Frontline Volume 21 - Issue 18, Aug. 28 - Sep. 10, 2004
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COVER STORY

MANIPUR ON FIRE

SUSHANTA TALUKDAR
in Guwahati

The agitation in Manipur demanding the withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, triggered by the alleged rape and killing of a woman in the custody of the Assam Rifles, engulfs the whole State as the Central and State governments fail to find an effective solution.



The police firing teargas shells to disperse demonstrators demanding the repeal of the AFSPA in Imphal on July 29.

FOR nearly three years and nine months, the Centre and the Manipur government remained indifferent to an indefinite fast by a young Manipuri woman, Irom Sharmila, demanding the withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, from Manipur. But they were woken up by a nude protest by a dozen Manipuri women on July 15 to condemn the alleged rape and custodial death of 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama by some Assam Rifles personnel.

Today Manipur is up in arms, echoing the demand raised by 33-year-old Sharmila, who, under judicial detention, continues to be nose-fed forcibly at the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal for refusing to end her "fast unto death" until the Act is withdrawn from the whole of Manipur. For the past one month, the law and order situation in Manipur - a State ravaged for long by insurgency - has been going from bad to worse, disrupting normal life.



Thangjam Manorama.

The movement, spearheaded by 32 social organisations under the banner of `Apunba Lup', has spiralled into a "civil disobedience" movement, which became violent after a student leader Pebam Chittaranjan immolated himself on Independence Day. The adviser of the Bishenpur unit of the Manipuri Students' Federation, Pebam Chittaranjan left a suicide note, which says: "It is better to self-immolate than die at the hands of security forces under this Act. With this conviction I am marching ahead of the people as a human torch." Pebam Chittaranjan had run for about 100 metres with his body in flames before falling to the ground in Bishenpur Bazaar.

A dithering Okram Ibobi Singh government withdrew the disturbed area status of a 20-square-kilometre area falling in seven Assembly segments in Imphal municipal limits, in order to render the AFSPA ineffective there. However, the delayed decision, despite the fact that it was against the wishes of the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre, failed to assuage the public anger. The Apunba Lup rejected the Chief Minister's gesture and intensified the movement; it refused to accept anything short of a withdrawal of the Act from the whole of Manipur. This prompted the State government to book more than 30 leaders of the movement under the National Security Act (NSA).

RITU RAJ KONWAR

A torch rally against the Act.

The disjointed stand of the Central and State Congress governments on the issue of the withdrawal the Act has made the people of Manipur apprehensive. Speaking to mediapersons, Ibobi Singh maintained that a democratically elected government had to honour "the sentiments and pulses of the people". He admitted that there had been excesses in the execution of the AFSPA over the past 24 years. The Chief Minister, however, made it clear that the withdrawal of the disturbed area tag from Imphal was done on a trial basis and that it could be re-imposed by the Centre or the State government if the situation deteriorated.

Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil, for his part, said the Chief Minister had consulted the Centre about withdrawing the Act but the Centre's views were different from his. The Centre's impression about the Manipur situation appears to be that the State government had allowed it to drift for too long and that it needs to be dealt with firmly. To top it all, Shivraj Patil and Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee issued contradictory statements about the withdrawal of the Assam Rifles from Manipur, adding to the confusion. A day after Pranab Mukherjee denied that the Centre was planning to replace the Assam Rifles with the Border Security Force (BSF), Shivraj Patil said that he was open to the idea of withdrawing the Assam Rifles from the State. At present the Assam Rifles has 12 battalions engaged in counter-insurgency operations in the State.

RITU RAJ KONWAR

A protest in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters at Kangla Fort in Imphal on July 15.

The Centre's apprehension stems from the fact that as many as 20 militant outfits are active in the State, which borders Myanmar - a safe haven for rebel groups - and the feeling that the withdrawal of the AFSPA could jeopardise the country's security. But leaders of Opposition parties in Manipur and supporters of the agitation argue that if there was no let-up in the insurgency during the 24 years the AFSPA was in force, its continuation on the grounds of containing insurgency cannot be justified. The UPA government fears that if the demand for the withdrawal of the AFSPA from Manipur is conceded, then it will prompt similar demands from other northeastern States.

THE Assam Rifles, for its part, has refused to cooperate with the C. Upendra Judicial Commission instituted by the Ibobi Singh government to probe the circumstances that led to Manorama's death. It moved the Guwahati High Court and obtained an interim stay on the summoning of its personnel by the commission. Col. Jag Mohan, Commandant of 17 Assam Rifles, requested the commission to set aside the proceedings against Assam Rifles personnel since a petition had been filed in the Guwahati High Court.



