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Does anybody care about Manipur?

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DETERMINED STRUGGLE: Manipur Chief Minister Ibobi Singh with Irom Sharmila, who has been on a hunger strike for the last six years seeking repeal of the AFSPA, in New Delhi on October 6.
DETERMINED STRUGGLE: Manipur Chief Minister Ibobi Singh with Irom Sharmila, who has been on a hunger strike for the last six years seeking repeal of the AFSPA, in New Delhi on October 6.

Siddharth Varadarajan

The question of repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act needs to be debated publicly in the light of the Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy Committee's report.

THERE IS a statement, perhaps apocryphal, that Mahatma Gandhi supposedly made to the effect that satyagraha worked against the British but might not have against a more ruthless opponent like the Germans. Considering the indifference with which Official India has greeted the unprecedented civic protest in Manipur against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act these past few years, the question arises whether we have become the kind of opponent Gandhiji spoke about. That we have so inoculated ourselves against the weapon of peaceful protest that nothing other than guns and bombs seems to rouse us from our torpor.

Two years ago, the abduction and killing of Manorama triggered massive protests by the people of Manipur against the AFSPA. A group of brave Manipuri women shook the conscience of the whole of India by baring themselves in front of the guns and bayonets of the Army. Thanks to the power of democratic protest, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told a delegation of the Apunba Lup the umbrella organisation spearheading the campaign in New Delhi in November 2004 that he would consider replacing the AFSPA with "a more humane law that will address both the concerns of national security and the rights of citizens."

Later that month, Dr. Singh went to Imphal and met some of the women who had staged that dramatic protest against the AFSPA outside Kangla Fort. According to a report filed soon after by the Press Trust of India, the Prime Minister "held the hand of a weeping mother and said, `We will do something'."

True to his word, the Prime Minister appointed a high-level committee headed by Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy with the mandate of "review[ing] the provisions of AFSPA ... and advis[ing] the Government of India whether (a) to amend the provisions of the Act to bring them in consonance with the obligations of the Government towards protection of human rights; or (b) to replace the Act by a more humane Act." The members of the committee were carefully selected so that the concerns of the Union Government and the security forces would not be unrepresented. There was one retired General, V.R. Raghavan, who, prior to joining the committee, had advocated in newspaper columns the case for the continuation of AFSPA in Manipur. There was also a senior retired official from the Union Home Ministry, P.P. Srivastava. From civil society were the academician S.B. Nakade and the journalist Sanjoy Hazarika.

Though the composition of the committee led some impetuous critics to suggest the outcome of its exertions would be to advocate the retention of the law, the Prime Minister's nominees took their job seriously and discharged their mandate fairly and objectively. Extensive public hearings were conducted in all Northeastern States and in Delhi. The views of the armed forces and various government departments were also solicited.

The Jeevan Reddy panel submitted its recommendations in under seven months. On June 6, 2005, its five members unanimously signed off on the report. Shortly thereafter, a copy was handed over to Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil. Since then, however, the process has inexplicably ground to a halt. Nearly a year and a half has elapsed with the Government refusing to say anything definitive about its recommendations. This is presumably not what the Prime Minister meant when he told that weeping mother, "We will do something."

Though the report was never made public because of the opposition of the Army and the Ministry of Defence, a misleading summary of its findings was leaked to the press according to which the Jeevan Reddy Committee was seeking little more than a change of nomenclature: Scrap the AFSPA, but retrofit the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act with all its controversial provisions. One can only surmise that the intention of this half-truth was to so discredit the report that no one would bother agitating for its release.

This neat equation, however, came unstuck last week with the unexpected arrival in Delhi of Irom Sharmila. Ms. Sharmila has been on a hunger strike for the past six years demanding repeal of the AFSPA. Unlike other hunger strikers, she has not allowed even a drop of water to cross her lips all this while. She cleans her teeth with cotton and not water and has been kept alive through force-feeding via a nasal drip five times a day. Last week, her fifth sequential one-year sentence for "attempted suicide" expired and before she could be rearrested she boarded a plane to the national capital. After a visit to Rajghat, she settled down at Jantar Mantar demanding that the Jeevan Reddy Committee report be released and the AFSPA be repealed.

Life and death issue

As the extracts published in this newspaper on Saturday confirm, the report clearly recommends scrapping the Armed Forces Act. At the same time, acknowledging both the reality of insurgency and the fact that the armed forces cannot be deployed inside the country without a proper legal framework, the Committee has pointed out that the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act already provides the kind of protection against legal suits the armed forces are demanding. What is needed are amendments to protect civilians against the abuse of power. Thus, it has sought the insertion of important safeguards to ensure there is no violation of human rights.

In fairness to the Committee and to all those who have been exercised about the Armed Forces Act, the report deserves a careful and critical reading. Its recommendations need not be considered the final word. In an open society, they can and should be debated and ways found to improve the core suggestions. But for this to happen, it is essential that the report be put in the public domain. The AFSPA has become a question of life and death for millions of people in India today. And they have a right to discuss it.

Now that the report has been unofficially released by The Hindu, its contents can be studied and evaluated by civil society. But what is mystifying is the inordinate time the Manmohan Singh Government has taken in forming an official opinion on its recommendations. The Prime Minister is entitled to reject or modify the recommendations of the Reddy committee if he wants. In turn, the people of Manipur, the Northeast, and the rest of India are entitled to draw whatever conclusions they wish about the sincerity of the promises he made in November 2004. If the Government wants to retain the AFSPA despite the measured counsel of Justice Jeevan Reddy and his colleagues, let it do so. The only requirement is that Dr. Singh and his officials should have the courage openly to defend their decision rather than dodging responsibility by claiming the report is "still being studied."

In the film Lage Raho Munnabhai, which the Prime Minister himself has confessed to admiring, citizens are urged to send flowers to someone who is suffering from a social affliction or ailment. For Gandhiji, indecisiveness was a disease as deadly as indifference. Fifteen months is a long time to study a report prepared by one's own hand-picked experts. Is Dr. Singh suffering from indecisiveness? Should the people of India start sending flowers to 7 Race Course Road?


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