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The killing fields of Northeast - Deccan Herald
The killing fields of Northeast
Pradip Phanjoubam,
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Violent deaths of non-violent campaigners for justice redeem, and the sense of tragedy that unfolds thereafter unites, so it is said.

The murder of Gauri Lankesh, the courageous journalist, who relentlessly put up a non-violent resistance against all oppression, is an exemplary validation of this belief. The widespread outrage in the wake of her murder, the bewilderment at the madness of the crime, the uncanny sense of lurking danger this madness has introduced, the helpless rage welling inside those who share Gauri’s beliefs, all point to this. Incidentally, I knew Gauri. We began our careers in journalism together as probationers at The Times of India, New Delhi, in 1986.

If in her death Gauri has given the rest of the nation a sense of helpless vulnerability, this agonising anxiety is not new to some parts of the country. Conflict-ridden Northeast, where summary executions, assassinations and enforced disappearances are routine, is one such. Gauri herself, whose base was in distant Karnataka, was no stranger to this reality of the Northeast. In 2010, in a project for women writers organised by Panos South Asia, she chose to be witness, and travelled across Manipur and Nagaland on a trauma study project.

As the then head of Panos Northeast Sanjay Barbora wrote recently, Gauri was deeply distressed by the "silent screams” she saw in the eyes of the petrified mothers and grandmothers of these states, fearful for their children and grandchildren’s future. She also got to understand the pervasive atmosphere of anger.

Gauri’s death probably has made it easier for the rest of India to understand the depth of devastation fake encounter killings and enforced disappearances bring to entire populations. This is not about numbers and statistics, but of the benumbing psychology of oppression that a combination of fear, helplessness, and bottled up rage with no particular method for delivery or target, brings. They result in paranoiac anxiety amongst many. They also turn dissidence radical in others, perpetuating the cycle of violence.

The state and its non-state challengers are equally capable of these crimes, and both are indeed paying the price of alienating themselves from the people. However, the state as perpetrator is much more sinister. When non-state fighters are behind these crimes, these become law and order problems for which the victims can seek justice and protection from the state, but when the state itself is the perpetrator, it becomes a human rights question - a distinction missed by many.

There is another engaging legal dilemma. Is insurgency war? If it is, should not the laws of war as defined by the Geneva Conventions and The Hague Conventions become applicable? If, on the other hand, insurgency is an internal law and order problem, should it not be only the police that should handle the situation? Since the challenge to the state by the insurgents is military in nature, it may indeed become necessary for the police to be backed up by the firepower of the military, but even in such an eventuality, should not the operational command remain with the police and the guiding principles of these operations continue to arise from the civilian arena and authority?

The answers have been deliberately left ambiguous: insurgency is not war, therefore no questions of international laws of war arise, but it is "war-like”, therefore the use of military under the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958, is legitimate.

Under AFSPA, the Army and other Central forces can use force to the extent of causing death on just suspicion that a person or persons are likely to attack; search and arrest without warrant; destroy suspected shelters, etc., and for all these, the Army personnel are given legal impunity, except in cases where prior prosecution sanctions have been obtained from the Union home ministry.

After six decades of AFSPA, the climate of impunity that it grants has expectedly become widespread. For instance, of the many fake encounter killings in Manipur and Assam, a good number of them have been at the hands of the police, although AFSPA does not cover the police. Indeed, encounter killings in Manipur peaked towards the end of the first decade of this century. Reciprocally, the number of gallantry medals Manipur Police won at every Republic Day climbed up. Consequently, most people now believe that AFSPA is responsible for all cases of human rights violation by state forces - Army and police alike.

Manipur is the epicentre of AFSPA controversies currently, but insurgency-prone Nagaland, Mizoram and Assam have also had their share of horror stories. For instance, the chilling secret killings in Assam towards the end of the last century in which the state government, in collaboration with the Army, systematically murdered not just militant suspects and sympathisers but also their relatives, will not be forgotten easily.

Fake encounter killings in Manipur is again centre-stage following a Supreme Court ruling on July 8 this year, directing fresh probes into 98, out of an alleged 1,528, fake encounter cases listed by two organisations -- the Extrajudicial Execution Victim Families’ Association, Manipur (EEVFAM) and Human Rights Alert, HRA, Manipur -- in their petition to the court.

In the ruling, Justices Madan B. Lokur and Uday U. Lalit not only drew attention to the draconian nature of AFSPA but also circumscribed it, saying certain crimes cannot come under its impunity clause. In an earlier ruling, the same court had also said the use of excessive force by the police or Army cannot be permitted even under AFSPA.

The ruling was unambiguous about the limits of AFSPA. For AFSPA itself says nothing about extrajudicial killings or rape. More conspicuously, it says nothing about atrocities by the police. The implication is, these crimes are offences by the civilian authority and therefore deserving of civilian adjudication.

In conflict-torn regions like the Northeast, reality becomes skewed both in the eyes of victims as well as the perpetrators. While victims are often overwhelmed by a perception that AFSPA puts their tormentors above the law of the land, the perpetrators, too, often come to believe that AFSPA gives them the licence to do what they please, without the fear of law.

The Supreme Court ruling of July has exploded this myth.

(The writer is Editor, Imphal Free Press, and author of The Northeast Question: Conflicts and frontiers)