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Anybody remember Manipur?

Siddharth Varadarajan

With the first anniversary of Manorama Devi's killing upon us, the Government must make public the report of the Justice Jeevan Reddy review panel on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act without any further delay.

ON THE night of July 11, 2004, a detachment of the Assam Rifles arrested a young Manipuri woman named Manorama Devi from her home. The next morning, villagers some four kilometres away stumbled upon her bullet-ridden, lifeless body. The Assam Rifles claimed she had been shot dead while trying to escape, a story no one in Manipur was prepared to believe.

As the Centre went into deep denial and then slumber, the State went up in flames. Apart from calling for the prosecution of the soldiers involved in Manorama's arrest and killing, people demanded that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) — the draconian 1958 law under which the armed forces enjoy broad immunity from prosecution — be immediately scrapped.

Manmohan's promise

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh finally intervened on November 1, meeting a delegation of the Apunba Lup, the umbrella grouping of 32 organisations spearheading the campaign against the AFSPA. Promising to review the controversial law "and also consider how a more humane Act can be put in place," Dr. Singh said it was his hope and belief that it would be possible "to work together with the people of Manipur to write a new chapter in the history of the State."

Six months on, the Prime Minister has a chance to redeem that pledge. On June 6, the expert panel his Government set up in November to review the workings of the AFSPA submitted its report. Headed by Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy, a retired judge of the Supreme Court, the review panel consisted of the former Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO) and well-known military analyst Lt. Gen V.R. Raghavan, noted academician and former Vice-Chancellor of Marathwada University Prof. S.B. Nakade, senior journalist and expert on Northeastern affairs Sanjoy Hazarika, and P.P. Srivastava, former Special Secretary (Home).

Given a panel with such credentials — every stakeholder inside and outside government would have no problem reposing faith in at least one member — the Government should have had no hesitation in making its unanimous report public. However, bureaucratic pedantry and caution appear to have triumphed over political instinct.

Not only have the contents of the report not been made public so far, if the internal security establishment has its way they will not be made so any time soon. First the MHA will "study" the report and form a view. Then the Ministries of Defence and Law will do the same. Then, perhaps, a note will be prepared and submitted to the Cabinet along with the report. "By the time the government is ready to say anything publicly, leave alone take action, the Monsoon Session of Parliament could well be over and one might end up in the Winter Session," a North Block official told The Hindu.

In Manipur, where cynicism abounds, people are convinced the review panel has taken a "safe" stand on the AFSPA. Though Justice Reddy has said on more than one occasion that his remit includes recommending "the repeal of the Act, or its amendment of its modification," most Manipuris believe the panel has called only for some amendments. Since the internal security establishment would be quite happy with that outcome, however, it is also possible that the delay in making the report public is because Justice Reddy and his team have done the unthinkable and called for the Armed Forces Act to be scrapped in toto.

No need for secrecy

Regardless of what has been recommended, it should be obvious to the Prime Minister that the Centre has nothing to gain politically from being secretive at this stage. Broadly speaking, there are only four possible scenarios. First, if the panel has suggested repeal and the Centre is disinclined to accept this suggestion, secrecy can at best defer the political cost this will exact but not mitigate or avoid it.

Second, if the panel has suggested repeal and the Centre is prepared to go along, the political returns, in terms of goodwill, are likely to be the highest if the report is made public immediately — before the anniversary of Manorama's killing — rather than later when the agitation against the AFSPA starts building up again. Indeed, in handing the people of Manipur a tangible victory — and in honouring their peaceful, mass protests — the Prime Minister will help create the political climate for bringing a negotiated end to the ongoing armed insurgency in the State.

The third and fourth scenarios involve the panel recommending only modifications in the AFSPA. If the Centre is inclined to accept this, the cost/benefit ratio of making the report public now versus later will be more or less identical. The only scenario where it might pay to delay the release of the report is in the unlikely event that the Centre is inclined to push for a repeal of the Act even though the panel has not sought it.

There are two additional reasons for the Centre acting sooner rather than later. Last week, the Gauhati High Court said that the C. Upendra Commission set up by the Manipur Government to probe the Manorama incident had no jurisdiction since the Assam Rifles came under the Centre. At the same time, the Court added that this did not mean Justice Upendra's report — which was submitted on November 22, 2004 but never made public — had no legal validity. "In view of the interim direction by the Court [... ] some amount of legality [may be attributed] to the report inasmuch as the report can be assured to have been prepared under the direction of the Court."

Declaring the Upendra report a "valuable document available for consideration and initiation of appropriate action", the High Court ruled that the Commission's findings be handed over to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs for "speedy action" against "the indicted persons, if any." The Court also asked that the MHA take an immediate decision about making the report public in keeping with the citizen's right to information.

At this stage, the public neither knows what Justice Upendra has recommended in the Manorama case nor what Justice Jeevan Reddy and his fellow panel members have suggested on the wider issue of the AFSPA. What we do know is that Manorama-type incidents continue to occur with alarming regularity — on June 20, for example, the nephew of Manipur's Culture Minister was arrested and allegedly killed in custody — and that a stop has to be put to them. The only way this can be done is to end the impunity enjoyed by the armed forces. If the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is in conflict with the rule of law, it is clear which must prevail and which must go.

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