Movements for Human Rights in Manipur


By Benjamin Gondaimei

India is the world largest democracy; a sovereign socialist republic with a comprehensive charter of rights written into its constitution; a signatory to most international covenants of human rights; a country in the forefront of the international struggle against colonialism, imperialism and racism. Rarely do many of us realised that underneath this impressive veneer and national pride about our 3000 year old civilizational legacy, lies a history of systematic violation of basic democratic, and human rights of large sections of our population.1 It was only with the declaration of the state of Emergency, in June 1975, that the fragile basis of even our constitutional rights was brought home to us. After 1975, many civil and democratic rights groups were formed and since have been functioning all over the country. Every year, publishing investigation reports particularly about violation by the state of its own Laws, registering cases under the provision of public interest law, holding press conferences, and issuing statement, as well as demonstrating against state repression of various kinds of draconian laws have become common fare. So also has the discussion on Indian Constitution ans its laws and justice machinery. This would have us believe that the movement for human rights of which this specialized activity of the civil and democratic rights groups is a part, is alive and kicking. Equally on e can be lead to believe that the activities of the different political parties and related mass organisations, of the hundreds of voluntary, social-action groups working with and for the oppressed and downtrodden as also a far more conscious citizenry would together have contributed to a powerful growing movement for changing the sub-human conditions in which large proportion of our citizens alive.

If anything, reports of gross violations by the state machinery in the form of torture, illegal detention, unprovoked firings, encounter killing, legislation of more repressive laws are now common than ever before. Alongside is the growing feeling of ineffectiveness and powerlessness in various human rights related groups, not only the specialised civil democratic rights groups, but also the different base level or support groups working among different constituencies ad involved with the struggle for a radical transformation of the Indian situation. There is a growing realisation that a weak and insecure state cannot only turn more fascist in its method, but can help generate a mind-set, particularly amongst the slightly better off of its citizens, that all such dissent and protest activity is seen as anti-state, anti-national, inherently destabilizing, and therefore to be put down with a heavy hand. We see not only the structures and the instrumentalities set up by the state to provide justice to its citizens, but also the mass, media and section of the intellengentia, collaborating in a wide ranging process of ruthlessly enforcing the status quo for even further regression from the status quo.  The relative inefficiency of the Civil Liberties and Democratic Rights movements in the country can be understood a t many level, the changing context within which the movement attempts to define itself, a shift in the nature of issues that the movement addresses itself to, the integral organisational dynamics of the movement, the strategies employed etc. All of them are post-facto explanations, that the movement is weak because the state is repressive.

The emerging scenario of the politics of human rights in India is becoming increasingly complicated and problem ridden, given the growing brutalisation of the state in its relationship to civil society as well as the increasing availability of the apparatus of the state to dominant interests keen on maintaining and augmenting levels of oppression and terror. On the other hand when it comes to the growth of the human rights movement, most of this tend to hold back, keen on retaining their specialized identities and afraid of being swamped by a generalised platform or body. Many of the human rights activities have themselves contributed to such an image by insisting that a human rights body should confine itself to fighting against atrocities committed by the state, not in dealing with the sources of these atrocities in the structure of the state and of civil society. While individual activists may involve themselves in political activities, including in party politics, it is not the role of the human rights bodies to get so entangle.

There has taken place an unprecedented polarisation of the Indian society following the rapid spread of communalism and the systematic build up in the media of the extremist and terrorist, threat to the country’s integrity and unity. This has polarised the human rights community too. Alongside, there has taken place a striking decline in the independence and objectivity of the judiciary and the press, partly due to the overall polarisation of society but due to more comprehensive conditioning of the middle class mind that anything that appears to weaken the government at the Centre weakens the Indian state, and anything that weakens the state weakens the constitutional fabric of democracy. The paradox is almost tragic: the greater the incident of oppression, the more widespread the span and location of resistance from civil society, which in turn produces the sense that the state is under attack and must be protected. This inturn is reflected in the fact that increasingly the relevance of human rights activist and organisations is reduced to holding protest meetings and rallies, and to registering and fighting court cases which also amount to little more than protesting, as nothing much come out of the writs and petitions anyway. This has made human rights endeavour even more segmented and specialised, reducing to lawyers and orators.

