August 24, 2005

Indians in remote state plead for curbs on army

By Simon Denyer

ANGTHA, India (Reuters) - Sanamacha's mother collapses in
tears as she strokes and clutches a photograph of her youngest
son, sitting on the grass in his school uniform.

Through her sobs, this wrinkled old woman remembers how
hard her son studied for his exams, how he combed his hair in a
center part even though everyone said it made him look older,
and how he had promised to look after her in her old age.

Just before midnight on February 12, 1998, 15-year-old
Yumlembam Sanamacha was dragged from his rural home in the
Indian state of Manipur by army troops. He was never seen alive

Human rights activists say the army appeared to have
mistaken Sanamacha for an insurgent with the same name.

Yet to this day, Sanamacha's parents have never recovered
his body -- nor seen anyone punished for his death. As Arubi
weeps, her 76-year-old husband Jugol squats outside their
house, wiping the tears from his red eyes.

Their wounds seem as fresh as ever.

On Saturday, at least 2,000 people from this remote state
in northeastern India marched through the capital Imphal,
renewing their plea for curbs on the army's powers, and an end
to violations of their human rights.

The object of their anger -- the Armed Forces (Special
Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA). Introduced to combat militancy in
the Northeast, human rights groups say the law has given the
army the license to kill, torture and rape, without fear of

Amnesty International says the sweeping powers bestowed
upon security forces under AFSPA have fostered a climate where
they commit human rights abuses "with impunity."

Its Indian branch organized Saturday's march to launch an
international campaign to persuade India to repeal the law.

Many local human rights activists say the law, and the
abuses committed under it, have fueled alienation and
insurgencies throughout northeastern India, especially in

"When this law was introduced, there was one insurgent
group in the Northeast, now we have 50 groups. Then there were
100 militants, now we have at least 20,000," said Babloo
Loitongbam, director of Manipur's Human Rights Alert.

"Instead of fighting insurgency, it has spawned


Something snapped in Manipur last year after 32-year-old
Manorama Devi was pulled from her home by soldiers in the early
hours of the morning and found dead a few hours later, her
bullet-ridden body left beside a paddy field.

The army said she was a militant and was shot while trying
to escape but most people in Manipur believe she was raped and
shot at point-blank range. One inquest found semen on her

For two months, Imphal erupted in protest. Old women took
off their clothes in front of the army barracks and paraded a
sign saying "Indian Army, Rape Us."

Hundreds of protesters were beaten and hundreds more
arrested. One man died after setting himself alight in protest.

The law allows security forces to shoot to kill -- even
when they face no imminent threat. No one can start legal
action against any members of the armed forces for anything
supposedly done under the act, without permission of the
central government.

In practice, that permission is almost never given.

Ironically, the law is based on legislation introduced by
British colonial rulers in 1942 to curb India's spreading
freedom movement. Today, many Manipuris feel it is used against
them by modern-day "colonial rulers" in distant New Delhi.


Manorama's elderly mother, like Sanamacha's, can only wait
for a justice that might never come. Until then, Shakhi Devi
says she has not completed the Hindu rituals of mourning.

"My daughter was snatched from me, she was harassed,
tortured and spoiled," she said. "She is gone, but I want to
make sure she rests in peace. But I am still waiting for
justice to be done."

The Indian army in Manipur says Manorama's death was an
"unfortunate incident." Although it has used AFSPA in court to
block the publication of a state government inquiry into her
death, it says it does investigate and punish rights abuses.

"Manorama has taught us a good lesson," spokesman
Lieutenant-Colonel Santanu Dev Goswami told Reuters. "We have
to carry out people-friendly operations."

But Goswami insists the law, which only applies in the
Northeast and in Kashmir, is required. The army has been called
in by the state government to fight insurgents and maintain
security -- not the job it was trained to do.

It cannot be expected to put itself at the mercy of "vested
interests" who might fabricate evidence against innocent

"We need legal protection," he said. "Every day, every
night we put our lives in danger, fighting our own brothers and
sisters to bring them into the mainstream. Every time you kill
a militant you cannot go to court."

In practice, human rights groups say it is unarmed
civilians who are being denied proper legal protection.

Since Manorama's death, Human Rights Alert says it has
documented 11 cases of extrajudicial killings where villagers
and relatives were pressured or bribed into immediately signing
documents promising never to bring legal action.

"This is the latest government strategy to make sure there
are no human rights violations under AFSPA," said Loitongbam.
"Poor villagers have no clue what is being written."

The government set up an "expert committee" to examine
AFSPA after the Manorama scandal. On his Independence Day
address on August 15, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised to
take "all necessary steps" to ensure human rights were not
violated under the act.

But he gave no hint of repeal.

"No one in Manipur is secure as long as AFSPA stays," said
lawyer and human rights activist R.K. Anand. "People are not
going to accept anything less than the repeal of the act."