Chief Minister O. Ibobi Singh requesting Irom Sharmila to end her "fast unto death". She has been on a fast since November 4, 2000, demanding that the Disturbed Areas Act be withdrawn from Manipur.

Assam Rifles personnel had initially refused to appear before the commission, whose office is located just across the road from its headquarters in the Kangla Fort, citing "security" grounds. But even after the commission directed the police to beef up security measures, Col. Jag Mohan, Naik Subedar Digambar Dutta, and riflemen Sureshkumar, Ajit Singh and T. Lotha, who were to depose before it on August 18, did not turn up.

The Assam Rifles' petition in the High Court says that the commission is summoning persons who do not come under its jurisdiction. In the past, some judicial inquiry commissions had to be wound up on technical grounds. Under the AFSPA, no prosecution process can be initiated against personnel of the Central forces without first obtaining the Centre's approval. The Assam Rifles movedd the High Court certainly not without the prior sanction of both the Home and Defence Ministries. Quoting the first post-mortem report of Manorama, Assam Rifles denied the charge of rape of her by its personnel.

RITU RAJ KONWAR

Protesters burn the effigy of Ibobi Singh at a "mock funeral" on August 19.

The Upendra Commission almost collapsed when lawyers representing five civilian parties pulled out from it in protest against the non-cooperation of the Assam Rifles. They pointed out that the report of the commission would be meaningless as cross-examination of Assam Rifles witnesses was a must.

On other hand, the court of inquiry instituted by Assam Rifles could not be completed as Manorama's bedridden mother could not come to the court. Lt Gen Daljit Singh, General Officer Commanding of 3 Corps, had earlier promised that the court of inquiry would be completed within two weeks after the receipt of the post-mortem report of Manorama. The Director-General of Assam Rifles, Lt. Gen. Bhupinder Singh, dismissed allegations of excesses on Manorama and reiterated the Army's claim that she was a member of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), militant outfit. He expressed the hope that the people of Manipur would accept the "real facts" since the post-mortem report had revealed neither sexual abuse nor torture as had been alleged. However, the refusal of the Assam Rifles to cooperate with the Upendra Commission has dashed all hopes of knowing the "real facts" behind Manorama's death. Moreover, it has granted legitimacy to the ongoing agitation seeking the withdrawal of the AFSPA. Apunba Lup insists that the Act is draconian as it has provisions that empower even a non-commissioned officer to shoot and even kill a suspect in a disturbed area and at the same time bar prosecution, suit, or other legal proceedings against Armed Forces personnel concerned except with the sanction of the Central government.



Police trying to save Pebam Chitaranjan, who set himself afire in Imphal on August 15.

IBOBI SINGH, who was wary of antagonising Central leaders, initially risked a rebellion in the ruling Congress in the State by deferring a decision on the withdrawal of the AFSPA. The Centre's tough stand against withdrawing the Act only compounded his problems. As many as 12 legislators of the ruling Secular Progressive Front (SPF) and two Ministers threatened to quit. He, however, left the ball in the people's court by promising to withdraw the Act from the whole of Manipur when normalcy returned and all kinds of extortion, kidnapping and other such activities ceased. Ibobi Singh made this offer in his Independence Day speech. It sparked another round of protest with agitators setting ablaze a bus and blocking roads in different parts of the capital.

The Union Home Minister said the Centre would take "appropriate action" if the situation did not improve in Manipur despite the State government's efforts and the partial lifting of the AFSPA from Imphal city. That the UPA government was toying with the idea of imposing President's Rule as the last option was evident from Shivraj Patil's comment: "Our action will not be taken in anger. We will assess the situation properly. President's Rule can either be imposed or not imposed. I would not like to clarify on this."



Agitators trying to block a bridge during a bandh in Imphal.

In keeping with the Centre's offer to hold unconditional talks with all groups including the militant outfits, Ibobi Singh urged social bodies such as Meira Paibis (Women Torchbearers) to help defuse the crisis and arrive at a permanent solution. He also sought the help of the editors of local newspapers to convince leaders of the Apunba Lup to respond to the Union Home Minister's offer to hold unconditional talks. Although the editors responded positively, the fresh crackdown launched by the State government on the movement's leaders stalled the process. A meeting of the Editors Forum on August 19 decided not to pursue the matter after the government booked agitation leaders under the NSA.

The message is loud and clear. The crackdown must be stopped and an atmosphere conducive to talks with the movement leaders must be created to regain public trust. Or else, the situation may further deteriorate and agitation programmes such as the boycott of Indian goods could be exploited by secessionist forces to fan anti-India feelings in the State.

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