In northeastern India, Manipur remains the State worst affected by insurgency. The Assam Rifles, the Army and other security forces have a tough job on their hands. But admittedly, nothing can justify the scale and extent of the fallout of that fight — what the Supreme Court has described, possibly in an understatement imbued with a touch of irony, as “a pattern of carelessness.” It was referring to the findings of the Santosh Hegde Committee appointed by the court, on a public interest petition that sought to highlight mass killings in the State over the last decade. The committee found that seven killings in six instances were the consequence of fake encounters. The petitioners had claimed over 1,500 such deaths. The findings now add force to widespread complaints of human rights violations, reinforced over time by some striking incidents including the assault and killing of Manorama Devi in 2004. The Central government has told the court the Hegde report would be considered at the highest level. But given past experience, it is unlikely that the Centre would act on its own to make a meaningful difference on the ground. The court, which expressed a sense of sorrow and helplessness, must ensure the most precious of all rights — the right to life. The committee having recommended the withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act with respect to Manipur, the court may need to take a call on that contentious question as well — including, crucially, whether the Act is meant to aid civil powers or substitute for them.
The National Human Rights Commission’s plea, in response to the report, to ensure that all encounter incidents be thoroughly investigated under the terms of its guidelines, is a sensible one. That will involve reporting incidents promptly to the NHRC and holding detailed and systematic magisterial inquiries within three months. But all this will add up to nothing if the Centre is unwilling to ensure that security personnel, be they from the Army or the paramiltaries, are held to account for any illegal use of force on their part. Soon after Manorama’s killing at the hands of the Assam Rifles in 2004, the Justice Upendra Commission was set up to probe the incident. Nearly nine years later, its report has yet to see the light of day, let alone be acted upon. It is this culture of pervasive impunity that allows innocent persons to be killed in staged encounters. Coming out with a list of “dos and don’ts for the security forces,” as the government has promised it would do, will hardly suffice. A similar list ensued the last time the apex court heard a major case on the role of the armed forces in the northeast. That was in 1997. This time, it must do more.