The seminar on the theme, "Violence and Human Rights Violations: a Case Study of Manipur" organized by the Manipur Students Association, Delhi (MSAD) as part of the World Human Rights Day observations worldwide on 10th December, 2002 concluded on a solemn note that Manipur was a "fit case for sharp focus on Human Rights violations" in the country.
Also, a photo exhibition that graphically but morbidly showed the victims of human rights violations by the armed forces in the beleaguered state-held alongside the seminar- was greeted with palpable anguish by the distinguished panelists and the 400 odd strong audience who came to listen to the seminar.
Panelists of the rare seminar included, among others, big guns of Indian intelligentsia, journalism, academics and civil liberty group namely Monoranjan Mohanty, Professor, Delhi University, Dr. KS Subramanian, IPS (former DGP, Tripura and a member of the Gujarat Citizens’ Tribunal Committee), Siddharth Varadarajan of the largest read English daily, Times of India, Shankarsen Thakur of the venerable Indian Express and Babloo Loitongbam of Human Rights Alert based in Manipur. Kuldip Nair, the noted journalist was however conspicuous by his absence.
In his welcome address, Thounaojam Somorjit, President of the MSAD said seminar like the one that was being held would make individuals more active and engaged in protecting and upholding the fundamental human rights from forces that "obstruct or damage the fundamental rights of our being".
For the benefit of the panelists, Thoudam Churachand, General Secretary of the MSAD presented a brief history of the Manipur from the mythological times to the merger of the state with the Union of India in 1949 to the attainment of statehood in 1972.
Kicking off the seminar, Noni Meitei, Co-convener of the MSAD Human Rights Cell, explained the driving motivation behind holding the seminar.
"The simplified objective of the seminar is to relocate and track down the situations at peripheries", he said.
He recounted the alarming recurrence of serious violations of human rights in Manipur in various forms like rape, involuntary disappearances, custodial torture, extra-judicial killings, summary trial, etc. and added that violence was a "two-way traffic" for which responsibility was to be held by both state and non-state actors.
Babloo Loitongbam of Imphal based Human Rights Alert read out a paper entitled, "A Reflection on Human Security in Manipur". In his paper, Mr. Lotongbam lambasted the governments for misusing the global sentiments against terrorism -post September 11- to "aggressively push their own agendas in a self-serving and politically motivated fashion".
The real target of the enactment of the POTA was not terrorism per se for which there were enough laws to deal with, but to neutralize the assertion of the ethnic, national and religious minorities which oppose the dominant Hindutva ideology of the ruling party, BJP, Mr. Loitongbam pointed out quoting an academic source of opinion.
The fact that all the 6 Manipuri organisations banned under POTA by GoI namely PLA, UNLF, PREPAK, KCP, KYKL and MPLF were valley based organizations of the Meitei community led many observers to raise the question whether POTA was designed to politically polarize Manipur along ethnic lines, he wondered.
While expressing apprehensions about the real intents of the draconian law, he said the vague definition of a "terrorist act" in section 3 (1) (a) of POTA gave ample scope for the law enforcement agencies to harass innocent civilians.
POTO being the latest of the draconian laws, there are other similar laws like the more widely known Armed Forces special Powers Act, 1958 which give sweeping powers to even a non-commissioned officer of the Armed Forces of the Union to search places, interrogate suspects and even shoot on suspicion of disturbing "public disorder". The Armed Forces are protected from any legal action for the acts committed under this Act, Babloo pointed out.
In the name of protecting national security, government has also put in place a series of malicious laws that threaten the dignity of Manipuris. Some of these are The Prevention of Seditious Meetings Act, 1911, The Punjab Security Act, 1953, Foreigners’ Protected Areas Order, 1958, The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, The National Security Act, 1980 and The Code of Criminal Procedure (Manipur Amendment) Act, 1983, he said.
Babloo also brought out the incidents of human rights violations by the armed forces during this year- Dhirendra case, Pangei incident, Sugunu incident and Jane Alam incident.
He reminded the delegates of the seminar of the rare sacrifice of Miss Irom Sharmila who was undergoing an endless hunger strike demanding the repeal of Armed Forces Special Power Act, 1958 from Manipur.
Sympathizers of Sharmila’s struggle may log into http://ahrchk.net/sharmila/index.php to sign the petition put up at this website by the Hong Kong based Asian Human Rights Commission in collaboration with Imphal based Human Rights Alert, Babloo told the audience.
He also attacked the "security mania" of government of India that places national security concerns over people’s security and everything else. "Restriction on cellular phones and entry of foreigners into Manipur is the crescendo of such a mindset", he said.
Concluding his paper, he lamented the fact that people of the North-East and especially Manipur had to constantly prove their "Indianness" to be in the good books of the establishment.
He appealed the students of Delhi University to be the ambassadors of the appalling human rights situation in Manipur.
Siddharth Varadarajan of the Times of India termed the human rights situation in the country, especially in the wake of September 11, "fragile". States have usurped the civil liberties of the peoples by enacting invasive laws, legislations, and through surveillance, he said.
Mr. Varadarajan pointed out the boomerang effect that draconian law such as POTA could have on civilians by citing the case of Mr. Vaiko who was booked under POTA, of which passage he strongly supported.
He also rued over the abysmal level to which public discourse on human rights had sunk. "When Kuldip Nair, noted journalist filed a petition to National Human Rights Commission over the Ansal Plaza shoot-out incident to demand a probe, Arun Jaitley of BJP accused human rights activists as ‘overground faces of underground movement", Mr. Varadarajan said.
"Though the role of the media is pivotal in raising human rights issues, commercial interests and space constraints dictate that they are put on the backburner", Mr. Varadarajan said, replying to a question from the MSAD.
Mr. Shankarsen Thakur of the Indian expressed surprise at the fact that the seminar was being attended by Manipuris only, barring a few non-Manipuris.
"You must be really feeling a sense of alienation; when such a seminar is held, people from other states are supposed to participate", he opined looking at the preponderance of Manipuri faces in the Sir Shankarlal Hall where the seminar was being held.
The state has become the main violator of the human rights in peripheral states, he observed.
"Prosecution of the Gilani of the Kashmir Times under POTA", he said, "epitomizes the state applying its malicious might".
"It is not one people’s battle anymore".
In a grim reminder of the worsening law and order situation in the North-East, Mr. KS Subramanian, former DGP of Tripura said, "North-East is being seen within the country’s bureaucratic circles as hot spot for punishment
posting". This remark elicited peals of laughter from the audience.
While admitting that the bureaucracy forms the important part of state which is at the center of human rights violations, he also suggested that there was an urgent need for reforms in the Indian bureaucracy.
"There is a crying need for sensitization of the bureaucrats to sensitivities of the people on human rights issues", he said.
Professor Monoranjan Mohanty of Dekhi University who was assigned to speak on international dimensions of the human rights scenario opined that the global human rights movement had undergone a sea change following the September 11 tragedy.
"Counter terrorism discourse", Mr. Mohanty said, "is clouding debate on legitimate issues of human rights and self determination".
Hegemony, authoritarian regime and obsessive self are the three enemies of peoples’ movement, he said.
"The movement for human rights is all about hegemony versus democratic forces".
Mr. Bung Bung Meitei, Convenor of MSAD gave the vote of thanks. He profusely showed his gratefulness to the distinguished panelists, UCM, civil society groups and the media for making the seminar a reality.
"My special thanks to www.e-pao.net for the publicity in the run up to the seminar", he added.
* The author is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. The author can be reached at [email protected]