A deadlock in Manipur

Print edition : October 08, 2004

Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil's meeting with the Apunba Lup leadership turns unproductive with the agitating parties agreeing for nothing short of the withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act from the whole of Manipur.

in Guwahati

Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil (right) and Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh addressing a press conference at the Raj Bhavan in Imphal on September 6.-

EVEN as the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government dithered on the vexed issue of withdrawing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act or AFSPA, 1958, from Manipur, Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil's visit to the trouble-torn State in the first week of September raised hopes of resolving the ongoing stir there demanding the withdrawal of the Act. But the visit failed to yield any result in this regard.

Leaders of the Apunba Lup, the banner organisation of 32 social organisations and groups of Manipur, which is spearheading the more-than-two-month-long movement demanding the withdrawal of the Act, said that their meeting with the Union Home Minister had been "a waste of time and energy". The Apunba Lup also turned down Patil's offer for further talks and vowed to intensify the agitation until its demand for the complete withdrawal of the Act was met.

After a 30-minute meeting with Patil at the Raj Bhavan, leaders of the Apunba Lup accused both the Centre and the State government of passing the buck. They pointed out that while the State government claimed that only the Centre could take a final decision, Patil had tried to pass on the responsibility to the State government. They accused Patil of being "insensitive" to the issue and said they were totally "dissatisfied". "This reflects how serious Delhi is about issues pertaining to the northeastern region," said a spokesman of the Apunba Lup after the meeting.

Students of the Jawaharlal Navodaya Vidyalaya, Khumbong, burn textbooks in Imphal on August 30 in support of the demand for the withdrawal of AFSPA from Manipur.-

Patil, on the other hand, said at a press conference after the meeting that some of the demands of the Apunba Lup could be accepted while some others required further discussions. He said that the Centre was keen to deal with the situation with "sympathy and understanding". Leaders of the Apunba Lup, however, maintained that they had only one demand - that of the withdrawal of the Act - and that had not been accepted.

Patil was greeted on his maiden visit to the State by a general strike called by the Apunba Lup. The movement leaders initially refused to meet Patil in protest against the arrest of one of them, Sapamcha Kangleipal, president of the Manipur Forward Youth Front, on charges of having links with militants. The arrest came as part of the crackdown launched on the Apunba Lup by the Okram Ibobi Singh government in a bid to crush the movement.

THE ongoing agitation was stirred by the alleged rape and custodial death of a 32-year-old Manipuri woman, Thangjam Manorama, after she was picked up by personnel of the Assam Rifles engaged in counter-insurgency operations in the State, on the night of July 10. A nude protest staged by a dozen women on July 15 to condemn Manorama's killing sparked off a widespread movement demanding the withdrawal of the Act from the State. Educational institutions too came to a standstill with students boycotting classes in support of the agitation.

The Ibobi Singh government withdrew the "disturbed area" status from a 20-square-km area falling within Imphal municipal limits in order to render the AFSPA ineffective but the Apunba Lup insisted on the AFSPA's withdrawal from the entire State.

Close on the heels of Patil's visit, Irom Sharmila, a 33-year-old Manipuri woman who has been on a fast since November 2000 demanding the repeal of the AFSPA, was released from judicial custody. She had been remanded to judicial custody by the court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Imphal, until September 24 after she was re-arrested (and booked for attempting suicide) for refusing to end the fast. But Sharmila resumed her fast upon her release from the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital where she was being forcibly nose-fed. The ward she was kept in had been turned into a veritable jail. On two occasions earlier, when she was released after being held on the same grounds, she had resumed the fast the moment she was set free.

Manipur Police personnel direct an arrested rebel, in mask, to identify other rebels from the crowd in Imphal on August 30.-K. SHARATCHANDRA/AP

Meanwhile the C. Upendra Commission, which is inquiring into the circumstances that led to Manorama's death, has sought an extension of its term by another month. The Army Court of Inquiry, for its part, is awaiting the results of the DNA tests on blood samples collected from 33 of its personnel.

About five days after Patil's visit to Imphal, Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee reportedly said in Kolkata that the Centre was considering limiting the scope of the Act in the region. On September 14, the Chief of the Army Staff, General N.C. Vij, was understood to have told Patil during a presentation on the internal security situation that counter-insurgency operations in Manipur would be compromised if the AFSPA was diluted or withdrawn. Gen. Vij said that the withdrawal of the Act from Manipur could give rise to similar demands from other States in the region and from Jammu and Kashmir. Prior to Patil's visit to Imphal, the Army chief also visited it to take stock of the ground situation.

While the Army's perception of the situation in Manipur would be a crucial input for the Centre in its effort to devise a strategy for Manipur, any further delay in reopening the dialogue process between the Centre and the leaders of the Apunba Lup is most likely to complicate the situation. Observers, however, feel that much would depend on the State government's role; if it continues to crack down on the Apunba Lup leadership, it will fail to create an atmosphere that is conducive to talks.

On September 13, former Manipur Chief Minister Rishang Keishing called on Patil in Delhi and impressed upon him the need for reopening talks with the Apunba Lup. Keishing later told mediapersons that the Home Minister was quite prepared to talk.

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