IMPHAL, INDIA – Tens of thousands of Indian troops are deployed to these remote borderlands, their mission to fight a decades-long armed separatist rebellion.
But for years, residents of the area have alleged that security forces have also waged a separate war of rape and murder of civilians, one they continue with impunity because federal law virtually prohibits the prosecution of soldiers in conflict zones.
Now, 2,500 km away in the capital, New Delhi, there is a new demand to change that. A committee established last month in the wake of mass protests over a gruesome gang rape recommended that the law be re-examined. At the very least, the Justice Verma Committee said, soldiers accused of rape should be tried under civilian law.
But the government has dragged its feet. Although it implemented many of the committee’s suggestions for new protections for women in an emergency ordinance passed this month, the recommendation to curb the armed forces’ immunity was set aside. The government said it was reluctant to tell the army what to do.
While the New Delhi protests prompted India to re-examine its treatment of women, the debate over soldiers’ immunity — and the dark history in the border region — have underscored the limits of the power of India’s democracy to effect change when it comes up against entrenched vested interests such as the army, a supposedly apolitical institution that wields significant influence.
“We can’t move forward because there is no consensus,” Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said in a recent speech on national security, according to local media reports.
Referring to the immunity law by its full name, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA, Chidambaram continued: “The present and former army chiefs have taken a strong position that the act should not be amended. . . . How does the government move forward . . . to make the AFSPA a more humanitarian law?”
In the state of Manipur, where a local human rights group has documented 1,528 alleged extrajudicial executions and many cases of rape and sexual assault carried out by the police and army in the past three decades, the stalling of momentum has caused little surprise.
In 2004, soldiers arrested 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama Devi in the early morning, then left her bruised and bullet-ridden body by the roadside a few hours later. Police forensics experts concluded that she had been tortured and shot at close range while lying down. They also found evidence that she might have been raped.
For months afterward, the tiny hill state on the border with Myanmar erupted in protest. A group of women made national headlines when they stripped naked in front of an army barracks and held up a large banner that read “Indian Army rape us.”
But the Manipur incident changed nothing.
For eight years, the Indian government has blocked the release of a judicial investigation into Manorama’s death, fighting a long legal battle that has now reached the Supreme Court, nor has it made any move to prosecute those responsible.
A committee that was formed to review the AFSPA concluded in 2005 that it should be repealed. But its findings were never officially released — although they were eventually leaked — nor were they implemented.
Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch, a watchdog group, said the pressure the army is bringing to bear on the government over the issue is “extremely worrying in a democracy.” Others, including Sanjoy Hazarika, a member of the 2005 commission that demanded the law be repealed, say the government is equally to blame.
Manipur, with a population of a little more than 2 million, is tiny by Indian standards, and the country’s economic development of the past two decades has largely passed it by. Most of its residents are Hindus but are of Tibetan-Burmese origin and are thought to look more Burmese than Indian; they feel their countrymen look down on them. An armed separatist rebellion began there in the 1960s and has led to about 20,000 deaths.
For 12 years, a Manipuri woman, Irom Sharmila, has been on a hunger strike against the armed forces act. Having been convicted in court of intent to take her own life, she is under police guard in a hospital and force-fed through her nose.
Last week, Sharmila, 40, emerged from the hospital for a biweekly appearance in court, and, in an interview outside the courtroom, while being flanked by two female police officers, Sharmila said she was not optimistic that the government would relent any time soon.
The formation of committees is a tactic to deflect public anger, she said in halting English, and the people of Manipur are not given the respect accorded to other Indians. “They treat us like stepchildren,” she said before police whisked her away.
Across town, 37-year-old Neena Ningombam has cared for her two children alone since her husband was taken away by police in November 2008. A few hours later his body, with a hand grenade planted next to it, was shown on television, supposedly that of a rebel killed after attacking the police.
In one sense, Ningombam is lucky. Witnesses saw her husband being arrested, and they have not been intimidated into silence. A local magistrate who investigated the case found that her husband had never been involved in a militant group and that he was killed in what is known locally as a “fake encounter.”
Babloo Loitongbam of Human Rights Alert, a local rights group that has documented the alleged rapes and extrajudicial executions, said members of the security forces who kill militants are rewarded with cash, medals and promotions.
“An incentive structure has created vested interests in the army and police just to kill people on the flimsiest charges,” he said, “while the judicial process has completely failed.”
With Loitongbam’s help, the widows of Manipur are fighting back. Responding to a petition they have filed, the Supreme Court appointed a respected three-person team last month to look into the alleged extrajudicial executions. Yet another committee of inquiry, it could nevertheless put more pressure on the government to roll back what residents describe as a cloak of impunity shrouding events in Manipur.