India has a record of flagrant violation of rights at every level. From a situation of lawlessness created by the state through undemocratic legislation, to arbitrary acts of both policy and intervention, successive governments have attempted to maintain policies that deny to a majority of citizens the right to civilized human existence.

Struggles of the Civil Societies in Manipur

Liberal theory considers civil society to be a property of democratic states. The presence of civil society ensures democratic states, because among the values of civil soceity are those of accountability of states, and limits on state power. Civil society affords a rule bound space independent of the state yet protected by the state, where right-bearing individuals pursue their private interests in peaceful association with others. For the Marxist, the liberal conceptualization of civil society as a sphere of rights legitimizes the domination of the capitalist classes. Civil in the Marxist perspective, is the arena for selfish competition, wage-linked exploitation, and class in equality. Marxist theory has consequently seen civil society as the sphere for the buying, selling and reproduction of labour power.  The state in this perspective by maintaining the fiction of equal rights and freedom actually guarantees the depredation and moral squalor of civil society. Liberals concentrate on the oppressions of the state, but they do not inquire into the oppressions of civil society, and Marxist concentration upon the oppressions of this sphere has led them to neglect any analysis of the institutions and values of the civil society. The privileging of civil society as the sphere where democratic politics can be constructed has major implications. It involves the recognition that the right to hold states responsible and to ensure political accountability resides not only in institutions and constitutions, laws and regulations, but is a part of the social fabric.2 Firstly the notion of the public sphere of civil society implies that people come together in an arena of common concerns. The public is not only what pertains to the whole society, it is the vital mechanism which brings together individuals and groups located in private discourses, into a discourse based on shared and common concerns. The transfer from the private to the public takes place through the formation and dissemination of public opinion. The second implication is that it is desirable that, the debate and discussion is public in the sense of being accessible to all. Nobody should be barred on the grounds of his/her location in class or other structures. The third implication is that a space should exist outside officially prescribed channels of communication provided by the state where this free and public discussion and debate can take place.


On the other hand, he practices of civil society which are exposed most powerfully are the works of Hegel, Marx and Gramsci, which inhibits the process of democracy. Civil society has provided both the space for democracy and acted as a constraint upon it.

Civil society is not a once and for all phenomenon which can be constructed and left to fend for itself. The freedom of civil society is precarious and has to be guarded against any violations of the autonomy principle. it is perceived that the state had become much more powerful than desired. Indeed the modern state, with its apparatus of power and surveillance, posed a greater threat to human freedom than earlier states which did not possess the same range, modicum and mechanisms of power. Arundhati Roy said “our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe”.

The values of civil society are those of political participation, state accountability, and publicity of politics. The institutions of civil society are associational and representative forums, a free press and social associations. The inhabitants of this sphere are the rights bearing and juridically define individually.

The Armed Forces Special Powers Act, is more of a nuisance than a solution. “Irom Sharmila Chanu’s protest and campaign to repeal the AFSPA must be heard and consider as a democratic non-violent protest.” The Act which gives extra-ordinary power to the security forces was imposed in some States of North East India with the noble intention of controlling militancy but ended up leasing an undeclared State of emergency for undefined reasons and for an unlimited period, it alleged. “The Act has been misused by the security forces by taking advantage of counter insurgency operation in every nook and corners in the North Eastern States. People had undergone several abuses due to the excesses repeatedly committed by the Security Forces throughout the years. It has repeatedly violated the right to life, liberty and security of person.” The foundation also called for incorporation of the list of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ as laid down and propounded by the Supreme Court of India and immediate review of the Act from the entire North East India.  The Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh has admitted AFSPA as inhuman in addition to Justice Jeevan Reddy’s recommendation to scrap the military Act, the civil societies demanded the Government of India and the Government of Manipur to repeal AFSPA without any further delay.  the Government of India responded with all the urgency when Ana Hazare fasted for just 11 days whereas New Delhi has been paying no attention to Sharmila’s 11 years old fasting, the partial attitude of the Government of India is being decried.

