Does AFSPA Know A Mother’s Heart?

Deep sadness stalks the pristine landscape. The simmering shadow of angst and anger lingers like a specter of death across the villages and towns of Nagaland with its simple, hardworking people in the distant North-east of India. The legendary Hornbill Festival, with its pulsating rhythms, collective joy and beautiful oral and folk traditions, will not happen this year. The people of Nagaland are in mourning.

As many as 13 innocent citizens were killed by the security forces in the Oting-Tiru area on December 4, and in Mon one day later, in indiscriminate firing by the Army. One jawan was also killed in the clash which followed with people protesting the Army ambush.

You should see the silent suffering of the parents, including the mother and father of the twin brothers, among the six coal miners, shot dead in cold blood, for no rhyme or reason. The mother and father sit hunched outside their homes, stupefied, their stoic faces telling yet another story of the predictable pattern repeated yet again in the Northeast, reminiscent of similar massacres and killings in the past.

The six coal miners were returning on a pick-up truck, on Saturday, perhaps singing, happy to go back home and be among their people on the weekend, looking forward to go to Sunday church next morning. Instead, their coffins were neatly lined up for burial, from earth to earth, life to death — and so meaningless, brutish, short and nasty.

Video images have reportedly emerged of the Army trying to allegedly shift the ‘hidden’ bodies in another truck covered with tarpaulin, after wrapping them up in plastic. If these reports are authentic, and which sources in the Nagaland Police are claiming so, then why should the Army be indulging in this terrible camouflage?

The Indian Express (December 6, 2021) has reported from Dibrugarh: “Direct marise… they shot right at us,” said Sheiwang, 23. He is among the only two survivors of the eight coal miners in Oting village. Six of his friends were killed. He has been shot on his elbow and chest and he is battling for life at the Assam Medical College and Hospital (AMCH) in Dibrugarh. Along with Yeihwang, 30, another survivor, now in a critical state, was shot near his ear. According to the report: “Union Home Minister Amit Shah in a statement in Rajya Sabha on Monday said the vehicle ‘was signaled to stop’ and was fired upon after it ‘tried to flee’. However, Sheiwang says: “We were not signaled to stop. They killed us directly. We were not trying to flee…we were just in the vehicle.”

The entire Naga society, civil society groups, the Naga Students’ Federation, political parties, the state government, have demanded that the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act-1958 (AFSPA), first enacted by the British, should go. This has been a universal demand across the country since long, but most regimes have refused to scrap AFSPA, except the Left-led government of Tripura, with Manik Sarkar at the helm. Under the Act, the Army can shoot and arrest, and they have total impunity.

ALSO READ: Exhuming Extra-Judicial Deaths In Punjab

Over the decades, cold-blooded massacres and killings have become a method in the madness in the Northeast, but justice has eluded the people, despite huge public protests. The blood of innocents has been relentlessly spilled — what happened in Nagaland is nothing but a chronicle of a tale foretold.

Manipur, in the neighbourhod, has had its own litany of tragedy and injustice. Indeed, the lines of control of the so-called ‘disturbed areas’ where AFSPA has been enacted, are etched as lines of infinite sorrow in the hearts and soul of the people.

Extra-judicial killings had become rampant in Manipur earlier. The Mint, (August 1, 2018), reported: “A two-judge bench of the apex court on 27 July pulled up CBI for delays in investigating extrajudicial killings in Manipur and in filing of charges. On 30 July, Justice MB Lokur and Justice UU Lalit hammered home the point when they summoned CBI director Alok Verma… There is reason for the court’s impatience. The hearings are on account of a PIL by the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association, Manipur, and the Imphal-based Human Rights Alert (HRA), a watchdog. The PIL alleged 1,528 extrajudicial killings between 1980 and 2011. The allegations were against the Indian Army, its adjunct Assam Rifles, several central paramilitary forces, and the Manipur Police. While police are not protected by the immunity-and-impunity provisions of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, they piggy-backed on the practice of security forces to conduct their own campaigns of… intimidation…” In July 2017, a Supreme Court bench also brushed aside the adequacy of claims by the government that compensation had been paid to families of the victims. The court underscored its own observation from 2015: “Now it’s like you kill 10 people, pay compensation and the matter ends there…”

