Legislating Terror

When one observes the manner in which colonizing nations of the past and present flex their oppressive muscles under veils of righteousness, one is boggled by the consistency that is ingrained in imperialism. Whether it was educating savages in the 1850s, stemming the red tide in the 1960s or liberating Iraqis in 2004, it all boils down to the same (neo)colonial machinery preceded and succeeded by bogus rhetoric. Words like "freedom," "liberation," and "patriotism" now more than ever are bandied about by the haves in order to further oppress the have-nots.

And when one observes leviathan developing countries like India, there's not too much of a difference, save one: where colonial nation-states of the West conducted and continue to conduct mass human rights violations outside of their borders, the Indian government and elite gleefully do so within their own borders. Whether it is oppression of minorities by state-supported fundamentalist groups like the Bajrang Dal and Ranvir Sena, or human rights abuses perpetrated by the state itself in Kashmir and the Northeast, the flow of blood and the disenfranchisement of the victims is one and the same.

India has had and continues to have a veritable spectrum of draconian laws that are supposedly aimed at stopping terrorism: Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), Terrorist And Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), Prevention Of Terrorism Act (POTA), the Disturbed Areas Act (DAA), and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Each, when implemented results in the oppression of the most under-privileged members of our society.

The AFSPA (1958) and the Disturbed Areas Act (1976) have been in place in Manipur, Nagaland and many parts of Assam, thereby covering a significant geographical chunk of the Northeast for more than two decades. The custodial death of Thangjam Manorama, the latest in a long list of human rights abuses to take place under the benign gaze of the state and central government resulted in wave after wave of protests, both violent and peaceful, in Manipur where the AFSPA has been enforced for over 24 years to date. Over 24 years of oppressing a region and a people who had long been discarded from the Indian mainstream by the central government. Witnesses say Manorama was picked up on July 11th by soldiers of the paramilitary Assam Rifles from her home on alleged charges of links with separatist rebels. The next day, her dead body was reportedly found four kilometers away from her home in the state capital Imphal, with multiple bullet wounds and signs of torture. The entire state has come to a standstill under the backlash of huge protests following the brutal and tragic death.

The wording of the AFSPA enacted by Parliament in 1958 is indeed blood curdling to even read let alone act out. The act states that any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or person of equivalent rank in a disturbed area may fire upon or use force even to the point of causing death if he is of the opinion that it needs to be done to maintain public order. He may arrest, without a warrant, any person against whom a reasonable suspicion exists and may use the above mentioned force to effect the arrest, as well as enter and search without warrant any premises to make any such arrest if reasonable suspicion exists. Any person arrested under this Act is to be taken to the nearest police station and placed in custody without any delay. If this weren't enough, the Act gives sweeping immunity to anyone acting under it. It states verbatim "Protection to Persona acting under Act: No prosecution, suit or other legal proceeding shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the Central Government, against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers conferred by this Act."

It does not take a sociopolitical genius to figure out that the very wording of the Act itself begets heinous misuse. When one considers it in tandem with a corrupt state and police machinery, as is the case in many parts of India, the human rights violations skyrocket upwards.

There is plenty of justification and rationalization from the Indian government, army and police as to the need for these acts. It is often argued that these laws are needed to fight terrorism and maintain law and order. The rhetoric that follows soon after is the typical pseudo-patriotic drivel.

While it appears that there is a very vague element of truth to the rationalization offered by the government, and seems to follow the means versus end argument, what is often overlooked is that these laws using extreme, draconian means, like the AFSPA, are inherently flawed and corrupt. What then results is a scenario where the end is still as far away as it always has been, if not further, and the means employed by the state is causing the complete collapse of civil society and fundamental human rights. This is so, because even if we buy the government's argument by some astonishingly myopic stretch of logic, the very fact that there are absolutely no rigorous justice mechanisms for members of the police or army who misuse this act proves that this is flawed logic, and that the government is only using these Acts to oppress those who don't fall within the mainstream setup. Even in the Manorama case, the Assam Rifles removed an unspecified number of soldiers against whom a court of inquiry was ordered to probe the death, only after mounting pressure from rigorous protests in the aftermath of the killing. Findings from courts of inquiries of this nature are almost never made available to the public or human rights groups representing the aggrieved parties.

