By Deepak Sinha
That Irom Sharmila, well- known human rights activist from Manipur, synonymous with her 16-year- long hunger-strike against the continued imposition of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in Manipur, was defeated in the Assembly election while taking on three-time Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh, was not unexpected, given her political inexperience.
What, however, came as a complete surprise was the fact that she garnered just 90 votes, 50 less than the 140-odd votes by those who expressed their unhappiness against all on the ballot in that constituency, by pressing the NOTA button.
While in no way does this defeat take away from the immense courage and determination that she showed during her protest, what it does do is to question the veracity of the allegations made by the vociferous human rights lobby and its supporters, especially among the media, against the Army’s conduct of counter-insurgency operations in the North-East and Jammu & Kashmir. Over the years, the main plank of these activists has been their supposed reflection of what the local population feels about Army misconduct during operations but is too fearful to articulate openly for fear of retribution. That her party, which fought for the removal of Afspa as its main plank, was trashed, clearly suggests that this narrative is clearly not what voters subscribe to, and is clearly a myth propagated by the activists.
In fact, it gives greater credence to the military point of view, which has always held that while there have been lapses on the part of some of its personnel, those were never condoned by the leadership, which even initiated legal action against the responsible once the incident came to light. The Army averred that in most cases, human rights activists had either been manipulated by the extremist lobby or were sympathisers of the cause. Allegations of misconduct have been deliberately bandied about in public forums and in the media, and numerous cases lodged against the military on little more than hearsay, to hinder ongoing operations against insurgents.
In most cases, such allegations have been made based on statements from the next of kin of extremists killed in operations, none of whom can, by no stretch of imagination, be considered to be unbiased witnesses. The ongoing case of alleged human rights abuses in Manipur that is presently under scrutiny of the Supreme Court regarding the 2016 Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association versus Union of India, Writ Petition (Criminal) No 129 of 2012], is a perfect example of this state of affairs.
This also raises questions about the necessity or otherwise of Afspa in Manipur. The basic premise for imposing the Act is to give the military a legal framework in which to operate in those areas declared “disturbed”. In such circumstances, the rout of Irom Sharmila’s party suggests that the local population believes the presence of the military in the area to deal with the extremist threat, is essential.
This implies that the situation cannot be considered to be a plain law and order one, that should be the responsibility of the police as some analysts, including this writer, have been suggesting.
The Supreme Court has also raised serious questions regarding the need for continuing with Afspa there, going so far as to state that “normalcy not being restored cannot be a fig leaf for prolonged, permanent or indefinite deployment of the armed forces… as it would mock at our democratic process”.
By raising this issue, it appears that the court is not averse to interfering with the promulgation or removal of Afspa if the judges are in disagreement with the executive over what constitutes a ‘disturbed area” or what the timeline should be.
Under normal circumstances, it seems inconceivable that if the local population of a region feel insecure and approve of the necessity for the military to be deployed there, that courts can rule otherwise — while situated kilometres away. This is despite the likelihood that the situation may have been deliberately allowed to fester, as the status quo provides numerous advantages, especially with regard to accountability, to the political, administrative and security establishments that they would otherwise not enjoy. This election result makes clear that the judiciary has no role in this issue and it is the responsibility of the executive to impose or remove Afspa, given the fact that the executive’s power in office is solely dependent on the will of the people.
It is time now for the courts to be circumspect in taking up cases brought to their notice especially by activists who are themselves not from that region but are ostensibly supporting local populations there.