Nine years stand between the killing of Thangjam Manorama Devi in 2004, while in custody of the Assam Rifles in Manipur, and the killing of four unarmed civilians last week by the Border Security Force in Jammu & Kashmir. They coincide with nine years of broken promises from the United Progressive Alliance — to amend the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958, to roll back its application in peaceful areas, and to pursue a policy of “zero tolerance” to human rights abuse by the armed forces. The UPA’s strategy, in the face of vocal opposition to AFSPA’s continued existence, has been to create a façade of “internal deliberation” that invariably falls short of consensus. While the government has taken refuge under the multiplicity of views — emerging from the Army, the Supreme Court, and civil society — to steer clear of concrete action on AFSPA, little has changed on the ground. Nothing but the seductive lure of impunity could have prompted BSF troops in Ramban to fire upon a crowd protesting the latter’s alleged entry into the town mosque. After all, not one member of the armed forces has been made to stand trial in an open court for alleged atrocities committed in Jammu & Kashmir over the last 24 years.
A similar sordid saga has been playing out in the north-east, where AFSPA has been in existence since its inception. The Santosh Hegde committee, appointed by the Supreme Court to investigate encounter killings in Manipur, has methodically exposed the legislation’s failure to tackle insurgency in the State. The committee, whose findings were released last week, examined six incidents, said to have taken place between March 2009-10. It found five of them to be fabricated encounters; all of them involved the disproportionate use of force by the Indian Army and Manipur state police; and all of them resulted in the death of persons with no known criminal antecedents. The committee’s findings with regard to the collaboration between the Assam Rifles and the State Police Commandos are particularly worrisome. During joint operations, the committee notes, CDOs have themselves used lethal force against suspected insurgents, taking advantage of the immunity AFSPA grants to paramilitary forces. The Assam Rifles, on the other hand, have partnered with local police to conduct operations in non-notified areas beyond AFSPA’s realm. Unlike in J&K, where the political establishment has taken a stern and commendable stance against AFSPA’s application to the Valley, Manipur’s politicians are hand in glove with the Centre. If the UPA intends to follow through on its promise to defang AFSPA, it must implement the Hegde Committee’s recommendations and not consign its report to the dustbin the way it did with the B.P. Jeevan Reddy committee that preceded it.