By Momin Iftikhar

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Indian media has recently reported that changes in the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) will have to wait “until the Army comes on board”. This is bad news for the bruised and battered population in the Regions of Indian North East and the Indian Held Kashmir (IHK), where its longstanding invocation is the cause of immeasurable pain and tragedy among locals. The political pressure for its repeal is mounting but the Indian Army, used to the convenience of Act , which enables it to conduct  now holds barred counter insurgency campaigns without accountability, simply doesn’t want to let go of it; resisting efforts to even affect cosmetic modifications. The backlash to the draconian act has been taking shape for a long time but the North Indian State of Manipur, where a conglomerate of 32 civil organizations, called “Apunba Lup” has emerged to resist the tyranny of the Indian Army, stands out in leading the crusade for repeal of AFSPA – and with good reasons.

Assam Rifles operating in the state has come to be associated with a sustained spate of custodial torture killings and incidents of rape. Some high profile forms of protests and a few gritty activists have made their contributions in focusing the attention on the despicable of state of affairs in the insurgency infested regions of India. In July 2004 twelve Imas (mothers)  stripped naked outside the Kangla Fort gate , where the headquarters of the Assam Rifles are located, shouting slogans “Indian Army Come Rape Us All”. The women were attempting to draw attention to the abduction, rape and killing of Manorama Devi by the personnel of Assam Rifles. The photographs of the demonstration were too shocking to be printed by any of the mainstream media in India but the poignant protest did make its impact in delivering the stark message. In practical terms, though, little was achieved in clipping the Draconian powers of AFSPA; killers of the innocent political activist, despite identification, remained unpunished.

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Another woman activist from Manipur, Irom Sharmila, has resorted to a most determined form of passive resistance for abolition of AFSPA by remaining on a hunger strike for almost a decade. Her epic resistance began in Nov 2000 when ten people were gunned down by the Indian security forces in Imphal in her presence. The Indian Army has kept her alive through forced feeding through a nasal drip; declaring her hunger strike as an “attempted suicide”. The moment she is freed, she resorts to the hunger strike; courting arrest and then embarks again  on a year long spell of custodial forced feeding that come as a punishment for her attempt to take her own life. In a remarkable display of courage, the ritual of release and re-arrest has been repeated sixteen times without breaking her will to resist the AFSPA.

Sharmila’s efforts have not been in vain and her fight is being taken up by Manipur youth who have started a campaign for repealing the AFSPA by resorting to a most innovative campaign. The Manipur Chapter of the All India Youth Federation (AIYF) has planned to dispatch at least 15000 post cards entreating to the Indian President to revoke the AFSPA from the state. The printed postcard carries a picture of Irom Sharmila and makes an impassioned appeal to the Indian President to withdraw the AFSPA from the state. “Continuous acts of violence, including rape and arson, have been perpetrated against innocent citizens since the implementation of this act. Various democratic forces have opposed this draconian act for the past decades,” the post card adds.

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Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), promulgated by the Indian Parliament in September 1958, grants sweeping powers to the Indian Army and paramilitary forces in the insurgency-hit states. This includes shoot at sight and arrest without warrants ; empowering even the non commissioned officers or jawans to shoot to kill on the basis of mere suspicion as well as the power to destroy property where the insurgents are suspected to be hiding in the notified disturbed areas. Clause 6 of the act bars all legal proceedings against security forces’ personnel without central government sanction. “No prosecution, suit or other legal proceedings shall be instituted against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of powers conferred by this act,” it says. The Act was initially clamped over the seven restive Indian North Eastern States for a year in 1958, yet the Indian Army has found it so ‘useful’ that despite passage of fifty years it continues to remain in vogue. When an armed rebellion burst out in the IHK in 1989, AFSPA was extended to the Indian Held Kashmir in Jul 1990, where it has proved instrumental in spawning a culture of disappearances, rape, custodial killings and fake encounters.

Any grant of sweeping powers to security forces ought to be counterbalanced by setting up of strong accountability mechanisms to prevent misuse of powers to preclude cases of human rights violations. This vital consideration is sadly lacking in case of India. The result is that while custodial killings, fake encounter killings, excessive use of force, torture and cases of rape are rampant, the culprits, if at all confronted with their crimes, escape with a rap on the wrist. On aspects of accountability it should be instructive to note what a State Department report observes in the context of human rights violations in Indian Occupied Kashmir. “Accountability remains a serious problem in Jammu and Kashmir. Security Forces committed thousands of serious human rights violations over the course of the 14 years conflict including extra judicial killings, disappearances and torture. Despite this record of abuse only a few hundred members of the security forces have been prosecuted since 1990…Punishments ranged from reduction in rank to imprisonment for up to 10 years”.

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Following the furor caused by Manorama’s killing and the subsequent ‘naked protest ‘, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Manipur and promised to make the AFSPA more ‘humane’. Two panels, the Administrative Reforms Commission and the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee, recommended scrapping the Act but Indian Army has put its ‘boot’ down. It has even refused to accept any amendments to the Act that should circumscribe Army’s untrammeled powers– even as the incidents of rape, custodial deaths, abductions and fake encounters by the Indian Army abound in the insurgency infested areas. “It [repealing or modifying the Act] means asking us to fight with our hands tied,” an unnamed Indian senior military officer was quoted by Indian media as saying. In such bleak setting, the iconic decade long struggle by Irom Sharmila, observing a fast-unto-death and the campaign by the Manipuri youth to take up issue with the Indian Government over the AFSPA happen to be the only beacons of light.