THE pressing need to repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, was once again emphasized last week in Imphal — this time at a children’s mock parliament organized by the Justice for Peace Foundation and various human rights activists to mark 53 years of the enactment of what has come to be known as an “infamous” and “draconian” law. The topic of discussion was: Since two generations had already grown up under the shadow of the gun, was it not time the present one was spared the same trauma? Seven children spoke in favor of the Act’s repeal and there was a lone dissenting voice.
So overwrought are children in Manipur with guns and a growing gun culture that over the last few months many have vowed to never play with toy guns. In some villages they have even made bonfires of these.
What is so draconian about the “Disturbed Areas” status of the AF (SP) Act is that it gives even a non-commissioned officer, like a havildar, the freedom to make an arrest without a warrant, even kill a suspect. The Army also has the power to enter and search, without a warrant, any premises. Significantly, no legal proceedings can be instituted against such actions without the Centre’s prior sanction.
Despite the prolonged agitation against the Act, the Centre is not willing to do away with it for the simple reason that the Army has put its foot down, arguing that if it has to fight secessionist elements it cannot do so with its hands tied behind its back.
Invoked in Manipur in 1979, the Act initially covered the Naga-inhabited hill districts but when Meitei outfits intensified their activities the Imphal Valley was also brought under its purview, the objective being to subdue militancy. But even after the Army’s presence for 32 years, militant outfits continue to be active and, over the period, more have cropped up in the absence of any significant improvement in law and order. Daily shootouts, killings, civilians being caught in the crossfire and cases of extortion are commonplace. This alone underscores the need for a review.
Irom Chanu Sharmila, now 40, has been on a fast since November 2000 demanding withdrawal of the Act following the reprisal killing of 10 civilians by security forces near Imphal airport. Ever since, she has been in and out of custody and is confined to a hospital bed and forcibly nose-fed.
Hers is an exceptional crusade. For some weeks she squatted, alone, at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar to draw the attention of the powers that be but was forced back to Imphal. She continues to draw strength from the support she receives from people from across the world and is determined not to give up.
Then in July 2004, the killing of 32-year-old Thangam Manorama while in Assam Rifles’ custody inflamed Manipuri sentiments against the Act. There was a naked protest by Manipuri women outside Assam Rifles headquarters and a student activist even set himself ablaze. The 32-party umbrella Apunba Lup organization spearheaded the agitation for many months but the Centre pacified it by appointing the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee in 2005 to review the Act and advice. In its report, it recommended that “the Army should remain but the Act must go” and that “it be incorporated in the Unlawful Activities Act”.
For chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh, what matters most is to remain in power, everything else being secondary. In 2005, when some Congress legislators threatened to quit, he promptly recommended withdrawal of the Act from seven assembly constituencies in the Imphal municipality area. He continues to depend on the Army for his government’s survival.
The Supreme Court is clear that the Army should be used only for a limited period and there should be a periodic review of the Act every six months. The law itself is clear that after troops complete their assigned duty they must return to their barracks.
Clearly, framers of the law could not have visualized a situation wherein, once imposed, the Act would stay on forever. Manipur has its own armed police force, several battalions of Manipur Rifles, India Reserve Battalions and commandos, all maintained at presumably the public expense. Surely their numbers alone should suffice to handle the situation without presenting the Army as an indispensable quotient for peace in the state!
*The article is written by JB Lama, Endangered Eden
(Courtesy: The Statesman, India)
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