06/26/2007, 00.00

Manipur: army’s special powers favour a climate of terror

by Nirmala Carvalho
Public officials and human rights groups want the 1958 law repealed. It gives India’s armed forces unrestrained special powers. Adopted to fight rebels, the law has often led to unaccounted actions. Human rights activists denounce the resulting violence and killing.

New Delhi (AsiaNews) –  The Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) called on the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to repeal of the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in place since 1958. Human rights activists have complained for years that it was humiliating for the population and divisive.

In a long report the ARC explains that the population in north-eastern India feel alienated from the central government, partly because of this law. It recommended separating crime investigation from law and order and suggested that police officials have a fixed three-year tenure at all "operational levels."

The panel also recommended enacting a law that would give the central government sweeping powers to deploy and direct its forces in case of major public order problems to avoid independent action by the army. The example of Ayodhya (a city sacred to both Hindus and Muslims), where “central forces were only deployed but never employed”, is a case in point.

Important leaders also want the law repealed. For their part human rights groups have repeatedly complained that the 1958 Act has given the army a licence to kill, torture and rape with impunity.

Babloo Loitongbam, executive director of  Human Rights Alert in Maipur, told AsiaNews that the law “gives army soldiers sweeping powers to detain and kill suspected rebels, without fear of prosecution. This draconian and controversial law only applies to Kashmir and insurgency-affected north-eastern India.”

“I hope,” he said, “that the government will pursue the matter quickly and repeal the law soon,” balancing the power “between the military and the civilian government.”

Irom Chanu Sharmila, a Manipuri woman activist opposed to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, went on a hunger strike six years ago (but she has been forced-fed since then by the authorities). She began her campaign for the repeal of the law after soldiers of the Indian Paramilitary Assam Rifles allegedly killed ten young Manipuri men at a bus stop near a small Manipur town in 2000.

For her actions in favour of human rights she received the Gwanzu Award, a South Korean human rights prize. Also honoured was Lenin Raghuvanshi, another activist who wants to see the army’s special powers ended.

Raghuvanshi told AsiaNews that the law, “by giving extraordinary powers to the army, has created a real state of fear in the population. In practical terms, the law has not been useful in fighting the rebels, but has simply led to frequent abuses in the state of Manipur by the army against individuals or groups like the killing of 11 people in the town of Moreh.”

“Foreigners are often denied permits to enter the state. Information from the state is censored by the (central) government. Even though there is an elected (state) government, the local administration is run by paramilitary agencies of the Indian army”, he explained.

“The local population has endured discrimination since 1949 when King Budhachandra was forced to sign the act of Manipur’s annexation to India. This and New Delhi’s systematic lack of interest in the economic and cultural needs of the population have favoured the emergence of a secessionist movement in the state. For locals Indian rule is as foreign and alien as that of the British Raj,” Raghuvanshi added.

“After soldiers were sent to check secessionist tendencies, the life of the population went from bad to worse. Soldiers kill, torture, rape knowing they won’t be held accountable. Police have no real power. One police officer in Moreh was slapped in the face by a soldier because he refused to file false charges against innocent people. Courts cannot intervene against the army. Residents can’t be neutral; they are either for the army or the rebels. What is more, the army is driving some ethnic groups against others. On the Moreh-Imphal road armed gangs stop travelers to extort money from them in broad daylight not far from army checkpoints. No one is doing anything to protect the population. Without a quick change of course, it is likely that violence and terror will increase. There won’t be any freedom left.”

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