The Supreme Court’s direction to the CBI on Friday to probe nearly a hundred alleged extra-judicial killings in Manipur underlines a welcome intent to shine the light on the shadowy world of counter-insurgency operations in the northeastern states. Fighting terrorism is no doubt an arduous task, but evidence seems to suggest that, all too often, security forces tend to ignore due process during operations and seek legal protection under laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act to relegate complaints of rights violations.
When the PIL filed by Extra Judicial Execution Victims Families Association, seeking a probe and compensation in 1,528 alleged extra-judicial killings in Manipur from 2000 to 2012 by security forces and police, came up for hearing in the Supreme Court, the Centre had pleaded that the security forces be exempted from any probe since the alleged killings were not premeditated murders but “cases of military operations”.
The army went one step further to allege local bias in the judicial inquiries that indicted its men while pleading that FIRs cannot be registered against its personnel in insurgency-hit areas like Manipur and Jammu and Kashmir. The court, however, has made it amply clear that security operations even in “disturbed areas” are not beyond the pale of law. The AFSPA, a relic of the colonial imagination that saw all dissenters as enemies of the state, empowers security personnel to override the civil administration in “disturbed areas”. Courts and commissions, in light of the Act’s operational history, have proposed elaborate measures to prevent its abuse. The Manipur petition, however, suggests that the security forces — in this case, the army, Assam Rifles and Manipur Police — may not have always followed them.
The Supreme Court’s persistence in unveiling the truth about the cases the PIL has highlighted, is admirable. Soon after the petition was admitted, the court set up a commission under Justice Santosh Hegde to examine six cases, which found that the encounters were not genuine. Last year, the SC, while ruling that the AFSPA does not allow the security forces to use excessive force, privileged the rights and freedoms of citizens over the government’s claim that investigating complaints against security personnel would dampen their morale.
In April, the court ordered an SIT to probe three cases of rape and murder. Now, an additional 97 encounters are to be probed and the CBI has been told to complete the investigation by December 31, 2017. The message from the court is unambiguous: There can’t be any state of exception when it comes to respecting the rights and freedoms of its citizens.