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Impunity under AFSPA

The impunity under AFSPA of law-enforcement personnel guilty of sexual offences against women is most pronounced in the Northeast, writes KS Subramanian

Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958

The Justice J S Verma Committee (JVC) set up to recommend changes in laws related to violence against women has slammed the impunity granted to law-enforcement personnel guilty of sexual offences against women under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958. The Verma Committee said that “systematic or isolated sexual violence, in the process of Internal Security duties, is being legitimised by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which is in force in large parts of our country,” and recommended review of the continuance of the Act in the context of extending legal protection to women in conflict areas.

The ordinance that was pushed through by the government in haste following the Verma Committee recommendations, however, glossed over the matter of the repeal of AFSPA while recommending changes in other legal provisions relating to rape and other forms of extreme sexual violence against women.

The annual report of the Ministry of Home Affairs (GOI: 2011-12) shows (p 82) that the figure of crimes against women in India has gone up from 5102460 in 2006 to 6750748 in 2010. The figure includes both Indian Penal Code (IPC) cases and others under Special and Local Laws (SLL). The situation in the north­-eastern states such as Manipur is especially grim with many serious human rights violations against women and children by the very police and security forces meant to safeguard them. 

The 2001 India Human Development report had revealed that during 1991-98, the figure of ‘rapes’ in the northeast went up from 601 to 1,001; ‘molestation’ from 415 to 849; ‘kidnapping and abduction’ from 1,005 to 1,288; ‘dowry deaths’ from 21 to 43; and ‘cruelty by relatives’ from 240 to 862. ‘Eve-teasing’ declined from 16 cases to 13! The all-India figures for these offences for the same period were: ‘rapes’ increased from 9,793 to 15,031; ‘molestation’ from 20,611 to 31,051; ‘kidnapping and abduction’ from 12,300 to 16,381; and ‘cruelty by relatives’ from 15,949 to 41,317. ‘Eve-teasing’ declined from 10,283to 8,122 cases! The 2011 India Human Development Report does not contain any figures of violence against women!

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has been reporting not only high rates of crimes against women but disturbingly low rates of conviction. A study by the Centre for Social Research, New Delhi, has asked for greater emphasis on gender awareness and sensitivity in police training. The National Police Academy was advised to formulate a gender policy for police training. But unfortunately, the document titled ‘Integrated Police Training’ (2012) prepared by the Director of the SVP National Police Academy, Hyderabad, which provides an outline of capacity-building challenges in areas such as sensitisation, orientation and competency is silent on the vital issue of sensitising IPS officers to domestic violence against women, violence against women in public places and so on. If this is the situation in a national training institution meant for high-ranking cadres of the IPS, the situation in state-level police training institutions can be imagined.  

Low representation of women in all wings of the police does not help. Women constitute only 2% of the overall strength of the civil police. Affirmative action is called for.

AFSPA in the Northeast

In Manipur in July 2012, an organisation of widows and mothers of those killed in ‘encounters’ with security forces, the Extra-judicial Execution Victim Families Association, Manipur (EEVFAM), with  Neena Ningombam as secretary, appealed to the Supreme Court of India for justice for the innocents killed by police commandos and security forces such as the Assam Rifles, under cover of the immunity provisions of AFSPA. The organisation has asked for an independent probe into 1,528 cases of extra-judicial execution by security forces in Manipur (North East Sun, November 15, 2012). It is alleged that 1,528 people including 31 women and 98 children have been killed in the name of ‘encounters’ with militants by security forces between 1979 and May 2012. Of these, 419 were killed by Assam Rifles and 481 by combined teams of Manipur police commandos and central armed police forces. Ningombam’s husband Michael was killed on November 4, 2008 by Manipur police commandos who branded him a terrorist. A district judge appointed by the Guwahati High Court has found that Michael was not guilty of initiating the firing as alleged by the Manipur police commandos.

