Ajit Mahanta’s death in Army custody (or rather the dumping of his body in Assam Medical College in Dibrugarh on 5 February, a day after he was taken away) triggered an upsurge of anger against the security forces in Assam which has been coming for a long time but which was unprecedented in its spontaneity and spread.
It is worth reflecting at some length on this – the analysis by our correspondent in Assam on this page also delves into it – because there are many aspects to the tragedy. It is a mix of cruelty, arrogance and malignity by the armed forces, of their insensitivity, of the failure of political leaders to understand the complexity of emotions that people go through in such a tragedy and the failure of the permanent executive as well as civil society to demand that a lawless law which has been on the statute books for nearly 50 years be thrown into the dustbin of history.
This is the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, a law which enables soldiers (down to the rank of non-commissioned officers) to detain, search and “fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death” and do so with the absolute certainty and comfort that he or she will be protected from prosecution by the Centre. In nearly 50 years, not one case of illegal death has been laid at the door of murderous soldiers and officers in the North-east who have gotten away with nothing less than murder.
Is this acceptable in this day and age? Or any age? In any society that calls itself democratic? Where are the great civil society voices, our leftist friends, our friends from Nagaland, Manipur and elsewhere who agitated with such passion, intelligence and skill during the custodial death of Th. Manorama Devi in Manipur in 2004 which led to the review of the AFSPA and our very strong recommendations from the Review Committee, of which I was a member, to the Government of India?
We have not spoken openly of the report we have submitted because there is a certain moral obligation on those who write such sensitive reports which have far reaching ramifications on human security and state security. But the Government of India and its many well-funded departments and ministries have shown no such moral obligation, either individually of the political leadership or the permanent executive or the Army brass, to come to a quick decision on the issue and make the report public, to show a readiness for change and transparency.
The only thing it has done, in the early days of the report’s submission, was a shameless leaking of selected parts of the report to a few journalists. It has not been able to go beyond internal discussions with the Army, the law ministry and other departments.
Why have members of Parliament not been energetic enough in demanding a debate on the AFSPA Review Committee report and the Government’s position? Where is the media outcry over it? Where is the civil society upsurge which the media was so happy to cover, eyes popping, tongues hanging, TV cameras ready for the latest grab, the latest sound bite, with inane questions and unfocussed analysis (if it could be called that) and studio interviews?’
Why is there not again another angry upsurge over the death of Ajit Mahanta of Kakopathar? At the urging of various people, the head of the Army in the eastern sector, Lt.-Gen. Arvind Verma and the General Officer Commanding 4th Corps at Tezpur, Lt.-Gen. Lidder, travelled to Ajit’s home, offered condolences, offered compensation and assured the toughest action against the errant officers who are being court martialled.
But they will never be tried in a civilian court, never see the faces of the widow or the children they have harmed, never confront the villagers whose security and rights they violated. Is this acceptable in a nation that calls itself a democracy? That justice is not merely not done but seen as not done. Or that honour and life are not compensated with a cheque (or two cheques) and offers of jobs?
When does the government do all this? Just after announcing an amendment to the Foreigners Act to ensure that the trashed Illegal Migrants Determination by Tribunal Act, tossed out by the Supreme Court last year, is brought in through the back door to stymie any efforts at tackling illegal immigration and that too just a day before Congress President Sonia Gandhi goes to Assam to flag off the Congress election campaign for more votes: and ensure the “minority” – Assam has the second largest Muslim population of a state in India in proportion to the overall population (it’s 30 per cent) – that they will be protected.
If the Congress and its government in Assam had been more focused on Kakopathar than on the election rally, and if Mrs Gandhi had a little more political savvy, she could have gone directly to the area, consoled the families and reduced the anger. It may or may not have worked but it would have been better than ordering the defence minister to fix things.
The proposed Foreigners Act amendment is an opportunity to let loose the flames of hatred and communal disharmony before an election: the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Asom Gana Parishad and other parties will go to town on this one, with tragic consequences, I fear. The Congress isn’t bothered; we may reap the whirlwind again as in the 1980s.
But back to AFSPA: the reason why Ajit Mahanta died in Army custody is because of the notion of immunity from prosecution that AFSPA provides. Much of the problem lies in giving oppressive powers to the security forces to fight “the dushman”, the enemy. There can be no enemies in a democratic society, only opponents. I have not wavered from my stand over the years: AFSPA must go. It has done enough harm to our country, to the people of the North-east in particular and also to the armed forces who are reduced to the job of policing a suspicious, uncooperative and resentful people.
It is not as if the situation cannot be improved or has not improved over the years; it has. Ulfa was on the back foot as were the other militancies or armed groups. That is one reason they have been coming for talks, directly or indirectly, whether they care to admit it or not. That is as much a process of asserting military strength over an armed opponent and once having established that to ensure the dynamism of the political process. It is in the latter that we have been failing.
The embers of Kakopathar burn deep and are still erupting in different parts of Upper Assam – Makum, Jengrai, Chabua. I am glad that although Ulfa has attacked the handling of the incidents in Upper Assam, it has called on the people of Assam in its latest news letter to fight peacefully and non-violently for their rights. This is politically sound and the right approach; it is now for the Government of India and the Government of Assam to prove their bona fides.
How? Repeal AFSPA for a start: there are enough laws to deal with armed groups in the region, give policing back to the police and ensure that a legal mechanism controls the functioning of the armed forces. And if the government is wavering, then use the Right to Information to find out where things stand on the Review Report – not that you’ll get very far because most issues related to “national security” are barred from being accessed.