NEW DELHI - Credit must go to women if the insurgency-hit northeastern Indian
state of Manipur,
bordering Burma, finally gets rid of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers
Act or AFSPA, imposed a quarter of a century ago.
Already the women, protesting for more than a month now, have compelled the
provincial government to lift AFSPA, against the wishes of New Delhi, in the
state capital of Imphal. But the hated law remains in operation in the rest
of Manipur and in the neighboring states of Assam and Nagaland.
The special powers act gives security forces wide scope to shoot suspected
militants on sight with virtual immunity from independent legal inquiry.
It was the AFSPA that enabled the paramilitary Assam Rifles to formally arrest
30-year-old Thangjam Manorama Devi from her home on July 10 on mere suspicion
that she was a member of the banned People's Liberation Army (PLA).
Devi's stunned parents were then issued a memo stating that she was being arrested
as required by the Supreme Court. But hours later her abused and bullet ridden
body was found dumped in Maring, a village outside Imphal.
Since then Imphal has been in flames. On July 15, the rest of the country was
shocked by television images of a group of 12 women stripping naked in front
of the Assam Rifles headquarters outside the historic Kangla Fort and carrying
placards that said "Rape us the way you did Manorama."
"We will continue the agitation until the AFSPA is repealed from the state,"
declared Ramani Devi, secretary of the powerful All- Manipur Women's Social
Promotion and Development Samaj.
And the bets are that the women of Manipur, who have behind them a long history
of resolutely resisting high-handedness from authorities, will once again win
Exactly a century ago Manipuri women collectively resisted an unfair levy on
rice imposed by the British colonial government and followed it up in 1913 by
another agitation to end forced labor that is still practiced in neighboring
Dec. 12 is a state holiday in Manipur in commemoration of "Nupi Lan"
(women's war) in 1939 when women, agitating against the export of rice from
the state in spite of local shortages, surrounded the British administrative
offices at the Kangla Fort.
Although many of the women were badly wounded by bayonet-wielding troops from
the Assam Rifles, they refused to lift their "siege" until given assurances
that the export of rice from the Imphal valley would be stopped.
In more recent times Manipuri women have organized themselves as "Meira
Paibis" (torch bearers), where they present themselves with burning torches,
which in turn are held aloft wherever they feel that their rights as women and
mothers are affected.
In Manipur, often called India's Ireland, only the "Meira Paibis"
have the moral authority to carry their torches in protest against whichever
side armed forces or militant groups might have gone too far in
The "Meira Paibis" have also taken on alcohol and drug abuse and
intervened in family disputes or anything that threatens the social fabric in
Manipur where its citizens are not only caught between insurgents and
armed forces, but also in heroin trafficking rings over the Burmese border.
But these days, the Indian Armed Forces' sweeping powers under AFSPA are at
the receiving end of the group's outrage.
"We thought initially that the Supreme Court order requiring that the arresting
authority issue memos was fair. But this has not stopped custodial killings
and Manorama's case is only the latest in a series," Thokchom Rani, 72-year-old
Meira Paibi leader told reporters in Imphal, last week.
Rani said while she was not opposed to the army taking on the PLA or a bewildering
array of other insurgent groups, she viewed attacks on innocent civilians, especially
Alarmed by the fact that the group's action seems to be gaining momentum due
to widespread support, Union Home Minister Shivraj Patel announced Tuesday that
the central government was prepared to sit down for talks "without preconditions."
Opinion is also growing against the AFSPA which, according to Rakesh Shukla,
a well known Supreme Court advocate, is "unconstitutional and impermissible
in a democratic polity."
The AFSPA is derived from colonial law but is worse in that it even gives a
corporal in the army the right to open fire or use force to the extent of causing
death "if he is of the opinion that it is necessary to do so for the maintenance
of public order." Various commissions of inquiry have substantiated charges
of rape, arson and cold-blooded murder by soldiers during operations such as
the one in Mokokchung in neighboring Nagaland in 1994 and another near Kohima
in the state in 1995.
Chandramani Singh, who served earlier as deputy chief minister of Manipur and
currently leads the opposition in the State Assembly told IPS the AFSPA had
failed to suppress insurgency in the state and had "actually proved counterproductive,
as it has caused insurgency-related activities to increase."