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Army's credibility at a low ebb in Manipur

G Vinayak in Guwahati | July 21, 2004 12:25 IST
Last Updated: July 21, 2004 14:08 IST

The controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act is likely to be reviewed and may even be scrapped by the United Progressive Alliance government in coming months.

The new government feels the act is detrimental to democracy but the same government is silent about a long-standing demand from India's northeast to repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 and the Disturbed Areas Act, 1958.

These two acts, which are in force in Nagaland, Manipur and parts of Assam for decdaes, give unrivalled powers to the army and other security forces.

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Under the provisions of the acts, security forces can search a premise, detain a person without warrant and shoot to kill without any warning. army personnel also get protection from appearing in any enquiry set up by the state governments under this act.

A demand for repeal of these two acts has been revived following recent events in Manipur starting February this year. At least 20 young men and women have been killed in mysterious circumstances across Manipur in the last five months, all of them found dead after being picked up by the army and the Assam Rifles units operating under the army's command.

The killing of  the 30-year old Thangjam Manorama Devi who was picked up by personnel of 17 Assam Rifles from her home on July 11 only to be found dead the next day with multiple signs of torture has however triggered unprecedented protests in the state.

Outraged by the series of brutal encounter and custodial deaths 20-odd elderly and respectable women in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, stripped themselves naked and waved banners that said: 'Indian Army take our flesh', 'Indian Army Rape us', taking the protests against the army to new heights.

The "naked protest" came amidst a series of bandhs and dharnas even as the authorities had to impose indefinite curfew in the capital Imphal and some neighbouring towns. The state government has, meanwhile, ordered an judicial enquiry even as the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has been moved by a lawyer seeking repeal of the two controversial acts.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh too termed the incident as "unfortunate." Describing the situation in Manipur as "difficult," he promised to punish the guilty. Protesting Manipuri women. Photo: Getty Images

The army has meantime launched an internal enquiry. But the Eastern Army Commander Lt. General J S Verma said in Kolkata on Tuesday that Manorama was a confirmed member of the banned People's Liberation Army and was a known Improvised Explosive Devices expert.

Neither Gen. Verma nor the army officials in Imphal have been able to explain why Manorama's body was found in a field and bore multiple signs of rape and torture.

Human rights bodies refer to the circumstances under which Manorama was taken into custody and point out that even if she was a PLA member, there was no reason for her to be tortured and killed.

According to family members, an Assam Rifles team entered their house after breaking down the door at midnight on July 11. As soon as they broke into the house, the security personnel asked for Manorama, who by that time had already retired for the night in her room.

"They dragged her out from the bed and beat us up when we tried to intervene. The jawans then took Manorama into a corner and thrashed her brutally for almost half an hour after blindfolding and tying her hands and feet," a family member said.

Before taking Manorama along with them, an arrest memo signed by Havildar Sureshkumar and Rifleman T Lotha was given to the family members." Before leaving, the security personnel told us not to worry and assured us that Manorama would be handed over to the nearest police station the next morning," Manorama's aunt said.

Next morning before the family could approach the police, news came that Manorama's body that bore multiple signs of torture and bullet marks was found lying at a village nearby.

Angered by the sheer inhuman torture, residents of the locality launched a protest. Within days the outrage has spread all over the state. Since then Manipur has been in turmoil with widespread bandhs, road blockades, and the "naked" demonstration by the women, continuous curfew and arson in various places.

The slew of protests has spurred the state government to seek the repeal of the two acts. Human rights organisations have of course been demanding such a step for years. In fact, Irom Sharmila, a budding poet and a passionate human rights activist, has been on a "fast-unto-death" since November 2, 2000 to protest against the act and has had to be "force fed" by the state government to stay alive.

Alarmed by the massive protests, commander of the Army's 3 Corp Lt. Gen Daljeet Singh has met Manipur Chief Minister Ibobi Singh and assured a thorough enquiry into the incident. But no one in the state is willing to take the army's word at face value.

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