The Supreme Court is presently hearing a PIL on alleged extra-judicial killings during the peak of insurgency in Manipur. It has been pressurising the CBI, presently investigating some of the cases, to speed up its processes. At the last hearing on 30 July the court summoned the head of CBI and left him with the option of arresting those security personnel against whom investigations were complete and charge sheets filed.
Manipur had been the hotbed of insurgency since the early 1980s. The difference between insurgency and proxy war, as is being played out in Kashmir, is that in an insurgency, the instigators are locals, whereas in a proxy war, militants are from across the border. The only way an insurgency can sustain itself, as against a proxy war, which is funded and fuelled from across, is by support from the local population.
Without local support, an insurgent is a fish out of water. Insurgents melt into local populace making detection difficult. Strategically, security forces would attempt to isolate the insurgent from his support base, while insurgents with their supporters would seek to impact the success of security forces. This seesaw battle results in an adverse local-security forces relationship. Since insurgents are locals, their elimination would, on occasion be presented as slaying of innocents.
Insurgent groups had in the 1980s declared parts of Manipur as liberated zones, where government writ did not exist. The army alongside other security forces moved in, clearing the state area by area, in jungle terrain which favours the insurgent. AFSPA was invoked with the deployment of the army. The Manipur Government commented even as late as December 2017 that it was only by deploying the army that the situation could be brought under control. Currently, AFSPA continues to operate throughout the state except the Imphal urban area.
Security forces have lost over 1,900 personnel in Manipur and more than 3,100 have been injured. Sustained pressure resulted in eliminating over 4,900 militants and surrenders of over 5,100. Between 1979 and 2012, 1,528 cases of extra-judicial encounters have been reported against security forces, based on individual testimonies, written complaints and commissions of enquiry.
Mr YJ Singh, the present Deputy CM and former chief of Manipur Police stated, “There may have been a few cases of extra-judicial killings, but I don’t think the numbers being quoted are that many. If 1,500 people had been illegally killed, there would have been more protests in the state.” Sixty-two cases are currently under investigation by the CBI’s Special Investigation Team (SIT). It is evident that eyewitness testimonies would not favour the security forces.
Most insurgent groups do not fear any local force except when it operates alongside the army. Hence, insurgent groups would employ all means to discredit the army, seeking a drop in its morale, to bounce back to their dominant position.
Security forces operating in insurgency-affected areas are doing so under orders of the government, never their free will. They face a hostile population supporting insurgency. Security forces are compelled to act on flow of information, which at times may be misleading. The atmosphere for security forces in an insurgency is frustrating and tense as differentiating between an insurgent and local is difficult, at times leading to errors.
Many cases under investigation pertain to over a decade ago. Most now being questioned may be senior citizens who had then performed their tasks as per directions of the government and in good faith. None of the cases involve security personnel acting for personal gain, but for seeking to eradicate a movement that threatened the fabric of the nation.
There have neither been reports of mass murders or use of weapons of mass destruction nor of forces acting in anger or revenge, as the trend the world over in battling insurgencies would indicate. Neither had the government created an ‘Ikwan’ type force in Manipur, which dealt its own brand of justice.
By reigniting the cases, seeking to bring those involved to justice, including legally charging them, ignoring the provisions of the government enacted AFSPA, the courts would impact the morale and functioning of security forces in difficult regions, where the writ of the state has ceased.
A humble suggestion to the courts would be to adopt a mature approach, setting in motion procedures to prevent such incidents from occurring in the future. This may include revisiting laws and regulations.
A witch hunt against those presently considered accused but who had then served with honour would never resurrect the dead.
Many Manipuris battling cases on extra-judicial encounters state that they are doing so to remove the stigma of the individual killed being an insurgent, as crimes and misdemeanours of family members can taint all born within it. Ideally, the state should seek to compensate families of those whose cases are proved to be genuine and tender an apology to those whose near and dear ones were killed inadvertently.
The nation could consider the example of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre of Northern Ireland in 1972, denied by the British for forty years, after which Prime Minister David Cameroon apologized in parliament in 2010.
Manipur is neither the first region where an anti-national environment existed, nor would it be the last. Every time the nation faces a crisis, it is the army and other security forces which are pushed in to regain the writ of the state. If after every resolution of conflict, those involved are questioned, then the future would be bleak for the nation.
It is an established fact that in insurgency or proxy war regions, security forces’ presence is always resented, as is evident presently in the valley. They are targeted from all directions – by locals, insurgents, politicians during their deployment and post resolution by the judiciary.
It is for the learned citizens to consider whether they should support the soldier who battles for the nation, ignoring his own life and comforts, or accuse him as soon as he brings an area back to normalcy. We need to look ahead and seek solutions to prevent such recurrences, rather than adopt a policy of vengeance. A nation which only remembers its soldiers in times of trouble and dumps them thereafter would never have a clear conscience.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.