The people of Manipur are angry, resentful and disillusioned with the price they have had to pay in the name of security. They have endured tough laws that restrict their rights as citizens in a democratic country. Their experience of security provided by the state has been abysmal. Manipuris have borne the brunt of violence from secessionist militants who obey no laws and from the stateís coercive apparatus. In addition to armed violence, they have been inflicted with insidious violence in the form of corruption, misgovernance and venal politics. The situation was ripe for one ghastly incident of excessive and mindless action to happen. The alleged deliberate killing of a Manipuri woman by Assam Rifles personnel provided the spark for an unprecedented public response.
Public outrage in Manipur has manifested itself in the form of a demand for the revocation of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. The powers which the act invests on the armed forces in disturbed areas are well known. They have been described as draconian, against the tenets of human rights, and excessive. It is felt that the AFSPA is the cause of all problems in Manipur. Consequently, its revocation is perceived to be the solution to the current situation in the state. In the face of widespread peopleís anger, the government of Manipur has withdrawn the act from the municipal limits of Imphal. The reality in Manipur is, however, different. The revocation of the act will not only not solve the difficulties of Manipurís people, but will in fact worsen their daily life.
In the absence of the AFSPA, the army will not be able to conduct its operations against militants who have terrorized the population for decades. The territory of Manipur is under contention by the National Socialist Council of Nagalim, and is under negotiation with New Delhi. If its main demand for a greater Nagaland including parts of Manipur are not met, the possibility of a terrorist campaign cannot be ruled out. There are other terrorist and militant groups operating in Manipur whose writ will run wild without the armyís continuing operations. The violence such groups will unleash will be beyond the capability of the state-armed police and Manipur Rifles. When such groups start fighting each other, civil war conditions will prevail and no part of Manipur would be safe.
The AFSPA was applied in Manipur more than two decades ago. It was done at a time when violence in its most chaotic form prevailed in the state. That it continues for so long is the requirement of the political leadership of Manipur. Irrespective of the party which ruled from Imphal, every ruling political leadership wanted the army to be present in the state and therefore wanted the AFSPA to continue. The army on its part had recommended to the ministry of defence and the cabinet a number of times that it should be disengaged from the state. Political choices ensured the armyís permanent presence.
The army came into Manipur in conditions of extreme insecurity. It was brought in to eliminate and root out militant groups from their strongholds, stop them from forc- ibly extorting money, recruiting men and women against the popular will. Army operations have by necessity to be violent and forceful. Such intense operations cannot also be conducted indefinitely. Indeed, they should be conducted over specific areas and for short periods. The purpose of such operations is to eliminate the hardcore militants and to create conditions in which negotiations can be conducted between the government and militant organizations.
The violent and forceful operations the army conducts cannot be constrained by the normal laws that apply to police forces. Armed forces are in need of legal protection when they are asked by the government to carry out full-scale operations against armed militant groups. The AFSPA provides that protection. It is not a sanction to kill indiscriminately. As in the case of Monorama, if misuse of the act takes place, deterrent penal action must be taken against the guilty.
The real problem in Manipur is not the excessive powers which the act provides. The real problem is of keeping the act in place indefinitely, and asking the army to conduct full-force operations indefinitely. The army would be quite happy to be relieved of security responsibilities and go out of Manipur. In that case, there would be no need for the AFSPA. The real issue is of security choices made by the political leadership. It cannot let go of the army, and the latterís presence requires the AFSPA.
The people of Manipur are articulate and aware of these issues. Manipuris have had the longest experience of the military since the Allied Armies used the area for recapturing Burma from the Japanese. The issue therefore is not of the AFSPA or the behaviour of the army. The army cannot and must not tolerate gross abuse of powers by its men and officers. Equally, the political leadership must not also seek the permanent presence of the army without the AFSPA.
It is strange to see the political unconcern in Manipur and in the other north-eastern states about the permanent presence of the army on the streets for decades. In fact, such presence is an admission of the failure of governance. Of course, everybody knows how the armyís presence is used or misused for electoral and political gains. That flawed political choice, and not the AFSPA is the real issue in Manipur. To continue to argue against the AFSPA amounts to losing direction in the Manipuriís fight to live in peace from terrorism.