Monday, September 20, 2010

Delhi meet backs repeal of a ‘holy book’

Yambem Laba

ORGANISED under the banner of the North East India Women’s Initiative for Peace, it was slated as a “high profile meet on the AF(SP)A” and it took place on 8 September 2010 at the India International Centre, New Delhi. According to Binalakshmi Nepram, conference organiser, “the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act has entered its 52nd year of implementation. Government panels, the United Nations and hundreds of civil society organisations across India have called for its repeal, but the issue continues to remain deadlocked”. Activists, scholars, soldiers and policemen attended and drew parallels between the North-east experience and that of Kashmir.
It all began on a very solemn note, with Sinam Chandrajini Devi lighting the inaugural lamp. Tears rolling down her cheeks, she recollected how two of her sons were shot dead by the Assam Rifles on the afternoon of 1 November 2000 at Malom along with eight others. The screen behind her, showing her younger son receiving the National Child’s Bravery Award from Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and being feted by President R Venkataraman, added to the poignancy. In fact, it was the Malom massacre that prompted human rights crusader Irom Chanu Sharmila to embark on her fast to death, calling for the Act’s repealment. Her protest has entered the 10th year.
Thokchom Meinya Singh, Congress Lok Sabha member from Manipur, minced no words when he said the Act must go in its totality. He said that in spite of it being enforced in Manipur for nearly 50 years now, the number of insurgent groups had increased from one in 1958 to more than 40 now, rendering the Act redundant. He also cited how the Administrative Reforms Commission headed by current Union law minister Veerapa Moily, the Hamid Ansari-led Working Group on Kashmir and the Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission initiated by the Prime Minister had all recommended the Act’s repeal. He also reiterated that “this is a colonial act and we do not require it” and lamented the fact that although Parliament repealed Pota, it retained the AF(SP)A.
This writer, in his address, spoke of the history of the Act beginning from 1942 when then India Viceroy Lord Linlithgow signed the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance whereby officers of the rank of captain and above, of the then British Indian Army, were given powers to shoot to kill with no questions asked. It had taken the British some 84 years of misrule to employ such draconian measures whereas the Indian Republic had taken only eight years to do the same, with Parliament enacting the AF(SP)A 1958 and the powers hitherto given to captains and above were now given to havildars and above. Such powers were not given to personnel of the white regime in apartheid South Africa or even in neigbouring Pakistan during its days of military rule, he added. He also recalled how he was arrested by the Assam Rifles despite being a member of the Manipur Human Rights Commission, with an Army officer telling him that “he does not recognise the Governor of Manipur” when shown the Warrant of Appointment confirming the membership. He also related how he and a group of other activists had, for the first time in 1980, challenged the AF(SP)A in the Supreme Court and had to wait 17 years for the apex court to pass its verdict.
Sanjoy Hazarika, who was also a member of the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee, said that “there is nothing afresh that we can say about the AF(SP)A, the story is unending and the tragedy is still going on”. He added that the daily killings in Srinagar was a dilemma between civil liberties and the right of the state. He told the gathering of a Union home ministry “cabinet note” that had not been put up to the cabinet because of pressure from the Army. “Who runs the place in these parts of the country – is it the Army or the civil authorities?” he asked.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, countered the theory that repealment of this Act would enhance anti-national elements and the Army would then have to be deployed to meet a political situation. The Act, she said, could not be amended but had to be repealed. “There is a woman who has been on a hunger-strike for 10 years and there are kids screaming in Kashmir because their parents have been killed.”
Yaruigam, a Naga academician from Manipur who teaches at Delhi University, spoke of the collusion of three entities behind the continued existence of the Disturbed Area status — politicians, bureaucrats and the underground. It was the interplay of these three elements that was behind the mess, and not the Army, per se, he said.
Ram Mohon, former BSF Director-General and advisor to the Manipur governor in 2001, said the Act in itself was not draconian but it was the leadership at the ground level that mattered most. He cited the case of Lt-General VK Nayar (retd) who later became one of Manipur’s most popular governors, who, during his earlier stint as GOC of the 8-Mountain Division, while combating the PLA and Prepak in the Manipur Valley, did not experience single complaint of human rights abuse being levelled against his troops. He then mentioned the Tonsem Lamkhai massacre in 2002 when a CRPF patrol was ambushed and seven personnel and a militant were killed. Half an hour later, the CRPF fired at a bus carrying polling personnel who had arrived on the scene and seven civilians were killed. It was the lack of leadership amongst the CRPF troops that made them resort to killing, and not the Act, Ram Mohon said.
General BS Malik, president of the Control Arms Foundation of India, said that “if you have been just at war or insurgency — then no harm can come to you”, and added that the “Tughlaqs of Kashmir and the North-east sitting in the airconditioned comforts of Delhi would lead to the collapse of the Indian Republic in those regions”.
General-secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties Pushkar Raj said that history proved that draconian laws could not quell public-based insurgency and cited how the success in Punjab, which was a pseudo insurgency, gave a kind of confidence to the Indian state. The same could be applied to the rest of the country.
On the question of Kashmir, Raj said New Delhi could have solved the problem in 1953, ’54 and ’55 but did not and now, in 2010, the situation was different. The AF(SP)A was a trigger-happy law, he added. How else could one explain children between 14-18 years taking to the streets to defy the Indian state, he asked. The question, he added, was now of national security versus human security; the latter was real while the former was illusionary.
Iftikar Gilani, editor of the Kashmir Times, presented the Kashmiri perspective of the AF(SP)A. He said that under the Act anyone with a uniform was an angel who could do no wrong. He recollected how the BSF had, in 1993, “roasted” 62 people alive in Sopore, and though a judicial commission inquiry followed, nothing came of it. He also cited the case of a Major Avtar Singh of 35 Rashtriya Rifles who, after killing a fellow officer, had fled to Canada and although the CBI had been requested to put out a “red corner” notice for him, this had not been done as yet. Gilani also said that “national security” was a much-abused term and likened it to a holy cow, citing how, in 2002, he had been arrested in the “national interest” and later released in the “public interest”. This gap between national and public interest was widening by the day, he said.
Siddharath Varadaranjan, chief of the national bureau of The Hindu, recalled how he had to leak the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee report after it lay rotting in the Union home ministry after it had been submitted because the defence ministry and the military top brass had objected to it. He also spoke of how, in the post-Jammu and Kashmir scenario, both the Prime Minister and the home minister needed to take another look into the Act. He also noted how the Army chief had said the entire move against the AF(SP)A was political and how Lt-General Jaiswal had spoked of the Act as the Army’s “holy book”. Other speakers included Anjuman Ara Begum, who spoke on the Assamese experience; Zothanpari, who recalled the Mizoram experience; Ravinder Pal Singh, defence analyst; Lourenbam Ngangbi; and KS Subramanian, a retired IPS officer.
The meeting adopted the resolution that the Act should be repealed in its entirety.

The writer is a former Imphal-based Special Correspondent of The Statesman

Source: The Statesman 20 September 2010

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