I appreciate Meenakshi Ganguly’s call for India to take a more active part in protecting human rights and for making that an integral part of this country’s foreign policy.
To do that credibly, however, India will have to clean up its own record at home, where human rights abuses are still widespread. Some of these abuses come to light, but many more don’t. The worst violations happen in far-flung areas of the country, where the Armed Forces, police and paramilitary forces rape and kill with impunity, all in the name of protecting India’s unity and territorial integrity.
Of particular concern is India’s Armed Forces Special Powers Act, a draconian law granting sweeping powers to the country’s security forces. The act was passed in 1958, and has been expanded to apply to 9 states. Even in cases of rape and extrajudicial killings, known locally as “encounter killings,” the culprits are protected by the army. Although the military insists that all those killed are terrorists, innocents are often gunned down to score points and further personal agendas. The culprits are tried, only in military courts, if ever done so, as the government believes that the killings constitute “collateral damage” in the course of a soldier’s duty. The army has always protected the officers and soldiers involved and insulated them from civil courts.
Many of those affected by the act have called for its abolition, but the army is adamantly opposed, and is supported by India’s middle class, national press and the intelligentsia.
Brutal security force tactics are not unique to Manipur (my own state) or to the Northeast. Rather, they are spread across the country and are manifested whenever there is a threat of some kind to the Indian state. Victims and activists reported violations in the Punjab region, for example, when Sikh separatism was at its height, and Kashmir has seen and continues to bear the brunt of brutal police and army violations. The security forces use similar methods in their fight against left-wing radicals.
Roots of insurgency
Since 1979, Manipur has had several militant groups seeking to break away from the Indian mainstream. There is a history to this. After India’s independence in 1947, the Manipur Constitution Act was adopted and the elections on adult franchise held in the state in 1948. A popular assembly and council of minster were functioning when the maharaja of Manipur was forced to sign the Manipur Merger Agreement on September 21, 1949. The constitution was suspended and assembly dissolved when the merger agreement came into force on October 15, 1949.
That has been observed as a black day ever since.
Popular resistance rose against the merger, and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act was imposed. But it was only in mid-1960s, after a new generation born “Indian” felt the pain of isolation and discrimination, that serious insurgency took root with the formation of the United National Liberation Front in November 1964. It was not until 1972 that Manipur was grudgingly granted the status of an Indian state.
Today, the insurgency is quite complex. There are half a dozen groups demanding the restoration of Manipur's independent status, and many have been identified as “unlawful” and “terrorist” under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Some have “suspension of operations” or ceasefire agreements with the state.
Since independence, New Delhi’s response to the various insurgencies in the Northeast has been to crush with force and hold peace talks later. Though at the moment militancy is low, the Armed Forces Act continues to be imposed across large parts of the Northeast.
Meanwhile, the people suffer. It is the women and children who bear the brunt. Conflict widows and orphans had to fend for themselves as there is little protection. Young children are regularly abducted and recruited into the armed groups. Government aid is poured into the region, but it is intercepted and diverted by corruption. Poverty and underdevelopment remain rampant.
India hopes to bring development to the region through trade with Myanmar and the greater Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) neighborhood. Highways, ports and border trade posts are being developed for better connectivity with Myanmar, which shares a border with Manipur and is regarded as the bridgehead to ASEAN. Yet unless the state administration ensures better governance, things will not change. Unemployment and deeply felt injustice will motivate more young people to join militant outfits.
Delhi must realize that money cannot buy loyalty, but good governance and respect for basic human rights can.
The sad fact remains that the region continues to be highly militarized, and the people looked upon as fifth column enemies. With militarization comes human rights abuses. My organization, Human Rights Alert, has meticulously gathered records of 1,528 extrajudicial killings in the state since trouble began afresh in 1979. The case is up for hearing at India’s Supreme Court, and we are awaiting a court decision.
Although many believe India cannot support human rights globally because of its miserable record at home, I feel differently. Both domestic and foreign policy should be worked on simultaneously; after all, we have done so in the past. India's struggle for independence, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, was based on aspirations for freedom and respect for the universal values of democracy and the right to live with dignity. India must now clean up its act at home, while also championing human rights globally. The two go hand in hand.