August 6, 2004
If you can’t understand why all of Manipur is raging against an Act, it might be worthwhile to travel along the Airport Road till you reach a village named Malom. This is where much of Manipur learnt to hate the armed forces.
At 3 pm on November 2, 2000, an 18-year-old named Chandramani was at the village bus shelter, on his way to tuition. A convoy from 8 Assam Rifles was passing by when there was an explosion. Some insurgent had stopped the convoy in its tracks. They spotted the teenager at the bus shelter.
As a child, Chandramani had saved an infant from drowning for which he won a gallantry award and was photographed with Rajiv Gandhi. He was also given an identity card that he always carried in his pocket like a testimonial.
‘‘I am sure he must have shown the card to the soldiers,’’ says Chandramani’s mother, Chandrajini. ‘‘I am sure they did not listen.’’
Chandramani was shot dead. His brother Rohinja, who happened to be escorting an elderly aunt, rushed to intervene. Both he and the old woman were killed. In one stroke, Chandrajini lost two of her sons and a sister.
The crazed soldiers then killed two scooterists, two local government employees and another boy. Then they raided the village beating people up and shooting at them as they tried to find the elusive insurgent. The rest of the village was marched at gunpoint to the bus shelter from where ten bodies had been removed.
‘‘My sandal caught something sticky,’’ says Chandrajini. ‘‘It was blood.’’ Next day, a young woman named Irom Sharmila started fasting to protest the Armed Forces Special Powers’ Act which gave legal immunity to the soldiers.
Four years on, she is still on fast, being nose-fed by authorities, and the state is in flames over the same Act.
Manipuris find it difficult to explain the object of their anger. They admit they have no sympathy for insurgents. ‘‘Some months back, a UG (Underground) leader named Lalhaba was killed by the army at his home and no one bothered,’’ says social worker N Ibungochoubi. People tend to look away when known insurgents are the target.
Most also agree that when soldiers are in a life-and-death battle, they shouldn’t be worrying about legal cases. ‘‘I think the anger is about the fact that the army uses this Act to behave as if it is above law and people hate that,’’ says lawyer N Kotishwar, who was part of a panel to review the Act.
In Malom, the local police came only to take the bodies away and did not interfere when soldiers held an entire village hostage. When Manorama’s body was found and sparked the latest wave of protests, the police investigating officer did not even take down the soldiers’ statement. Asked why, he told an inquiry panel today: ‘‘They did not cooperate.’’
The armed forces are supposed to merely aid the local police in their investigations. But using the Act like a weapon, they take over the place. When an army truck smashed a police superintendent’s car here and killed his driver, he could just watch helplessly.
‘‘Part of the problem is that the police is so weak that it has virtually ceded its authority,’’ said Manipur Free Press editor Pradeep Phanjoubam. Sometimes, it is worse than weak. Army officers allege that the local police deliberately dilute the evidence against insurgents. Though over 1,700 have been arrested, only three have been convicted over the past 14 years.
Perhaps, the army started with the intention of correcting this imbalance. Then it became a law unto itself. ‘‘The protests are not about the Act itself,’’ said sociologist Vijaylakshmi Brara. ‘‘The Act only symbolises that the Army can do what it wants and now it has crossed the line.’’
The Act may have its merits. But somewhere between Malon and Manorama, the stage for dispassionate debate has passed.
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