15 August 2004

Manipur on the boil

August 15, 2004
The Hindu

Opinion - News Analysis

Manipur on the boil

Most Manipuris only want the right to live in peace and with dignity, writes Siddharth Varadarajan after a visit to the northeastern State where the death of a young woman has sparked a popular protest.

PUT IT down to inexperience, indifference or sheer indolence but the tardy political reflexes of the Centre as the crisis in Manipur began unfolding last month marks the first real blot in the copybook of the Manmohan Singh Government. Nowhere in the world have a dozen women shed their clothes in front of an Army garrison in the middle of town and taunted the soldiers there to rape them.

That one searing act of defiance did more to erase the physical and mental distance between Manipuris and "mainland Indians" than 40 years of counter-insurgency operations and thousands of hours of `national integration' programming on radio and TV: the rest of India sat up and took notice. The national media rediscovered the Northeast. People everywhere asked what was going on in Manipur that had forced its women to take such a desperate and drastic step. But on Raisina Hill, the Government seemed unmoved. The Army and Intelligence agencies clung to the comforting view that the Statewide agitation against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) was simply the handiwork of the insurgent groups and could safely be ignored.

No clear brief

When it was decided finally that the Centre should intervene, a junior and inexperienced Minister in the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, Sriprakash Jaiswal, was sent to Imphal without a clear brief or mandate. Asked about Chief Minister Ibobi Singh's desire to lift the AFSPA from the whole of Manipur by August 15, Mr. Jaiswal said the matter was for the State Government to decide. He received a rap on his knuckles for saying that when he returned to New Delhi; it was not until the first week of August that senior Ministers at the Centre were prepared to say anything on the record about the AFSPA.

When they spoke, of course, they offered only platitudes, little succour and plenty of contradictory promises. The Act could not be lifted but the Assam Rifles could be withdrawn, said the Union Home Minister, Shivraj Patil. There was no question of withdrawing the Assam Rifles, said the Defence Minister, Pranab Mukherjee. But, soldiers guilty of human rights abuses would be punished, he promised.

In no hurry

As it turns out, the Centre seems in no hurry to ensure justice is done in the one case that triggered the current agitation: the arrest and subsequent killing of a 32-year-old woman, Thangjam Manorama Devi, on the night of July 10. The Army has submitted affidavits sticking to its original story that Manorama was shot dead while trying to escape. "She was wearing rubber chappals and a phanek (the tightly wrapped sarong that women in Manipur traditionally wear) when she was shot while supposedly trying to run," says Radhabinod Koijam, a former Chief Minister. "It simply defies all common sense to say that even if she tried to run away, the Assam Rifles had no option but to shoot her eight times. They say it was an open field. You mean to say the soldiers couldn't even chase her?"

Says a senior IAS officer: "Even a three-year old child will not believe the Army's story. Please wear a phanek and try to run."

"The Government should never encourage a situation where the security forces can simply arrest and then kill a person," a senior Manipur Congress leader told The Hindu on condition of anonymity. "I told the PM this is something which is very bad. Manorama may not have been a good girl — she may have connections with the underground — but that does not mean she should be shot."

Though the Manorama incident has been the immediate trigger for the Statewide popular movement against the AFSPA, ordinary Manipuris say the national media should remember the other cases as well. "There is a history to this kind of thing," says Aruna Piarisalam, a national award-winning woman entrepreneur for Manipur. "And now we are not going to put up with army rule any more."

Former Chief Minister Rishang Keishing, an elder statesman of Manipur who goes back all the way to the Nehru era, says that even if the Centre thinks the situation does not favour lifting of the Act, it should seriously think about dialogue as a way out. "The Act has been there for a long time but this is the first time I have seen such a major movement to have it revoked." Many of the abuses, he says, are linked to the fact that there has been no proper coordination of the security forces operating in the state. "If any force acts unilaterally, there will be a problem. If the AR [Assam Rifles] is going to launch operations or arrest people in thickly populated areas, they must take the help of local forces. Today, probably the only locals actively helping them are `surrenderees', who can be dangerous as guides because they can mislead and are not bothered about human rights consequences."

Gangumei Kamei, deputy leader of the Federal Party of Manipur and a former Law Minister in the State, was a member of the Chief Minister's Committee on Social Policy set up by the Rishang Keishing Government in 1996. Among the issues the committee examined was the workings of the AFSPA. "We evaluated the human rights situation caused by the operation of the Act, which we felt was draconian, but we also gave full consideration to the State's right to protect itself against insurgents," Mr. Kamei told The Hindu .

The committee's report, which was promptly shelved, recommended the AFSPA be kept in abeyance, that the Government push for a cessation of combat operations on both sides and launch a dialogue with the insurgents. "We linked the Act to the question of an overall settlement of the insurgency problem," says Mr. Kamei. "I'm still convinced that this is the only formula which will work. Insurgency is not necessarily a law and order problem. You have to have dialogue that is without preconditions from both sides."

Models for dialogue

According to Mr. Kamei, there are three models of dialogue available for the Centre. "The first is the indirect method, typified by the efforts of Jayaprakash Narayan in 1964 to reach a ceasefire with Naga insurgents. The second is the direct method, such as the talks with the NSCN (Isak-Muivah) group. The third is the proxy method, represented by the initiative with the Hurriyat in Kashmir, when you initiate dialogue with the open sympathisers of the insurgents." The Centre, he says, should move fast.

Mr. Koijam has another suggestion. "I think the PM should send a fact-finding committee to Manipur to look into the human rights and security question, and also make holistic recommendations taking into account the lack of development and industry in the state." The team should also have an economist and a sociologist and generally consist of independent persons who enjoy credibility in the State, he says. Among the names to be considered could be Jean Dreze and Aruna Roy, who are members of the Common Minimum Programme advisory panel, the noted anthropologist B.K. Roy Burman and journalist B.G. Verghese.

Whatever the insurgent groups may want, even today, the aspiration of most Manipuris is not for independence or secession but for the right to live in peace and dignity, without their civilian elected Government playing second fiddle to the Army. "Elsewhere in India, even generals move about in relative anonymity," a former Chief Minister says bitterly. "But in Manipur, every captain or lieutenant acts as if he owns the road."

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