Human nature dictates that we are far better at remembering something dramatic that took place 13 years ago than something dramatic that took place 94 years ago. But human nature is also dictated by the fact that one can remember something only if one knows about it.
The carnage that took place in Amritsar at Jallianwala Bagh on April 13, 1919, became a notorious chapter in British and Indian history.
While Britain first chose to remember it by feting the architect of the massacre as someone who did what was necessary to quell civil unrest and then forgot about it, India saw it as a vicious act that became a turning point in our struggle for independence and which exposed a ‘benign’ colonial power for what it could do when faced with a ‘threat perception’.
Which is why, for all its lapsed cheque quality, British PM David Cameron’s statement last month at Jallianwala Bagh describing the massacre as a “deeply shameful event” re-registered a fact blanked out in British history.
Cut to November 2, 2000. In a small town in Manipur, an 8 Assam Rifles convoy was stopped by an explosion set up by insurgents. Perceiving a threat, the soldiers proceeded to shoot dead a teenager standing at a bus stop, two people on scooters, two local government workers and another youngster.
The soldiers then ‘took action’ by killing four more civilians before deciding that the area was secure. Not too many people outside Manipur and the North-eastern have heard of this town called Malom. Not even after Irom Sharmila, the lady who stopped eating from the day after the Malom massacre demanding the withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), was brought to Delhi last week to face trial for her fast-unto-death/attempted suicide in October 2006 at Jantar Mantar.
If Malom doesn’t register in the national psyche and Baramullah does — where Rashtriya Rifles 46th battalion officers opened fire on a group of protesters killing a 25-year-old man last Tuesday — it’s because the second name rings bells in the larger context of what India knows as ‘Kashmir’.
But Malom and Baramullah have two things in common: one, despite their small ‘death counts’, State-sanctioned violence has not been the proverbial ‘one-offs’ in Manipur and Kashmir; and two, the perpetrator isn’t an external force but one that has reacted with untrammelled violence against its own citizens. There’s a third common factor too: both are under AFSPA.
AFSPA, passed by the Indian Parliament in 1958, looks, sounds, smells and tastes like a colonising law. It can be enacted when a state or parts of it are declared ‘disturbed’ by the central government. Under AFSPA, soldiers are exempt from legal accountability and conduct themselves within the same set of rules as in a war, with only a chain of command to maintain.
So an officer can, after giving a ‘warning’, fire on someone who appears to be disrupting law and order even if it causes death; he can arrest anyone suspected of any offence without a warrant, all with legal immunity. Why the central government considers a place to be ‘disturbed’ can also not be challenged in any court.
Cut back to August 15, 1942 when in the face of the Quit India movement, British viceroy of India Victor Hope (Lord Linlithgow) promulgated the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance (AFSPO): “Any officer... if in his opinion it is necessary for the proper performance of his duty... require any personnel under his command to use such force as may be necessary, even to the causing of death who a) fails to halt when challenged by a sentry, or b) does, attempts to do, or appears to be about to do, any such act as would endanger any property of any description whatsoever which it is the duty of such officer to protect; and it shall be lawful for such personnel, when so ordered, to use such force against such person.”
It went on to state that the use of force included the power to arrest “and the use of such force as may be necessary, even to the causing of death, in order to effect such arrest”.
I can’t see the similarities between the British AFSPO applicable to Indians and the Indian AFSPA applicable to Indians being coincidental.
By anyone’s reckoning, the challenge of quelling civil unrest or insurgent (‘rising in revolt against established authority’) violence must have been more severe in 1942 India than it is in 2013 Manipur or Kashmir. And yet, Indian armed forces bear no accountability when under AFSPA’s cover.
Far away from Jallianwala Bagh, a memorial service pays tribute to those murdered by the army on November 2 each year in Malom. The brother of two victims suggested last year that a state-or national-level chess tournament be held in the memory of those killed.
I have no idea how they pay tribute to their dead in Baramullah, even as Union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde lets it be known that Srinagar is “yet to make a formal request for the revocation of AFSPA”.