Former union home secretary G.K. Pillai said, Irom Sharmila’s fasting for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), must ”reach out to people across the country” like anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare to make Irom Sharmila cause known, says AFSPA enables security forces to shoot at sight and arrest anybody without a warrant if an area is declared disturbed.  “It is a question of how you reach out to people. AFSPA is applicable only in Jammu and Kashmir and in the northeastern states. Corruption is pricking people everywhere and that’s why Anna Hazare had a high moral ground,”  “She (Sharmila) has to reach out to the people across the country. She has to say why she is on fast,”  “AFSPA should be repealed and the government should have a humane law,” AFSPA was passed in 1990 to grant special powers and immunity from prosecution to security forces to deal with raging insurgencies in northeastern states and in Jammu and Kashmir. The Act is a target for local human rights groups and international campaigners such as Amnesty International.

Home Minister P Chidambaram made a fresh attempt is being made to build consensus within the Government to amend the controversial Armed Forces Special (Powers) Act (AFSPA). He said “I am trying to revisit AFSPA but as you know one needs to build a consensus within the Government before amendments can be brought before Parliament.” He said in J & K there was a consensus within the Central Government that if the state withdraws the Disturbed Areas Act, AFSPA will automatically go. “In Kashmir, the state government to was asked to review the application of Disturbed Areas Act and if that act is reviewed, then automatically if the DA does not apply to areas in Kashmir, the AFSPA is not applied to that area in Kashmir. In a statement of the Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh) said that we will replace the AFSPA with a more humane act.  On the other hand the army has conveyed its apprehensions to the Defence Ministry that replacement of AFSPA or any dilution could hamper its operational capabilities to effectively deal with militancy and insurgency. “On the first route (in JK) there is a consensus at the Centre. Now at the operational level, the JK government would have to, in the Unified Command, agree to review the application of Disturbed Areas Act. “If they are able to lift the DAA from, say five places, then AFSPA would not apply to those five places. So that is something which they have to do and I am in touch with the Chief Minister (Omar Abdullah),” Chidambaram said, adding Omar has to “weigh the pros and cons and then decide when to do it, where to do it. That is for them.”Omar’s government in the state has already constituted a Committee earlier this year to review the DAA. The Committee comprises Director General of Police, Home Secretary and Corps Commander of 15 Corps (for Kashmir) and Corps Commander of 16-Corps (for Jammu).

Congress Party’s scion Rahul Gandhi believes that army is no solution to insurgencies either in Kashmir, North East or Chattisgarh and bated for a political solution to problems. “We need to talk and the political process must begin.  “Army is no solution to the problem of insurgency. Army is meant to fight with the enemy and not with our own people.”

It is pathetic that the Indian State has not toed the democratic norms. Rather, on security point of view, the Indian state either simply copied the draconian laws of the colonial or even made new extraordinary and harsher laws in maintaining law and order and tackling insurgency movements in the country. Some of these laws that have been quite abusively used – Punjab Security of State Act, 1953, The Assam Maintenance of Public Order (Autonomous Districts) Act, 1958, The Terrorist and Disruptive (Prevention) Act, 1987, The Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO), 2001, repealed etc, etc. It has been experienced oft and again that these extraordinary laws do not solve the problems of people’s dissent and insurgency movements. Instead the common people have been the victims of the atrocious laws. While the Terrorist and Disruptive (Prevention) Act, 1987 has lapsed after wide protests, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 is still being promulgated in various states, particularly, the North East India. Sharmila has been undergoing fast unto death for complete removal of the Act. Scores of concerned civil society organisations including Sharmila Kanba Lup and the intelligentsia among others have been launching movements against any further promulgation of such Act, the authority has ever been arrogant. Thus, we experienced gross violation of human rights of the common peoples and subjugation has become the political culture. It is an empirical fact, that Manipuris have been protesting against even the British regime, can be clearly known from events, the First and Second Nupilals, Anglo-Manipuri War, Anglo-Kuki War, Irawat’s and Zeliangrong movements. Despite this situation, merger of Manipur to the Indian Dominion had added fuel to the fire, as a setback there came up the secessionist movements.

1 Harsh Sethi and Smithu Kothari, “Introduction”, in Rethinking Human Rights: Challenges for Theory and Action, edited by, Smitu Kothari and Harsh Sethi, (Delhi: Lokayan, 1989),1.

2 Neera Chandoke, State and Civil Society: Explorations in Political Theory, (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1995), 61.


Posted: 2012-04-14



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