TORTURE: ASIAN AND GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES | AUG – OCT 2014
VOLUME 03 NUMBER 04 & 05


The present situation is quite chaotic. The prolonged militarization has created abnormality in the life in my place. Right now, people are still protesting against AFSPA to repeal this draconian act of the State.

VOICE FROM THE GRASSROOTS

Sadokpam Ranjeeta is a research associate at Human Rights Alert (HRA) based in Manipur. HRA is one of the leading organizations that has taken up key issues concerning human rights violations in India’s Northeast, particularly the state of Manipur. She recently shared her experiences as a human rights defender in one of the most difficult areas on the planet.

Following are excerpts from the interview:

Torture Magazine (TM): What made you work on human rights?

Sadokpam Ranjeeta (SR): The land, the state of Manipur, where I was born, and the socio-economic and political environment in which I grew up made me the person I am today. I come from a place where armed political conflict has been a prominent feature of everyday life. Since my childhood, I have been witnessing innocent citizens subjected to inhuman treatment by the state forces in the name of counter insurgency operations.

In the beginning of the 1990s, the state from where I hailed had witnessed not only clashes between armed militant groups and state forces, but also inter-ethnic clashes between the Naga tribe and the Kuki tribe.

I was around ten years old. As I was studying in a missionary school along with children from both ethnic groups, I was emotionally distraught with the gloomy trend of ethnic hatred and group clashes, though my own community was not directly involved in these clashes.

I was in the fifth standard when my friend’s parents became victims of the clashes. That day I realized how the common people could be affected by conflict.

I was too young to understand what was going on. I was also shocked to hear that a village near my school was razed to the ground, displacing hundreds of villagers, including my own school mates.

I decided to contribute on my part, when the school decided to launch a small relief measure for the affected village. As the class captain, I was one of the students who took initiatives to collect relief items including food items and clothes. Then we, including our teachers, visited the village. The sight gave me a jolt I’ve never experienced before, when I saw half burnt books and school uniforms of the children who studied in my school.

Ranjeeta_1

Sadokpam Ranjeeta , Research associate at Human Rights Alert (HRA) based in Manipur

I became much involved in student movements for human rights and other issues affecting the society, when I was in the high school.

I still remember the day my high school principal advised me to refrain from any student movements if I decided to go for higher studies. He was worried about me and knew deep within what I already had in my mind.

During my college days in India’s capital New Delhi, I began joining various student movements for human rights, particularly the campaign to repeal draconian laws enacted by the Indian government.

Until now, I continue to associate myself with issues concerning human rights and state sponsored violence against its own citizens.

TM: In terms of your work as a human rights defender, what’s the most challenging situation you have ever faced?

SR: One of the most challenging situations I have faced as a human rights defender is building trust between the people you are working with.

I work with so many women who have lost their sons and husbands in extrajudicial killings. In the process, the mothers and widows of the victims have to provide adequate emotional succor so that they stand united in their resolve to continue the fight for justice. In an emotionally charged situation, it is very challenging to be free from subjective feelings while not forgetting the objective implications of challenging state-sponsored atrocities.

In an attempt to make the State deliver justice to the victims and their family members, our organization has been challenging the State in the courts.

Another important aspect is to support the family members of the victims both mentally and financially so then they can sustain their livelihood.

Most of the families of the victims are from the lower middle class families in which either the deceased sons or husbands had been the sole breadwinners of the family.

Their lives were entirely changed right after the death of their husbands or sons. In their continued fight for justice, they have undergone tremendous difficulties including facing collective scorn from the society in various forms. Apparently, the society believes those living relatives of the victims are cursed.

In the last five years of working with them, I have realized that if someone needs to work with them, there is no way he or she can escape the collective feelings of being oppressed by the social and political system on the ground. This is one of the most challenging aspects of working with widows and mothers in conflict.

TM: Tell us about the historical background of the conflict in your native place?

SR: Manipur was an independent kingdom until it was defeated by the British Raj in the Anglo-Manipur War 1891. Despite the defeat, Manipur was not annexed to British India, but kept as a princely state with much internal autonomy till the British rulers left in 1947. Consequently, Manipur’s relations with the Dominion of India were governed by the terms of the “Instrument of Accession” signed by the Maharaja (king) of Manipur. Under this, the Indian Government exercised powers in respect of defence, external affairs and communications while residuary powers resided with Manipur.

The historical background to the present conflict in Manipur can be traced back to the political developments during 1947-1949.

Under the Manipur Constitution Act 1947 enacted by the Manipur Maharaja-in-Council, elections to a 52-member Manipur Legislature were held under universal adult suffrage in June-July 1948. The Maharaja became the nominal head of Manipur government while real powers were exercised by a council of ministers responsible to the elected legislature.

Meanwhile, under the terms of the Indian Independence Act 1947 which gave independence to India and Pakistan, more than 500 princely states in the Indian sub-continent could join either of the two Dominions. Indian leaders began to put all kinds of pressures on these princely states including Manipur to incorporate them into the Dominion of India.

In Manipur’s case, the Government of India first posted a ‘Dewan’ to Manipur on the pretext of looking after the treaty relations between Manipur and the Dominion Government of India while actually the person, a retired Major General, was a Trojan Horse.

