Women Press for End to Draconian Indian Law

NEW DELHI – Credit must go to women if the insurgency-hit northeastern Indian state of Manipur, bordering Burma, finally gets rid of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act or AFSPA, imposed a quarter of a century ago.

Already the women, protesting for more than a month now, have compelled the provincial government to lift AFSPA, against the wishes of New Delhi, in the state capital of Imphal. But the hated law remains in operation in the rest of Manipur and in the neighboring states of Assam and Nagaland.

The special powers act gives security forces wide scope to shoot suspected militants on sight with virtual immunity from independent legal inquiry.

It was the AFSPA that enabled the paramilitary Assam Rifles to formally arrest 30-year-old Thangjam Manorama Devi from her home on July 10 on mere suspicion that she was a member of the banned People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Devi’s stunned parents were then issued a memo stating that she was being arrested as required by the Supreme Court. But hours later her abused and bullet ridden body was found dumped in Maring, a village outside Imphal.

Since then Imphal has been in flames. On July 15, the rest of the country was shocked by television images of a group of 12 women stripping naked in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters outside the historic Kangla Fort and carrying placards that said "Rape us the way you did Manorama."

"We will continue the agitation until the AFSPA is repealed from the state," declared Ramani Devi, secretary of the powerful All- Manipur Women’s Social Promotion and Development Samaj.

And the bets are that the women of Manipur, who have behind them a long history of resolutely resisting high-handedness from authorities, will once again win out.

Exactly a century ago Manipuri women collectively resisted an unfair levy on rice imposed by the British colonial government and followed it up in 1913 by another agitation to end forced labor that is still practiced in neighboring Burma.

Dec. 12 is a state holiday in Manipur in commemoration of "Nupi Lan" (women’s war) in 1939 when women, agitating against the export of rice from the state in spite of local shortages, surrounded the British administrative offices at the Kangla Fort.

Although many of the women were badly wounded by bayonet-wielding troops from the Assam Rifles, they refused to lift their "siege" until given assurances that the export of rice from the Imphal valley would be stopped.

In more recent times Manipuri women have organized themselves as "Meira Paibis" (torch bearers), where they present themselves with burning torches, which in turn are held aloft wherever they feel that their rights as women and mothers are affected.

In Manipur, often called India’s Ireland, only the "Meira Paibis" have the moral authority to carry their torches in protest against whichever side – armed forces or militant groups – might have gone too far in their abuses.

The "Meira Paibis" have also taken on alcohol and drug abuse and intervened in family disputes or anything that threatens the social fabric in Manipur – where its citizens are not only caught between insurgents and armed forces, but also in heroin trafficking rings over the Burmese border.

But these days, the Indian Armed Forces’ sweeping powers under AFSPA are at the receiving end of the group’s outrage.

"We thought initially that the Supreme Court order requiring that the arresting authority issue memos was fair. But this has not stopped custodial killings and Manorama’s case is only the latest in a series," Thokchom Rani, 72-year-old Meira Paibi leader told reporters in Imphal, last week.

Rani said while she was not opposed to the army taking on the PLA or a bewildering array of other insurgent groups, she viewed attacks on innocent civilians, especially women, differently.

Alarmed by the fact that the group’s action seems to be gaining momentum due to widespread support, Union Home Minister Shivraj Patel announced Tuesday that the central government was prepared to sit down for talks "without preconditions."

Opinion is also growing against the AFSPA which, according to Rakesh Shukla, a well known Supreme Court advocate, is "unconstitutional and impermissible in a democratic polity."

The AFSPA is derived from colonial law but is worse in that it even gives a corporal in the army the right to open fire or use force to the extent of causing death "if he is of the opinion that it is necessary to do so for the maintenance of public order." Various commissions of inquiry have substantiated charges of rape, arson and cold-blooded murder by soldiers during operations such as the one in Mokokchung in neighboring Nagaland in 1994 and another near Kohima in the state in 1995.

Chandramani Singh, who served earlier as deputy chief minister of Manipur and currently leads the opposition in the State Assembly told IPS the AFSPA had failed to suppress insurgency in the state and had "actually proved counterproductive, as it has caused insurgency-related activities to increase."

Read more by Ranjit Devraj