All the other laws mentioned above are regurgitated versions of one another. The Indian government seems to periodically revisit its legitimized mechanism of oppression in order to repeal one law and fortify it with yet another law, more draconian and heinous than its predecessor, all meant to quell "terrorism" and "threats to national unity"... with tragicomically abysmal results. First there was the Preventive Detention Act passed by Parliament in 1950 in the bloody aftermath of Independence and Partition to curb activity that was perceived as a threat to national unity. This Act expired in 1969 and was quickly replaced by MISA in 1971, primarily used to curb the Naxalbari uprisings, which in effect meant persecuting and killing leftists, trade unionists and poor peasants. In 1958 the AFSPA was passed and remains un-repealed and very much in use in Kashmir and the Northeast. The AFSPA and MISA were soon followed by TADA in 1985, and despite both MISA and TADA being repealed, thousands of innocents have been detained under TADA and continue to await trial, facing malnutrition, torture and, many a time, custodial killings. After MISA and TADA came and went, 2002 signaled the arrival of the one act that could match the AFSPA in its lethality, and that was POTA, which was used by the BJP government to rigorously oppress Muslims in various parts of India.

Did I once hear something about India being a democracy?

It is high time that the Indian government, and many other governments for that matter, realized that reactive measures of force could never achieve the sustained development of a stable and strong civil society that proactive measures of peace and dialogue can. How can the government hope to bring peace and stability to Jammu and Kashmir or the Northeast if they continue to station hundreds of thousands of soldiers without any plan for troop reduction? How can the government consider itself one for the people if there is no sustained grievance-addressing dialogue with the people of these troubled regions?

Instead we have macho rhetoric and custodial deaths.

One has to be only marginally concerned in seeing the statistics even for the past six months to a year to see the complete devastation of fundamental human rights in the areas where these acts have been enforced. If one were to look only at Manipur, reports from human rights groups state that at least twenty innocent young men and women have been killed in mysterious circumstances in Manipur over the last six months. In all cases they were found dead after being picked up by Army and Assam Rifles units. T. Singh, a human rights campaigner in Manipur states, "Our reports say there were at least 50 cases of third degree tortures on innocent civilians accused of aiding militancy in the past one year. At least a dozen custodial deaths were reported in the same period, while a number of cases have gone unreported." In their August 11th public statement, Amnesty International urged the government of India to repeal or review—ensuring its consistency with international human rights standards—the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA), stating that it had pointed to reports of serious human rights abuses occurring under the AFSPA as under POTA and on that basis appealed for AFSPA's repeal or review.

Any human rights worker involved with this issue in the Northeast would know that this is barely skimming the surface, and that over the past many years under the ominous shadow of these acts, there have been innumerable custodial deaths and human rights violations by the state law enforcement agencies.

The State cannot offer the rationale that terrorist groups flourish, when it has done next to nothing to address the fundamental needs of the people in these same areas, in fact further marginalizing them every step of the way. For instance one fourth of all the petroleum of India is produced in Assam, but since it is processed outside of the state, Assam is deprived from any revenue. In the state of Manipur, over 45% of the population lives below the poverty line, while the national average of people living below the poverty line stands at around 28%. The Northeast, despite having an abundance of natural resources was kept out of India's massive infrastructure development in the first few five-year-plans, leaving it far behind the rest of India in infrastructure development. It just goes to show how the Indian government has been systematically denying any form of social or economic justice to the people of the region. Indeed in the case of the insurgency problem, instead of escalating the confrontation with militant groups, the government would probably do a lot better by giving them a reason to not exist, and furthermore give the people of those regions a reason to not join or support these groups. When family members are killed, the youth are enraged and want revenge and secession from a government that oppresses them.

And why not? If a government provides nothing of what it is supposed to provide to its citizens, and above that willingly oppresses them, who wouldn't want to secede and participate in an armed struggle? For every Manorama who is killed in custody, there will be many more pushed towards the extreme step of arming themselves because of that death, and indeed that rage is well justified.

In the Northeast the government would do well to conduct dialogue not just with militant groups but also with the people residing there, the ones who are the most disenfranchised. Rigorous, proactive efforts have to be made to bring them into the Indian mainstream. For those who do not wish to be a part of India, the government should engage in constructive dialogue that is not based on blind ideologies of national unity, and preservation of borders, but rather based on what is best for the people. In a functioning democracy, people have the right to claim secession as long as human rights are not trampled upon. And one can safely say that if the Indian government were to provide their own citizens in the Northeast with proper socioeconomic development, and not marginalize then, the number of people wanting to claim secession would reduce quite drastically. One of the first steps to doing that is to repeal draconian laws like the AFSPA that condemn the whole state and the people residing in it. No doubt, terrorism has to be battled but it has to be done while upholding the constitution—a constitution that considers all citizens of India as equal, regardless of race, gender, religion, caste or creed. Instead of enacting one draconian law after another, why not improve the existing state and police machinery that indeed has strong laws to prevent genuinely criminal activity?

Just as important, everyday people in India who don't bear the brunt of these laws have to look beyond government propaganda on supposed "terrorist " groups, and truly support and fight for the ones who are oppressed and upon whom human rights violations are perpetrated. Every Manorama in every part of India is our sister, brother and comrade. If we don't fight for them, we've lost the fight for ourselves—because we are them.

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