By Satya Sagar
24 August, 2004
is not Fallujah, Palestine or even Kashmir but only a small province
in the north-east of India. But there is no doubt that what the people
of Manipur are staging right now is a full-scale intifada against the
atrocities of an occupying army.
The immediate target
of their ire is one of the worlds most draconian anti-terror
laws anywhere- the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, imposed on several
parts of the Indian north-east since 1958. The larger protest is against
what is correctly perceived as decades of racist oppression by successive
Indian governments that inherited the north-eastern territories
from British colonial rule in 1947.
Who ? What ? Where ? I can already hear people ask. Not surprising
at all for those are questions that many Indian citizens themselves
would be hard put to answer. Unlike Kashmir or the fate of the untouchable
Dalits- whose causes have made it to global platforms in recent years-
the dirty little secrets of the Indian States predations in its
north-eastern provinces are unknown to even rest of India.
Not that rest of
Aryan India really cares. To them, the populations of the
Indian northeast, of largely Tibeto-Burman ethnic origins, are an invisible
lot- whose territory and resources belong to India but whose
people dont. Probably a rung below the visible Dalits
who belong to India but possess no territory.
What sparked off
Manipurs intifada was a spectacular and emotionally searing protest
against yet another rape and murder of a local woman by members of the
Assam Rifles, an Indian paramilitary force stationed in the province.
On July 15, this
year, a dozen middle-aged Manipuri women calmly walked up to the gates
of the paramilitary headquarters in the province, stripped stark naked
and help up placards which read Indian Army rape us, Rape
us the way you did Manorama. The images flashed throughout India
caused outrage of course but in Manipur it brought the entire citizenry
out on the streets.
Manorama was the
name of a 32 year old Manipuri woman, who was picked up from her house
in early July by soldiers for being a suspected insurgent
and later found dead. Autopsy reports showed she had been shot at close
range and that too several times through her genitals- an obvious attempt
to fudge any investigation of rape.
Officers of the
Assam Rifles claimed Manorama was a member of the outlawed Peoples
Liberation Army (PLA), one of several Manipuri militant groups demanding
autonomy or even outright separation from the Indian union. According
to them she was shot while trying to escape from custody-
a standard excuse for assassinating the inconvenient anywhere
in the world. Assam Rifles personnel have so far brazenly refused to
testify before an official inquiry investigating Manoramas death.
What has united
the entire population of Manipur, 2.4 million in all and across the
political spectrum, is not just the rape/murder (of which there is a
long list over the decades) but the fact that Indian security forces
are legally covered no matter what they do.
Providing such legal
cover is the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 (AFSPA) under
which all security forces are given unrestricted and unaccounted power
to carry out their operations, once an area is declared disturbed.
The ACT allows even a non-commissioned officer the right to shoot to
kill based on mere suspicion and to "maintain the public order".
And members of the security forces acting under the AFSPA can be prosecuted
only with the explicit consent of the Indian government- leaving their
victims perpetually without remedy.
Like many other
antiquated Indian laws the AFSPA too is a slightly modified version
of an old British colonial Act imposed to control a nationwide struggle
by Indian nationalists for independence. The AFSPA was enacted in 1958
and initially aimed at the Naga insurgent movement for independence
from India but amended in 1972 to be applicable to all the seven provinces
in the north- eastern region of India.
Known as the seven
sisters the provinces of Assam, Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal
Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland- are among the most neglected and underdeveloped
parts of India. Manipur is 22% behind the national average for infrastructural
development, and the entire north-eastern region is 30% behind the rest
The irony of the
AFSPA lies in the fact that Manipur, of all the seven provinces in the
Indian northeast, was the most peaceful- till it came within the purview
of the Act in 1980. There have been separatist insurgencies in other
parts of the Indian north-east since the early days of Indian independence,
notably that of the Nagas and Mizos, but never among the ethnic Meitei
who form the bulk of Manipurs population. Currently there are
reported to be over a dozen insurgent groups operating in the province
a testimony to the AFSPA having achieved exactly the opposite
of what it was purported to do.
According to human
rights groups, the enforcement of the AFSPA has resulted in innumerable
incidents of arbitrary detention, torture, rape, and looting by security
personnel. Many of the provisions of the Act violate the Indian constitution
and various international human rights charters.
Despite all this
over the years successive governments in New Delhi have justified the
legislation on the plea that it is required to stop the North East provinces
from seceding from the Indian Union. All the mainstream Indian political
parties, each trying to be more patriotic than the other,
agree on the need to keep the AFSPA despite its unpopularity and dubious
The simple truth
about India is that its elites are still running a 19th century State
wrested from British colonialists which always prioritized land and
resources over the lives of ordinary people. For all the glib talk about
India being a software superpower those who run the Indian
State have always displayed a perverse fetish for protecting their national
governments since independence have been been guilty of treating the
countrys north-eastern provinces as mere property with little
respect for its peoples culture, aspirations and demands. And
when the people revolt against such treatment the only solution the
Indian elites can think of is a military one.
Making matters worse
of course is the fact that these Indian national elites, essentially
drawn from upper caste Aryan stock, combine the brute technology
of the nation-state with the metaphysics of the ancient caste system
thereby asserting a double oppression on all lesser people
in the land. So the members of the Indian army and police who lord it
over the people of the northeastern provinces are armed with not just
gun and bayonet but also Bramhinical notions of cultural and racial
superiority over those they so gleefully rape and pillage.
Truth be said the
Indian governments actions in its north-east are not really very
different in many ways from what many other countries are doing to their
own ethnic and cultural minority people elsewhere in the world. And
within India too it is not just the people of the Indian north-east
who bear the brunt of such racism but also all the Dalit and tribal
people living in other parts of the country- robbed of their resources,
dignity and way of life under the patronage of the Indian
The only real difference
though is that the people of the Indian north-east are not willing to
take such colonialism lying down and have repeatedly risen up to fight
for their rights.
Even as I write
now Manipur is burning- literally- with students setting themselves
ablaze, shops and institutions closed, people out blockading the roads-
an entire population out on the streets in protest.
The recently elected
Congress government in Delhi says, ill advised no doubt by the Indian
army and bureaucracy, says it is willing to talk to the insurgents
but refuses to repeal the AFSPA. This ignores the fact that the unrest
in Manipur is today not about a handful of militants anymore but become
an insurrection by its entire population.
It is time that
the rest of the world woke up to the plight of the people of Manipur
and the Indian north-east for the simple reason that they are among
our globes oldest victims of the tyranny wrought by misplaced
and dubious anti-terrorism legislation. All those concerned
about how the US sponsored War on Terror is destroying democracy
globally should pay close attention to the struggles of the Manipuri
people. The context may be different but the problem is a painfully
And the rest of
India should oppose what is happening to their brethren in the north-east
as the Indian State is perpetrating atrocities in their name and because
the price of indifference could be their own subjection to such brutalities
in the future. In the process, they could begin to forge nothing less
than a new idea of the Indian nation shorn of racism and defined
in terms of living people with living concerns and not dead property
or the abstract perimeters of a paper map.
Satya Sagar is a
writer, journalist, videomaker based in Thailand. He can be contacted