Rape, molestation and torture of women and children, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention and executions, housebreaking and looting have become a part of everyday life in the state. In 2009, an Independent People’s Tribunal (IPT) including three high court judges took stock of a human rights commission report on violations in the state arising from the operation of the draconian AFSPA, as reported in a document produced in 2009 by the Human Rights Law Network, New Delhi. A large number of victims of torture, suffering and inhuman treatment by the army (read Assam Rifles) acting under the AFSPA narrated their experiences. The tribunal went into the case of Irom Sharmila Chanu, who has been on a superhuman fast unto death since November 2000 demanding repeal of the AFSPA. It found that Manipur is especially unsafe for women. Two major recent events are: i)  in July 2004, in one of the most blatant cases of human rights violation, men of the Assam Rifles arrested, raped and killed Thangjam Manorama, a young woman in Imphal. After killing the innocent woman who was charged with anti-national activities, they fired bullets into her genitals to prevent the surfacing of evidence of rape. The bullet-ridden body of the woman was left abandoned on the roadside. This provoked the women of Manipur to parade naked in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters, asking the Indian Army to ‘come and rape’ them. In November 2009, Thockchom Rabina Devi (23) and Chongtham Sanjit (25) were killed by  Manipur police commandos in a police ‘encounter’ in the middle of a crowded marketplace in broad daylight. There are many such incidents.

Can rape and murder be justified on grounds of national security? The Justice Verma Committee recommended “bringing sexual violence against women by members of the armed forces or uniformed personnel under the purview of the ordinary criminal law taking special care to ensure the safety of women who are the complainants and witnesses; and setting up special commissioners for women’s safety and security in all areas of conflict”.

Protective laws do exist but ordinary people are not aware of their provisions. If the police do not record complaints there is a provision in law that private complaints may be filed before the court by the affected parties, which requires legal intermediation by trained lawyers who are not readily available in conflict-affected areas.

The immunity provisions under Section 6 of the AFSPA, which protects personnel of the armed forces, were removed in seven assembly constituency areas of Imphal city in 2004 after the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama by Assam Rifles men. The impact of this restriction? Now victims are moved to other areas of the city which are still declared ‘disturbed areas’ under the AFSPA and then extra-judicially dealt with!

The Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee, set up in 2005 following the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama Devi, reviewed the working of the AFSPA and recommended that it be repealed but its basic provisions be incorporated in another law. The report of the Committee, however, was kept ‘classified’ and never implemented. A copy of the report is available on the website of The Hindu.  

Human Rights Watch in 2009 described the Indian police as a ‘broken system’ and a ‘dangerous anachronism’. It stated that the Indian police have failed to evolve from the ruler-supportive, repressive force they were designed to be under colonial rule. While much of India is in the process of rapid modernisation, the police continue to use abuse and threats as their primary tools of investigation and law enforcement. The force’s institutional culture discourages officers from acting otherwise, failing to give them the resources, training, ethical environment and encouragement to develop professional policing tactics. Many officers are ordered or expected to commit abuses.

Field studies in Manipur in 2009 found an excessive concentration of security forces in the state, with about 60 battalions of state and central armed police/security forces in the state amounting to an ongoing process of ‘militarisation’. The Padmanabhiah Committee in the 1990s found that the proportion of police deployment in the region both in terms of unit of population and unit of territory was higher in the region than the national average. Currently, 51 battalions of the Indian Reserve and 46 battalions of the Assam Rifles are deployed in the region. This is in addition to the Central Reserve Police forces and the armed police and civilian police forces of the state governments. In this overall situation, it is not surprising that women and children become victims of police brutality. 

In the conflict-affected northeast, the safety, security and survival of women and children calls for the repeal of the AFSPA and accountability of the security forces. Assam Rifles had relevance in the British era since 1835 when it was the only police force available to the government in the region. It has lost that relevance today, with eight new state governments and an equal number of police forces having come into existence. It has become a historical anomaly. Its duties should be confined to border defence along the Indo-Myanmar frontier.

(The writer is a former member of the Indian Police Service (IPS). His forthcoming book is titled Conflict Resolution and the Indian State: Policy Challenges in the Northeast)

Infochange News & Features, April 2013