40 YEARS OF A LICENCE TO KILL
On 25th of July 1978, the news paper Indian Express devoted a sizable portion of the front page to report on how the entire Manipur valley was declared disturbed. On 25th July 2018 the newspaper republished a small snippet which stated that according to the 40 year old report — that was the first time that AFSPA or the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act was invoked in Manipur. The step was taken because of escalating violence — security personnel were being killed, their arms stolen and a bank had been looted.
So it has been 4 decades since the Act was first used in Manipur and 38 years since 8th September 1980 that it has been constantly in force across most of the state. Imphal and its surroundings are however currently not under its purview and though AFSPA has been revoked in states like Tripura, Meghalaya and parts of Arunachal Pradesh — the disturbed area tag of Manipur was recently extended for another year.
It is ironic that the AFSPA is actually the ACT the British crown designed to tackle the Quit India Movement of 1942. Under Viceroy Linlithgow the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance of 1942 gave the Armed Forces a “license to kill” when faced with a disturbance. And in independent India the same Act was carried onward to tackle first the unrest in the north eastern chunk of the country and then wherever it was deemed necessary like Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir .
But, getting back to Manipur, it is interesting to note that on 15th of August 1947, with the departure of the British crown, Manipur had initially opted to maintain its status of being a Princely State. Like most other princely states Manipur too acceded to the Dominion of India the limited suzerainty over External affairs, Defence and Communications while internal administration and governance was kept back in the hands of the Maharajah of Manipur and his Council of Ministers. But unlike elsewhere, in Manipur, the Maharajah’s Council also promulgated the Manipur Constitution Act of 1947 that in a sense acted as fodder for those who did not take too kindly to merger with India. The insurgents in the years to come would always hold that the Manipur Constitution Act was proof of the sovereignty of Manipur comparable in equal and adequate measure to that of India and so India had no legitimacy or claim over the state of Manipur.
On September 21st 1949 Bodhchandra Singh, Maharaja of Manipur, who had been invited to Shillong, signed the Instrument of Accession and merged Manipur with the Dominion of India and Manipur became a centrally administered state. After many twists and turns Manipur achieved full statehood in 1972 but by then the first rumblings of insurgency had already begun.
From the mid 1960’s insurgent groups had fed on the Manipuri resentment of having not been treated fairly and respectfully and the spiral of violence kept mounting. To contain the situation the central government resorted to AFSPA but the resentment mounted as did the count of bodies. There have been as many as 25 to 30 well armed and dangerous insurgent groups that have been active in Manipur. But in trying to contain violence the Indian armed forces have themselves been accused of unjustifiable brutality.
A PIL in the Supreme Court gave the figures of 1,528 people killed in encounters by security forces in the state between 2000 and 2012. The Indian Army, the Assam Rifles and the Manipur Police have been accused of staging encounters and killing civilians in Manipur. They have also been accused of extreme high handedness and acting like an occupying force.
Women in Manipur have been leading the charge against the armed forces and women like Irom Sharmila who fasted for 16 years and the Manipur Mothers who protested in the nude drew international attention to their demand that AFSPA be revoked…
There are always 2 sides to any story but debating its validity does not hide the paradox that the draconian AFSPA, that 76 years ago failed to contain the Quit India movement, is still in force in the Manipur of 2018.