While the horrors perpetrated in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, and the role of those of the US Army responsible for them are still sending global shock waves, India, which lays claim to being the world's largest democracy, continues to turn a blind eye to atrocities within its borders.
It is not just that the Indian Army is licensed to kill its own citizens in many areas of its troubled and neglected northeastern region. That's passï¿½ because by now everyone knows about the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA). What's worse is that the Indian Army is bogged down in a cycle of pathological behavior, functioning in total disregard for democratically elected civil authorities, and the framework within which it is to exercise its powers under AFSPA.
The AFPSA empowers the security forces to arrest and enter property without warrant, and to use excessive force (including shooting or killing, even if the lives of the members of the security force are not at imminent risk). The Act facilitates impunity because no person can initiate legal action against any member of the armed forces for anything done under the Act, without permission of the central government.
Call it battle fatigue, combat trauma, or the stress of being the hunted instead of being the hunter in a hostile terrain. Whatever the term used for justification, the fact is that for a country that swears by democracy, there is nothing that can excuse its army for custodial killings, fake encounters, torture, rape and assault. We are not talking about a few aberrations or individual excesses here. Rights campaigners estimate that about 20 young men and women have been killed in mysterious circumstances across Manipur in the past five to six months; and all them were found dead after being picked up by the army. Enough even to stir the apathetic Chief Minister, Ibobi Ibomcha, to demand a CBI inquiry into these custodial deaths.
Not surprisingly, most of 2004 has been marked by angry protests spilling out into the streets against these acts of the Army. The brutal July 11 slaying of weaver Manorama Thangjam (32) by the men of Assam Rifles sparked off the latest round of public outcry. When this failed to elicit any response from the authorities, grief-stricken angry women stripped naked and rattled the gates of Kangla Fort (headquarters of the Assam Rifles) demanding justice. Only that unprecedented act by the women brought the shame of custodial deaths by the Army into the national limelight. But just for a while.
There are also the cases of disappearance that gnaw at the hearts of the people of Manipur. Can anyone ever forget the story of the 15-year-old student, Yumlembam Sanamacha, who, in 1998, was dragged away from his study desk by the Indian Army on mere "suspicion" of having links with militants? He was heard begging them to spare his hands because he was to take his matriculation exams. But Sanamacha never came back home. The Indian Army washed its hands off, claiming that that he had escaped. Only a sustained public campaign made it admit the lie.
The fate of Sanamacha, Manorama, the 50-year-old Jankholet Khongsai, who was shot dead on the same day as Manorama, or the suicide of Sanjita Devi in 2003 following an alleged rape during the Army's search operations - all have something in common. These are just four of the angst-ridden horror stories that have turned into deep and unhealed sores in the psyche of a tormented people.
No one in Manipur is saying that a person suspected of militant links should not be arrested. Even the Meira Paibi (torch bearer), the women's movement in Manipur, would agree that the Army has a tough job to do in the insurgency-infested state. But the vicious psychopathic actions of the Army are not normal security-related acts. The arrest and subsequent killing of Manorama, a woman, and then the act of throwing her body by the wayside, pretending they had nothing to do with it, can hardly be called an anti-insurgency operation of a self-respecting disciplined army.
It took two weeks and the "naked" demonstration before the Director-General of Assam Rifles, Lt Gen Bhupinder Singh, admitted that his men had killed Manorama. But he absolved his men of the rape allegations, quoting a post mortem report. What the army general failed to reveal was that the post mortem report said nothing about rape only because (conveniently for them) her corpse did not have any genital area left to be examined. Most of that part of Manorama's body seemed to have been blown off by bullets or injured, according to the forensic experts who appeared before the Upendra Commission of Inquiry appointed recently to investigate the controversy. This in itself is rape. Recently, a forensic report before the Upendra Commission has brought up evidence that she may, in fact, have been sexually abused before being killed.
The question is: Don't such "individual excesses" by the Army call for drastic measures to restore the people's confidence? And isn't it obvious that people's confidence cannot be restored by blaming the protesting people of being in league with insurgents, as the army generals are wont to do?
That the AFSP Act is crucial for maintaining peace and security in the region is highly debatable. Even perfunctory analysis of several past events shows that violence and tension in Manipur has escalated - in most cases after the arbitrary use of force by the State and its army, as was done in the Manorama case.
The new government at the Centre doesn't seem any more sensitive (than the earlier government) to the simmering issues in Manipur. Its choice of S S Sidhu as Governor for the burning state amounts to asking for more trouble. (Sidhu, a retired bureaucrat, was an accused in the multi-billion HDW submarine kickback scam in 1990). Sidhu can hardly be expected to inspire public confidence in Manipur, where one of the principal issues is that of official corruption. What the state needs at this juncture is a respected public figure who can deal with the crisis of confidence.
The message of the women's naked demonstration was a cry for justice of a tormented people. The only way the current turmoil can be defused is by doing the democratically correct thing: To bring the guilty personnel to book and to stop shielding them.
If this is not done it leaves little option for the women of Manipur but to take even more drastic measures in their campaign to wake up the nation.