Monday, April 15, 2013

Army's right to rape and kill must go if Northeast is to be part of India

It was pop culture at its defiant best when the Nirvana band sang in 1993: Rape me, Rape me again/ Hate me, Do it and do it again/ Waste me, Rape me, my friend. Kurt Cobain who wrote the lines described it as " a life-affirming song... like she is saying. 'Go ahead, rape me, beat me. You'll never kill me. I'll survive this and I'm going to **ing rape you one of these days and you won't even know it' ".

For the pop stars of America, it was one more jab of fashionable militancy. For a lost generation of women in Manipur in 2004, it was a question of survival when a bunch of them marched to the gates of an army camp, stripped themselves naked and shouted, "Indian army, rape me!". They had been reduced to impotent anger by the rape of a local woman, Thangjam Manorama, by animals in uniform.

As always, it was with honourable intentions that army and paramilitary units assigned to the disturbed areas of Kashmir and the Northeast were given special powers and operational freedom above and beyond the penal code. But, as always, honourable intentions quickly turned into utterly dishonourable conduct on the ground. The Indian army, of which all Indians are proud, allowed itself to be maligned by its own excesses.

A 24/7 reminder of its atrocities and an astonishing phenomenon of our times is Irom Sharmila, described variously as the Iron Lady of Manipur and as Mengoubi, the fair one. Provoked into a protest fast in 2000, she is into the 13th year now, with her rather pathetic nose-feeding photograph becoming familiar in all countries of the world.

Her ordeal began with 'The Malom massacre', the shooting down by Assam Rifles of ten civilians waiting for a bus. Among those killed was an 18-year old girl who was a National Child Bravery Award winner. Her bravery was of no use before cowards with guns.

Outraged but helpless, Sharmila did the only thing she could: Deny herself food. The Government never tackled the basic problems behind her protest, but simply resorted to farcical ways to ensure that she did not die. She received support from political parties, youth organisations and international associations. Awards came, as did books and songs and plays. In her honour Pune University started scholarships to enable 39 Manipuri girls to take degree courses.

What is a blot -- yet another blot -- on our democracy is that despite the non-stop protest by Sharmila and her supporters, and despite the continuing killings that trigger mass demonstrations in Kashmir, nothing is done to address the issue. Army bosses often say that their operations against militants in the border areas cannot go on without the protective shield of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Even if we accept that argument, does it follow that abuses of the Act should be condoned? Most ironically, despite all these many years, the Army's operations in the border areas have neither put down the militancy nor improved India's position in the troubled areas. In fact, the operations have demonstrably generated hatred among the local peoples against India whom they see as a different country. So what is the point of AFSPA?

This is why the Supreme Court's anguished strictures against the Government have not come a day too soon. An expert committee had found that seven persons were killed in Manipur in fake encounters in six cases. That this committee comprised three men of exemplary credentials -- Justice Santosh Hegde, former Chief Election Commissioner J. M. Lyngdoh and retired Director General of Police Ajay Kumar Singh -- gave its findings rare authority.

The Supreme Court said, "We can't tell you how sorrowful we are. What is the use of sitting here? Everything appears meaningless... How many times this court laid down guidelines. We want to proceed further and these things should not happen in future".

A lame-duck Government will not proceed further. The people's only hope is that the Supreme Court will. The Hegde committee recommended the withdrawal of the AFSPA. That would be a welcome starting point. Enough is enough.