In September 1949, Maharaja Bodh Chandra was requested by the Governor of Assam to visit Shillong, the capital of Assam, to discuss issues about election of a candidate to the Manipur legislature. However, on reaching Shillong the Maharaja was told to sign on dotted lines an agreement for merger of Manipur into the Indian Dominion. When the Maharaja refused pleading he was just a nominal head of government, he was subjected to emotional blackmail and kept in confinement for many days without any kind of contact with the world outside.

On 21 September 1949, the Maharaja signed the so-called Manipur Merger Agreement under duress. And on 15 October 1949, Manipur became formally a part of India as a Part ‘C’ State under a Chief Commissioner. Simultaneously, all constitutional, political and legal underpinnings for democratic governance in Manipur were dismantled and replaced by the autocratic rule of the Chief Commissioner with whom all legislative and executive powers were concentrated.

Thus the political roots of the conflict in Manipur lies in the controversial merger of Manipur into India and consequent denial of democratic space to the people ever since.

The Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1948 (earlier version) was imposed on Manipur on 16 April 1950 by the Government of India to suppress an armed peasant movement in the early fifties led by legendary revolutionary Hijam Irawat against the new political dispensation.

The Naga tribes in the then Naga Hills of Assam began their own armed rebellion in mid fifties demanding independence from India and it gradually spilled over into adjacent areas including Manipur. To counter this threat, the Government of India enacted the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act 1958 (AFSPA). And AFSPA has been imposed on Manipur for over half a century till today.

As such, Indian democracy has all along been rendered meaningless to the people of Manipur by the de facto military rule over them under AFSPA. No difference has been felt in the lives of the people in terms of a life with human dignity even if the political status of Manipur was upgraded from that of Part ‘C’ State to that of a full-fledged State over the last five decades.

Besides, historically, racially, culturally and politically, Manipur was never a part of mainland India until October 1949. At present, Manipur is like an extension of Southeast Asia into the Indian subcontinent.

It is therefore not surprising that the first armed opposition group in Manipur demanding national self-determination, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), was formed in 1964. It was joined by many other militant organizations both in the hills and the valley of Manipur in subsequent years. The resultant armed conflict situation has claimed thousands of lives, and many more have become victims of torture, rape and illegal detentions.

TM: Tell us about the AFSPA? Why are you protesting against the AFSPA?

SR: Once an area is declared ‘disturbed’ under AFSPA, the armed forces can destroy any property and can arrest, detain, torture and even kill any person on mere suspicion. AFSPA gives them practical immunity from prosecution in carrying out such egregious human rights violations. In the last half a century that AFSPA has been in force in Manipur, the phenomena of enforced ‘disappearances’, extra-judicial killings, torture, rapes, arbitrary detentions, etc, have become endemic.

The people of Manipur have persistently struggled against AFSPA and has, in the process, transformed Manipur society. For example, when human rights violations became a daily phenomenon in Manipur valley in the eighties, the womenfolk took to the streets and by-lanes with bamboo torches in their hands and stood in vigil for whole nights and confronted the armed forces when they came to abduct young men of their localities. These young men are routinely tortured in army camps and some of them ‘disappear’ without a trace. Manipur society have responded to atrocities by the armed forces by giving birth to a grassroots mass movement of women known as the Meira Paibis (literally and figuratively, ‘the torch bearers’).

A young woman, Ms Irom Sharmila Chanu, has been on a hunger strike for the last 14 years demanding repeal of AFSPA.

All relevant UN human rights treaty bodies, the three UN Special Rapporteurs who visited India recently and the UN Working Group on Universal Periodic Review (UPR) have recommended the repeal of AFSPA.

The Special Rapporteur on Summary, Arbitrary and Extra-Judicial Executions, Mr Christof Heyns, conducted his official mission to India in March 2012. His report to Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly includes critical observations on AFSPA:

“ 27. In the Special Rapporteur’s view, the powers granted under AFSPA are in reality broader than that allowable under a state of emergency as the right to life may effectively be suspended under the Act and the safeguards applicable in a state of emergency are absent. Moreover, the widespread deployment of the military creates an environment in which the exception becomes the rule, and the use of lethal force is seen as the primary response to conflict. This situation is also difficult to reconcile in the long term with India’s insistence that it is not engaged in an internal armed conflict. The Special Rapporteur is therefore of the opinion that retaining a law such as AFSPA runs counter to the principles of democracy and human rights. Its repeal will bring domestic law more in line with international standards, and send a strong message that the Government is committed to respect the right to life of all people in the country.”

In simple terms, the people of Manipur are protesting against AFSPA for restoration of real democracy and for a peaceful life with human dignity.

TM: What is different between the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance of 1942, promulgated by the British on August 1942 to suppress the Quit India Movement, and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), an Act the Parliament of India passed on September 1958?

SR: The Armed Forces (Special Powers) 1942 Ordinance promulgated by the British colonialists on 15 August 1942 was to suppress “Quit India Movement,” which was applied to all states of India.

