where the law has been in force much longer, political leaders have found neither voice nor wisdom. Irom Sharmila may have become known for her courage and her peaceful endeavour in India and beyond, but in Manipur’s capital, Imphal, the government has ignored her appeal. Instead, Manipuris remain hostage to an Army that claims it cannot operate without the powers and immunity provided by the AFSPA.
Hardly anyone in Manipur disputes that armed groups pose a serious security risk. Last year, two militant groups successfully imposed a three-month economic blockade on the surface supply of goods, crippling the economy and pushing prices out of control. Manipuris want law enforcement, but without human rights abuses or a blank cheque for the security services. The Army’s several decades of deployment in Manipur have not only resulted in widespread abuses but polarised the situation. The Army is damaging its reputation in India and abroad by insisting on protecting perpetrators of human rights abuses.
In 2004, following widespread anger over the custodial killing of a suspect, Manorama Devi, by the Assam Rifles, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived in Imphal with a promise to review the AFSPA. The review committee — and several other experts since then — recommended repeal of the law. The Army opposes repeal. Now halfway through his second term, Dr Singh has been unable to prevail over his divided Cabinet to deliver on the promise.
Manipur erupts into national news only when the rage brings Manipuris out onto the streets. The Central government takes notice when the Assembly building is burnt down, elderly women strip and invite the Army to rape them as they have raped others, prices become ridiculously high due to weeks of blockade or when mothers and schoolchildren engage in weeks of demonstrations. It should not take such drama for the government to wake up to the problems in this corner of the Northeast.
The Meenakshi Ganguly is the South Asia director at Human Rights Watch