Nine years after Irom Sharmila Chanu started her indefinite fast against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and five years after the killing of Manorama Devi triggered protests against the Act, Manipur is again on the boil. The reason: the killing of Sanjit (27) in an alleged fake encounter on July 23 and the gunning down of protester Rabin Devi, both in Imphal. The deaths have brought back focus on the Act, which many feel gives the armed forces the licence to kill with impunity. However, the armed forces feel that this Act is necessary to keep insurgency under control in the state. In the face of such contradictory views, New Delhi should have quickly stepped in to defuse the situation. But it has done little and, therefore, the current fracas should not take it by surprise.
The immediate trigger for this round of protests in Manipur was clearly the two tragic and avoidable deaths. But what leads to such incidents becoming so explosive so quickly is the feeling that the region has always been given stepmotherly treatment by New Delhi. And this is not without justification. In 2004, after the killing of Manorama Devi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he would consider repealing the AFSPA and replacing it with a “more humane law”. A panel headed by Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy was set up. Predictably, its recommendations were not made public thanks to opposition from the Army and Ministry of Defence. The panel was of the view that the Act must be scrapped. The Second Administrative Reforms Commission that was headed by V. Moily, now India’s Law Minister, also agreed with the review panel on most counts. Yet, nothing moved. So it would be premature to expect that things will change after the Home Minister’s recent pronouncement that the Centre is working on amendments to the AFSPA and limiting the application of the legislation in some areas.
It would be very unfortunate if the Centre does not grab this chance to bring about the required changes. It has already lost a lot of time and the confidence of the people by not taking a decision on the Act. The Northeastern parts of India already suffer from a sense of alienation; incidents like the one in Manipur only reinforce the image of the Big Brother State. The Reddy report needs to be debated and acted upon without delay. Otherwise we’ll find ourselves with more fires than is possible to put out.