In the picturesque mountain village of Malom in Manipur, amidst undulating meadows of the magical Imphal valley, across the rice fields and pristine ponds, a silent memorial tells its own sad story, with the names of the dead, young and old, all innocent, etched forever as a testimony of Army atrocities. Infamously remembered as the ‘Malom Massacre’, 10 locals, including a national bravery award winner, were shot dead by the 17 Assam Rifles on November 2, 2000 here. This massacre triggered the 16-year long Gandhian fast and satyagraha of Irom Sharmila, with iron in her soul, a nasal pipe for forcible liquid transmission in her nose, condemned as a prisoner for years.

As her fast in custody, drawing global attention, entered its 15th year, this reporter met her on November 5, 2015 in Imphal. In her one-room ‘cell’, with solidarity messages and newspaper clippings on the wall, including a letter by Nelson Mandela, surrounded by books, including one by Gabriel Garcia Marquez,  she had said, “How can nations call themselves advanced or civilised if they practice, sanction and legitimise organized barbarism in the name of law and order? Why can’t they repeal AFSPA if they know so well that it is completely inhuman, anti-democratic, brutal, and irrational; that, it has led to mass insecurity, relentless tragedies, angst and injustice in Manipur and Kashmir; that it has led to the armed forces going berserk without accountability and with absolute impunity? I am fighting for reason and humanity. My struggle is peaceful. Why should the armed forces be allowed to kill and torture and get away? Why are we treated differently from the rest of India?”

Indeed, while her protest continued, so did the peaceful vigil with candles of the ‘Mothers of Manipur’, night and day, even as the entire civil society, sat on fasts in solidarity with Sharmila. The mothers have been a rock in the protracted struggle against AFSPA. And it is they who shook the national conscience yet again, and with such amazing power and raw force, on July 15, 2004, outside the Kangla Fort in Imphal, then the Assam Rifle headquarters.

On that historic day, 12 of the mothers stripped themselves totally naked outside the Fort with banners saying: ‘Indian Army Rape Us’ and ‘Indian Army Take Our Flesh’. They were protesting the murder of of Manorama Thangjam, 32, who was picked up by the men of Assam Rifles four days earlier, and then, assaulted and killed most brutally.

Manorama’s bullet-riddled body was later discovered near a paddy field. There were gun shots on her private parts and thighs — clearly, with an intent to camouflage the sexual assault. This was the height of injustice and impunity, and this was simply unacceptable anymore. That is why, the mothers stripped themselves naked outside the Assam Rifles headquarters.

This reporter visited the poor home of Manorama surrounded by dense foliage outside East Imphal in November, 2015. Her mother was still heart-broken, remembering how she was picked up by the soldiers with such brute force, and for no reason whatsoever. That nightmare, as a dark and cruel memory of a night of terror, continues to haunt the Manipuri mothers till this day.

And, yet, AFSPA remains. And so does the nightmare.

There Will Be Blood

Within hours after the news broke that the dreaded Uttar Pradesh gangster Vikas Dubey was killed in a “police encounter” early on July 10, the media, social media and messaging apps went abuzz. While there were stray voices of reason and rights, one particular message on WhatsApp dominated the popular sentiment thus: ‘Even a ten-year old knows this is a fake encounter. But people in UP couldn’t care less as long as the state is minus one more dreaded gangster.’

It was a redux of the Telangana Police encounter, eight months ago, where alleged rapists of a veterinary doctor were killed. Even though prima facie the encounter was seen as staged, the policemen involved were praised and lauded by the public as heroes.

