It's the Centre's call

Hopes that the United Progressive Alliance Government at the Centre would act decisively were belied when the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs (CCPA) after a brainstorming session on Thursday decided to "watch the developments" in Manipur.

The Defence Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, said after the CCPA meeting that it was not a question of agreement or disagreement with the Manipur Government's decision to lift the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act from parts of Imphal. It became clear that New Delhi was veering round to the view that under the prevailing circumstances it did not have many options, least of all to act in a harsh manner.

Legally, the Manipur Government does not need the Centre's approval to lift the Act as the State Cabinet had slapped it. The Centre can always reimpose it if it wants to. Mr. Mukherjee pointed out that the Centre had done so in Nagaland.

Olive branch

For the time being, the 28-month-old Congress-led Secular Progressive Front (SPF) Government in Manipur appears to have extended an olive branch to the protestors who have been demanding withdrawal of the Act from the entire State. The State Government had, in fact, issued a notification on May 30 this year extending the AFSPA to the whole of Manipur and modified it on August 11 by excluding Imphal city from the Act's purview.

Monitoring the situation in Manipur, the Union Home Ministry feels there are three different issues at stake under the prevailing situation in the State. First, the death of Manorama Devi and the failure to punish the guilty swiftly, which led to the protests. Secondly, the demand to withdraw the controversial Act from the entire State. This, the Ministry feels, could spark a similar demand from other Northeastern States faced with insurgencies especially Nagaland.

Thirdly, the long-term possibility of replacing Assam Rifles in Manipur with any other paramilitary force.

Will not be `rigid'

The Union Home Minister, Shivraj Patil, said the Centre would not be "rigid" in dealing with the situation in Manipur and hinted at a relook at the "draconian" provisions of the Act. "If the situation in Manipur returns to normalcy, there will not be any need of the Act," he said adding that there were people who wanted the Act to stay for protection of their lives and property.

Another view is offered by a former Manipur Chief Minister, R.K.Dorendra Singh, who said experience showed the Act was counterproductive. In his opinion, it may have given some benefits initially but the Army and Central forces had exceeded their brief. Another former Chief Minister, Reishang Keishing, last week met the Prime Minister, the Home Minister and the UPA chairperson, Sonia Gandhi, to plead Manipur's case.

Under the AFSPA, even a non-commissioned officer can search without a warrant and execute arrests on mere suspicion in order to "maintain public order." He cannot be prosecuted without prior sanction of the Centre.

For the UPA Government, faced with manifold pressures on the internal security front, Manipur could become a test case of its ability to handle a volatile situation.

There has not been any initiative to invite an all party delegation for talks or call the protestors for a dialogue or send a senior Central Minister to ImphalAs a first step towards pushing Northeast up on the Centre's agenda, the UPA Government has asked Secretaries of all departments to make effective visits to the region and apprise the Prime Minister's Office of the pace of development.Northeast watchers in the Capital pointed out that Assam Rifles, meant to assist the civil administration in tackling insurgency, had handed out rough treatment even to Reishang Keishing, and officers of the rank of Director-General of Police.

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