How it deals with dissenters and even rebels is a crucial test for a democracy. It cannot do what a totalitarian State does —use guns to silence all dissent. Disturbing questions have long been raised about alleged abuses of State powers in Manipur. The Supreme Court’s latest observations on ‘extra-judicial killings’ in the state should make both Imphal and New Delhi rethink their strategies for fighting insurgents in Manipur. The court apparently accepted that the allegations about the killings in ‘fake’ encounters are not all baseless. True, large numbers of policemen and others from the army and paramilitary forces have also been killed. But that does not justify the State using ‘extra-judicial killings’ in its battle against the insurgents. Many among the victims have always been civilians whose links with militant groups and their activities were not proved beyond doubt. The deaths of civilians in allegedly fake encounters expose the State to the charge of waging a war against its own people. Secessionists in Manipur have to be fought, but it would be a disastrous strategy to treat ordinary people as enemies of the State. New Delhi and Imphal must do all they can to avoid that danger.
At the centre of the controversies about human rights violations in Manipur is the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Civil rights groups in the state blame it for most of the ‘extra-judicial killings’. The act not only gives the security forces extraordinary powers but also makes them immune to legal and other kinds of scrutiny. Manipur’s most famous civil rights activist, Irom Sharmila, has been on an indefinite fast for 12 years, demanding the repeal of the act. The time may have come for the Centre to ponder if the act is really necessary in the anti-insurgency battle in Manipur. The act is supposed to be invoked in fighting militancy. But it has practically replaced the rule of law in the state. Instead of inspiring public confidence in the State, the act has spread terror among the common people. It has almost become a symbol of the people’s alienation from the agencies of the State. Also, the act does not seem to have helped the army end the insurgencies in Manipur. Even if it is not feasible to repeal the act immediately, New Delhi should consider how to use it with greater caution. The peace process in Nagaland proves that dialogue is a better means to engage rebels.