In 2004, Thangjam Manorama, was brutally raped and murdered by Assam Rifles. She was arrested from her house at around 3 am on the allegation of being a “militant”. Her body was found a day later. There were bullet shots in her vagina and semen all over her skirt. To protest against this brutual rape and killing, a group of about 50 women had staged a nude protest in front of the Kangla fort. They had raised slogans like “The Indian Army rape us”. This protest had forced the Manipur Government to act. The Manipur Government had ordered an inquiry and submitted a report but the Guwahati High Court had rejected it saying that the Manipur Government does not have the authority. After continuous pressure, there were some developments in the case but they have not led to any result. Till now, justice has not been granted. This case was not an exception. Such incidents have happened before and continue to happen in areas where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act(AFSPA) has been imposed. Many believe this is because AFSPA provides the armed forces with legal impunity.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) rules over eight states in India – North East India (except Sikkim) and the state of Jammu & Kashmir. In the name of “upholding law and order”, the law gives the right to armed forces to arrest without a warrant, shoot to kill any person on mere suspicion. The law protects the army persons with legal impunity. The officers found guilty can be punished only after the central government issues a sanction. This is one of the main reasons why today AFSPA has become a symbol of army arbitrariness and cruelty in AFSPA areas. AFSPA has resulted in fake encounters, rapes, torture, extra-judicial killings and disappearances.
Much has been written about how the army is misusing its power not only to disregard the civilians but also the government and judiciary. We have had instances where the armed forces have refused to co-operate even when the judiciary has taken up such cases and have been accused of destroying or manipulating evidence. Even in the case of Manorama, it is alleged that the guilty officers had shot her several times in the vagina to destroy evidence. The state government too has acknowledged cruelty of the army in some instances. State government officials have in some cases in Manipur paid compensation to the victims of AFSPA. Former Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram had acknowledged that he felt “ashamed” of the Kunan Poshpora incident of Kashmir wherein atleast 50 women were raped by the soldiers of Rajputana Rifles in a single night. But the army alone cannot be blamed. In many cases, the central government has also refused to sanction the right to punish the guilty officers.
There is a sense of hypocrisy, when India talks about human rights, and criticizes China for the atrocities committed in Tibet, and gives shelter to political refugees. While we are proud to call ourselves a democracy, the truth is that the army is very powerful. Also, while AFSPA, an anti-human law, does permit killing, the law does not permit sexual violence. How can the sexual violence be justified at all? This should not come under legal impunity. This was also one of the recommendations of the Justice Verma committee that was appointed in December 2012 to review laws for sexual crimes. The committee had recognized sexual violence by armed forces in AFSPA areas and had recommended that the cases of sexual violence be brought under ordinary criminal law.
The army being held responsible in cases of sexual violence will, in no way, “degrade” or “disrespect” the army as the army officials would like us to believe. We must respect our army. They do sacrifice their lives for us, whatever the motivation may be. It does not mean all their acts are right or should be justified. These incidents are real, they are not fabrications and the guilty army personnel should be punished. The cases of sexual violence have not only been reported from AFSPA states. There have been several reported cases of army men raping civilians in non-AFSPA states. While this does not mean that all army persons misuse their power, some definitely do. The glorification of army and army persons serves like impunity even in non-AFSPA states. Army personnel should never feel insulted or degraded because of measures to ensure transparency and accountability under certain circumstances. But the army cannot and should not have criminals in uniform, they cannot be above the law. This is a democracy and the army being a part of the state must respect it.
This article was published on The News Minute