Thus, the malaise runs deeper than what civil society believes – that extrajudicial killings are the mixed handiwork of police highhandedness, a delayed justice system and people’s disregard for legal loopholes. Fake encounters such as these are symptomatic of the erosion of our judicial, policing, and societal systems. This is a scary prospect because it hurtles society towards anarchy where law is disregarded and people’s rights, including that of alleged criminals, are denied and over-ridden by primitive instincts.

ALSO READ: ‘There Is No Time To Think… You Kill Or Get Killed’

The problem in different states, or regions, emanates from different compulsions; at times there could be public pressure, or plain police highhandedness, or the long-winding legal processes that frustrate the police preparedness. In this column, however, we shall limit our argument to the latest “fake encounter” and Uttar Pradesh criminal justice system.

So, what went wrong in the case of Vikas Dubey?

Clearly, Dubey failed to graduate from crime to community. Most of the criminals who were bumped off by Uttar Pradesh police, from Sri Prakash Shukla (the dreaded contract killer and tender mafia in the 1990s) to Vikas Dubey, had this shortcoming. In contrast are the likes of Mukhtar Ansari, DP Yadav and Raja Bhaiyaa (real name Rahugraj Pratap Singh), who in spite of proven criminal records, entered politics and survived, even flourished.

Their transition from crime to community is not a difficult task in Uttar Pradesh, where power and gun culture is so glorified that it is easy for a gangster to project himself as the messiah or pride of one’s community, caste, region or religion. Flashing a bunch of licenced guns at a wedding procession is considered more prestigious here than owning ten times of farm land in acres.

Add to this the poor policing. There has been numerous recruitment scams in Uttar Pradesh Police. Each time a new political regime takes over Lucknow, new investigations are ordered and a large number of police appointments are cancelled, followed by cases and counter-cases in courts. A majority of rank policemen (the constabulary) is unable to even write down an FIR (first information report) in plain language. An FIR forms the basis of a criminal investigation but in UP, there is a Hindi adage that translates loosely to this: ‘Why do you need to file (an FIR) when you can FIRE a rifle?’

Then, there is the power structure of regional, caste or communal dominance in various belts: in eastern UP, for example, a Jat leader gains political prominence only after he (rarely she) is able to terrify Muslims and Jatavs (two separate vote-banks) or vice versa; in the adjoining belt, a Yadav leader’s rise to power is proportional to how many police personnel or officers he has publicly slapped or humiliated; further west, the script is similar – a small-time criminal takes up arms against either the “oppressive police” or the dominant upper caste lord, and then sets oneself into a Bahubali cast who brooks no opposition. Railways, public works contracts, and extortion money fund these goons. After a point, they either join politics or get killed after losing relevance for their political masters.

Sri Prakash Shukla and Vikas Dubey felt political power was beneath them. Raja Bhaiyya, Mukhtar Ansari and DP Yadav joined politics, even jumped ships to stay afloat and are therefore are alive and operational today. It is not that the latter three had any less criminal cases to their ledger.

ALSO READ: Vikas Dubey Tried To Flee, Killed: UP Police

Raja Bhaiyya was booked under terrorist act, charged with the murder of a DSP, Zia Ul Haq, and was rumoured to have even thrown his rivals to a pond full of crocodiles in his native village. Yet, he was rewarded by the Samajwadi Party with a cabinet portfolio of Jail Ministry (there were 46 criminal cases against him at that time).

Mukhtar Ansari, a dreaded don of eastern Uttar Pradesh who was accused of running numerous extortion and contract rackets, secured political protection with a Bahujan Samaj Party ticket and by winning Mau legislative Assembly seat for record five times. Even when he was expelled from the party after being charged with killing BJP legislator Krishnanand Rai, he formed his own party Quami Ekta Dal which was later merged with BSP as “ghar- wapasi”.

