AFSPA used by corrupt politicians, security forces as a 'safety net'

AFSPA used by corrupt politicians, security forces as a 'safety net'

A damning report by an apex court appointed commission headed by Justice (retd) N Santosh Hegde on extrajudicial killings in Manipur was recently pooh-poohed, not surprisingly, by the Manipur government backed by the Centre.

The government told the Supreme Court that Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) cannot be removed from the state because 2,192 people, including security personnel, have been killed in the past 20 years. This claim brought satirical grin on the faces of human rights activists – not just another gaggle group but accomplished people who have even participated in proceedings of the UN General Assembly – as they asserted that at least 3,000 people were wasted through extrajudicial methods in 10 years, not 20. This figure does not include unreported cases.

AFSPA, as explained umpteen times in the recent past, allows security forces, regardless of their psychological condition, to shoot people on mere suspicion without bothering about having to go to court later. The Act was enforced in Manipur in 1980 through a rather drab one-page notification by the chief secretary.

It is 2013 today. India has moved on. Maruti 800 is history. People nowadays talk about things like Chandrayaan and Narendra Modi. The chief secretary, L B Thanga, who signed the official notification on behalf of the governor, has also left for the heavenly abode. Yet, the Congress government of Manipur buoyed by the heft of the Congress government in the Centre still thinks that the right time to break the silence on ‘until further order’ has not come. The state government continues to prattle on and on about the need to shape up the condition of security forces as if they are malnourished juveniles.

The army is against removing AFSPA from the state, but the consolation is that they have been giving effort to behave well ever since the killing of Thangjam Manorama Devi in 2004 by Assam Rifles troops. That incident had risked reversing all the gains the Central government had made in trying to integrate Manipur peacefully since the time it merged with India in 1949.

The state police, however, are having a good time. They do anything as they please. At a recent panel discussion on AFSPA in New Delhi, National Human Rights Commission member and former diplomat Satyabrata Pal said the problem in Manipur is that police are a brutal lot. They are perhaps the most brutal police force in the country, and the government of Manipur is the only state government that insists on standing by its police in the face of overwhelming evidence that a murder was committed, he lamented.

To give a taste of how things are in the north-east, he went on to explain that a large number of killings took place for three reasons — some were criminals who could not be put away through the judicial process, and therefore they were killed; the others were innocent victims who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and the third, which is the most tragic, are those who were killed for rewards, out-of-turn promotions and gallantry awards. The third formed a bulk of the reports the NHRC saw, and it seemed to be the driving motive for security forces in that region.

Fake encounters

The judiciary putting its foot down has given a pause to security forces. Till 2012, activists say the average number of people killed by police and army in counter-insurgency operations in Manipur was anywhere between 400 and 500. This year so far, national and international human rights groups have recorded less than five ‘fake encounters.’ Rights groups see the sudden drop in number as proof that indeed, many civilians were earlier killed for reasons ranging from collateral damage to out-of-turn promotions.

The discourse on AFSPA, unfortunately, follows a clichéd pattern of dramatic hero versus villain stories; but the grey area of corrupt politicians, opportunistic policemen and drug-peddling and bootlegging army officers in the north-east is not discussed. A case in point is the arrest of Lt Col Ajay Chaudhary with five others in February this year in a drug haul worth Rs 24 crore in Manipur. The Comptroller and Auditor General's depressing report on governance in Manipur shows that state politicians often hide their failures behind the safety net of insurgency.

So, AFSPA provides protection to corruption in public life and law enforcement. It is the only useful tool that rogue elements in the government can use as a threat to extort from civilians in the name of counter-insurgency. A person walking on the street can be branded as a member of some underground group on wild suspicion if he failed to cough up exorbitant chai-paani. That person is doomed. He has no defence right from the moment he is arrested.

The Indian Penal Code is good enough to deal with the criminal gangs because the real insurgents, the headache-givers to the central government, are confined to their camps in remote jungles of Manipur and Myanmar. The army are supposed to go after them. If the mother camps are busted, it will be difficult for a strong armed resistance to surge again in today’s world. Military planners already know this. A large-scale operation will result in casualties on both sides, but that may solve something.

Which leaves people wondering, if AFSPA is being used to catch petty criminals, isn't it time for it to go? On second thoughts, asking this question is also dangerous.