|August 5, 2004|
By Siddharth Varadarajan
NEW DELHI, AUG. 4. The intensity and speed with which the political movement in Manipur against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act has erupted has left the Manmohan Singh Government floundering for a response.
Senior Ministers acknowledge the situation in Manipur is grim, with large demonstrations and violent protests against the conduct of the armed forces taking place nearly everyday. There is a perception that something has to be done quickly to assuage sentiments there and improve the human rights situation. But at the same time, the UPA Government is under pressure from within and without to avoid taking any step that might appear to be a concession to "extremism". "The Centre has to be very firm regardless of public pressure," highly-placed sources told The Hindu on Wednesday. "There is no way that we can give in to the demand that the AFSPA be repealed. Because if we do, there are bound to be similar demands from elsewhere."
But Manipuri leaders are unconvinced. "If the UPA Government is committed to the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), how can it defend the AFSPA which is far more draconian?" is a question many MLAs from the State ask.
Compromise proposals have been made by academics and analysts familiar with the Northeast — including the "conditional lifting" of the AFSPA, provided Manipuri civil society groups agree to cooperate with the law and order machinery, and amending the Act to prevent soldiers below the rank of major from making arrests — but the Centre does not appear to be in a hurry to explore these possibilities.
Official sources do not rule out "interim measures" such as the establishment of an official panel to probe the workings of the AFSPA and the conduct of the armed forces in Manipur, but say the Act itself will not be repealed under the present circumstances.
Indeed, senior officials said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was upset with Manipur Chief Minister Ibobi Singh for adding his voice to the demand for repeal of the Act and camping in Delhi rather than returning to Imphal and taking measures to calm the situation.
In his meetings with Manipuri political leaders over the past few days, Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil is also understood to have reiterated this stand. "Patil told us there could be no revocation of the AFSPA until peace and tranquillity returns to the State," an MLA allied to the Ibobi Singh-led coalition told The Hindu. He added that the Centre did not seem to understand just how uncertain the situation in Manipur now was. Asked whether public opinion in the State would accept a partial lifting of the Act — one proposal doing the rounds is to remove all towns from its purview — the MLA said the time for half-measures might well be over. "At one time, people were demanding partial lifting of the Act but no one in Delhi listened. Now they are demanding its complete withdrawal. I am not sure how exactly the situation can be defused".
The custodial killing last month of Thangjam Manorama by the Assam Rifles has fuelled popular outrage across Manipur cutting across political and ethnic lines. The Army says she was killed while attempting to escape but locals have questioned why 16 bullets were fired into her. On Monday, Dr. Ksh Manglem, who conducted a second post-mortem in the case, testified before an official commission that Manorama had been shot in her genitals. This disclosure has lent credence to the public perception that soldiers might have raped her, and then shot in such a way as to destroy the evidence.
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