The Armed Forces Special Powers Act in 1958 was enacted in 1958 in order to quell the ethnic uprising in Naga Hills in North East of India. The Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act, 1958 empowered only the Governors of the States and the Administrators of the Union Territories to declare areas in the concerned State as ‘disturbed’. Once an area is declared ‘disturbed’ under AFSPA, the armed forces can destroy any property and can arrest, detain, torture and even kill any person on mere suspicion.

TM: Tell us about your activities and the present situation in the area.

SR: I have documented cases of human rights violation by interviewing rape victims and other victims for crimes committed under the shadow of AFSPA. I have also documented victims’ family members and the issues they face after extrajudicial killings of their sons and husbands or relatives.

Our organization also started facilitating organizations of mothers and widows of victims of extrajudicial killings and later they came under a platform called Extrajudicial Execution Victims Families Association, Manipur (EEVFAM).

My work entails coordinating with these women. I facilitate human rights education, workshops, campaigns, solidarity meets and try to link these people to legal aid and to provide assistance to victims or their families to access and get justice. We also help them with exposure trips with other people and other countries around the world. For their livelihood support, we started a self-help group some years back. The idea behind the support group was to help enable them lead a normal life and support their family members besides taking care of their children. And in recent years, with the collaboration with our organisation and Asian Legal Resource Centre, we started giving trauma healing treatments and organized workshops for these women who have been affected right after their husbands and sons got killed.

In 2012, EEVFAM and my organisation have petitioned the Supreme Court of India requesting prosecution of the security forces personnel involved in 1528 extra-judicial executions in Manipur from 1979 onwards. In March 2013 a commission appointed by the Supreme Court probed into six randomly chosen cases, and in all of them the commission established the fact of extra-judicial killings. However, the apex court is yet to begin hearings on the case.

The present situation is quite chaotic. The prolonged militarization has created abnormality in the life in my place. Right now, people are still protesting against AFSPA to repeal this draconian act of the State.

How do you elaborate, the Shamila’s legacy, section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (which punishes an attempt to commit suicide with a prison term of up to 1 year) and the recent judgment on her?

Irom Sharmila Chanu, a woman from Manipur who is an activist and a poet also known as Iron Lady, who has been hunger strike for the last 14 years demanding to repeal Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) 1958, from Manipur. This 42-year-old woman started her hunger strike when the security personnel killed ten innocent people in Malom, Manipur, on 2 November, 2000. She started her hunger strike on 5 November at the place where the massacre took place. She was arrested the next day and criminally charged for ‘attempting to commit suicide’ under the section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. On 21 November she was subjected to force feeding by inserting a tube into her nose. The ‘tube’ became an inseparable part of her visage till today.

After this, a meaningless ritual continued for the next fourteen years. She would be produced before a magistrate after every 15 days and then remanded back to judicial custody in a high security hospital. The ritual continues for one year, which is the maximum period of custody for a prisoner under trial for allegedly attempting to commit suicide. So she is annually released, only to be rearrested within a day or two on the same charge.

After so many years, a court in Manipur has recently set aside the charges against her of ‘attempting to commit suicide’ and ruled that she was making a political demand using a historically rooted and constitutionally established form of protest. But the state challenged the order in the higher court and rearrested her on the second day of her freedom. Ms Irom Sharmila’s unparalleled struggle continues uninterrupted. Amnesty International had earlier recognized her as a prisoner of conscience.

TM: What is your message to the newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government?

SR: In July 2004, a young woman called Ms Thangjam Manorama was picked up from her house in the middle of the night by the armed forces. Next morning, her bullet-ridden body, with semen stains on her undergarments, was found on the roadside about three kilometres away from her house. Outraged twelve Manipuri mothers stood naked in front of the military headquarters in Imphal and challenged the military shouting, ‘India Army! Kill us. Rape us. We are all Manorama’s mother’.

The spontaneous and massive public protests in its wake left Manipur almost anarchic for the next few months. A student leader called Mr Pebam Chittaranjan doused himself with petrol on a busy road and burned to death in full public view, shouting ‘Repeal AFSPA’, on 15 August 2004.

In a desperate effort to calm down the enraged public, Manipur government reportedly defied Government of India and lifted the ‘disturbed area’ status under AFSPA from the municipal areas of Imphal. Government of India also followed by constituting the ‘Committee to Review the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (1958)’ headed by a former Judge of the Supreme Court of India. The committee in their report submitted on 5 June 2005 concluded:

“…… the Act, for whatever reason, has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness. It is highly desirable and advisable to repeal this Act, altogether…”

However, the Government of India have neither accepted nor rejected the Committee’s report till today and its contents have not been officially revealed to the public. Many more Indian official committees and commissions have endorsed the position of the above-mentioned Committee and recommended the repeal of AFSPA.

Despite all these persuasions and pressures on the Government of India to repeal AFSPA and despite the fact that India’s prestige as a democratic country is being tarnished internationally by the continuation of AFSPA, the Government of India have not yet found the political will to overcome counter-pressures allegedly coming from vested interests in the armed forces for its continuation.

Therefore, I wish that the new Prime Minister of India, Mr Narendra Modi, has the political wisdom and determination to repeal AFSPA as soon as possible.