Students take out a protest march in Imphal.
IF ever there was a textbook case of how not to deal with a popular agitation in a State wracked by insurgency, it is the Manmohan Singh government's handling of the six-week-long crisis in Manipur. The Manipuris today only want to be treated with dignity and honour and there is little appetite for the `independence' insurgent groups are demanding. But by the time the Centre is through with them, the movement for azadi might well be on the ascendant. If its initial responses were that of apathy and indifference, the Centre appears now to have come around to the disastrous view that any gesture, which smacks of "conciliation" will only provide succour to the underground insurgents.
There is, thus, no longer any talk of a healing touch, of assuaging the Manipur people's sentiments, or even of punishing the soldiers and officers responsible for the custodial killing of 32-year-old Thanjam Manorama. Instead, the United Progressive Alliance government - or, more precisely, Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee - has authorised the Assam Rifles to petition the Guwahati High Court demanding a stay on the proceedings of the Upendra Commission appointed by the Manipur administration to probe the Manorama case.
The Upendra Commission at work, on July 28.
The Assam Rifles' move comes days after Justice C. Upendra issued summons to the Commanding Officer of 14 Assam Rifles and three of his men to appear before the Commission for deposition and cross-examination. The summons have been ignored not once but thrice, incredibly, on the grounds that it is not safe for the Assam Rifles men to testify in an open court outside the confines of their own garrison.
Emboldened by the support it is getting from the Centre, the Assam Rifles is resorting to the British trick of `divide and rule'. At the time of going to press, it is emerging that the Assam Rifles coerced Naga villagers in the Senapati district of Manipur to stage demonstrations in favour of the security forces and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). Villagers from Leiraoching to Motbung along National Highway 39 in Senapati district have alleged that 14 Assam Rifles coerced them into staging marches on August 21 and holding aloft placards with slogans such as `Assam Rifles, Friend of the Hill People', and `Save our Souls, Assam Rifles, protect our lives'. If these allegations are true, they suggest the security forces are trying to drive a wedge between the hill people, who are mostly Nagas, and the Meiteis of the Manipur valley. This at a time when there is an unprecedented level of ethnic solidarity in the State with Meiteis, Nagas, Kukis and the Zeliangrong joining hands to demand the repeal of the AFSPA.
Alongside these attempts by the security forces to evade the judicial process and muddy the ethnic waters, the Congress-led State government of Chief Minister O. Ibobi Singh has begun an ill-advised crackdown on the leadership of the 32 civil society organisations agitating against the AFSPA. It is no secret that Ibobi Singh has taken this drastic step at the urging of the Centre, which has threatened to either replace him with Industry Minister Debendra Singh or else place the State under President's Rule. More than 30 leaders and activists of various organisations have been arrested under the draconian National Security Act (NSA). Under this Act, individuals can be detained for up to 12 months in order to prevent them from acting in any manner prejudicial to national security and public order.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The Ibobi Singh government is also reportedly considering the imposition of a ban on the 32 organisations, even though all of them have only been involved in non-violent protests. According to the Manipuri press, among those arrested under the NSA are five activists who were part of the group of brave women who staged a naked protest outside the headquarters of the Assam Rifles in Kangla Fort, Imphal, on July 15, daring the soldiers to rape them. Thus, the Manipuri activists are discovering the transitive nature of draconian legislation: If you protest too much against one black law, you are likely to be arrested under another one. And the Centre, which has so far failed - either militarily to defeat the underground insurgents, or politically to start a dialogue process with them - has come up with the brilliant strategy of driving underground those who had so far doggedly remained overground.
Even now, however, it is not too late for the Manmohan Singh government to retrieve the situation. Specifically, there are three steps it needs to take - and to take urgently, without prevarication or dithering.
First, it must ensure that justice is done - and seen to be done - in the Manorama case. Swiftly. The Assam Rifles' version of events is so riddled with contradictions that the government should punish not just the soldiers involved in her murder but also those officers who have conspired to cover up the murder with a half-baked story about how she was shot while trying to escape. If that were indeed the case, why would the soldiers leave her body on a hillside for villagers to find the next morning? Since what the soldiers committed appears to be nothing other than murder, plain and simple, they should not be allowed to shield themselves behind the immunity provided by the AFSPA.
Second, the Manmohan Singh government must appreciate the depth of popular resentment against the AFSPA and examine ways in which the law can either be repealed in toto or modified drastically. Even from a security point of view, has the law - and the use of the armed forces - really helped contain and defeat the problem of insurgency? The AFSPA has been in operation in the whole State of Manipur since 1980, and in Tamenglong and the hill regions since 1961. But the number of insurgent groups has only increased, as have the sphere of their operations. In any case, it is never advisable to have a situation where the enforcers of the law are exempt from any kind of judicial oversight. In the best of situations, such exemptions breed disregard for the life and liberty of ordinary people. While upholding the constitutionality of the Act in 1997, the Supreme Court had stipulated certain safeguards in its implementation. But none of these safeguards is actually being implemented.
If the UPA government balks at the idea of "giving in" to the popular demand for the repealing of the AFSPA, it could fall back upon the via media of an expert group tasked to visit Manipur and look into the actual operation of the law on the ground. As long as such a group has as its members persons of outstanding integrity and independence, neither the people of Manipur nor the Army or the Centre should have any problem in implementing there commendations that flow from its exertions.
Finally, the Centre should think seriously about the proposal made by Rishang Keishing and four other former Chief Ministers of Manipur for the initiation of unconditional dialogue with the major insurgent groups in the State. If dialogue is being seen as the way forward in neighbouring Nagaland, and actually helped resolve the decades-long insurgency in Mizoram, there is no reason why attempts should not be made to bring about a political solution to Manipur's insurgency problem.
Above all, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh - who represents Assam and the northeastern region in Parliament - can no longer afford personally to remain aloof from this first real challenge to his leadership. Manipur is passing through a critical juncture, but it has not yet reached the point of no return. The Prime Minister cannot afford to be a bystander any longer.