The case of DP Yadav is no less illustrative. Starting as a bootlegger to having monopolized liquor mafia in Ghaziabad (in close proximity to the National Capital) and adjoining areas of western Uttar Pradesh, Yadav joined politics after he was named in a hooch tragedy that took 350 lives in early 1990s. He joined Samajwadi Party, Janata Dal, later Janata Dal (Secular), even Bharatiya Janata Party for a brief spell, and finally Bahujan Samaj Party. He has represented both state assembly and Lok Sabha, and has survived any “encounter”.

What do these stories tell us? That crime and politics make a heady cocktail in Uttar Pradesh. Add police to this and you have an unholy, all-superior trinity which can bypass even the court of law. A state’s job is to establish the rule of law, not by unleashing extra-judicial delivery of justice but with better education, a competent constabulary, transparent platform for public grievance, better administrative presence and a responsive system. But in UP, where the state head himself carries a long-running criminal history — many of which he got dismissed after being sworn in as chief minister — this would be asking for too much.

As of now, the Uttar Pradesh police has publicly displayed its unabashed disrespect for the law. And considering Chief Minister Adityanath Yogi’s “free hand” to the police in dealing with criminals, it is likely to set off another round of extra-judicial killings. The aim apparently is to replace ‘Goonda Raj’ with ‘Police Raj’, mirror images of one another. And unless there is a public movement by the civil society, human rights groups, conscientious citizens and the media to force the government for a course correction, this Police Raj will continue to deal one body blow after another to the democratic system as enshrined in Indian Constitution.

‘Tardy Justice Breeds Calls For Extra-Judicial Killings’

Shaina, 33, a resident of Loni area in Delhi-NCR, was returning from college on August 11, 2009, when she was attacked with acid by a jilted lover. An activist for women’s rights, she demands speedy justice in crimes against women and death penalty for rapists.

I cannot forget that day. It was a beautiful evening. I was feeling a cool breeze after a spell of rain. I was returning from my college classes unaware of how things would change for me from that day onward. A man had been stalking me for several months and had proposed me time and again for marriage. That day he was on a two-wheeler with an accomplice. As soon as he came in front of me, I thought he would try to convince me once again. I was wrong. Angered by taking a no to his moves, he had carried a bottle of acid with him, which he threw on my face.

The pain was unbearable. Even while in pain, I tried to catch hold of him but he escaped. I felt my skin was melting and I cried for help. The passers-by were also shocked as they be seeing such a horrific incident in person for the first time.

They took me to the hospital but by that time, my face was had been severely damaged. The treatment was long and costly and even though I survived, I could not find the courage to see my face in mirror.

I fought a long legal battle and today both the attackers are behind the bars, serving life imprisonment.

That incident happened more than a decade ago. But when I look at social scenario today, not much has changed in these ten years. Like me, all the women who faced similar or more heinous crime, have to wait for years to get justice. Families of those who were raped and killed, like Nirbhaya, have to live often with disgrace, agony and pain. Laws after laws are being passed but the prevention of crime against women is not possible with a tardy justice system.

This is why most people, including me, feel that the Hyderabad Police is probably right in having killed the rapists and murderers of Dr Reddy, even though it has set a wrong precedent. What will the policemen do if the judicial system takes so long to hang such monsters?

The rapists and murderers of Nirbhaya are still in jail for years even after being awarded the capital punishment. One mercy petition after another is being filed for them to buy time. How long the parents of Nirbhaya seek justice? There has to be an end. There has to be a fear of law among such criminals. Without eminent threat of death, such heinous cases are hard to be prevented. 

Not only the justice system but the police too needs to act fast on such complaints. There should be no laid back attitude by the agencies and immediate disciplinary action must be taken against those officers who are delaying investigation.

Today my life’s only aim is to fight against atrocities against women. I know I have lost a lot of things in life but the acid attack has given me a new motive to carry on. I am working with the Delhi Commission for Women as a Mahila Panchayat member and giving strength and providing all possible aid to women who face violence and sexual assault. Hope the governments work together in strengthening of laws, courts and police for effective action and quick justice in all such cases.