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17 February, 2009

Manipur caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, says ALRC

The following is a written statement submitted by the Asian Legal Resource Centre, Hong Kong, to the UN Human Rights Council:

In July 2008, seven children were kidnapped from a public school in Manipur state, India. The school is just outside the city limits of the state capital, Imphal. Investigations by the Manipur state government revealed that about 30 children are being trained by two underground militant groups, the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (Prepak) and the Prepak Cobra Task Force, operating in the state. Of the abducted children, 22 were reportedly taken from various parts of the state in a period of 45 days during June and July 2008. None of their parents had lodged a complaint with the authorities when their children went missing.

Abduction of children by militant groups operating in Manipur has become a common incident in the state. Often children are abducted while they go to school or on their way home. Militant groups justify the presence of children in their ranks, by claiming that the children joined them at their will and were neither forced nor abducted. As a measure to prevent child abduction, the Manipur state government at the behest of the national security forces operating in the state, issued a direction in August 2008, requiring children to be accompanied by their parents when they are in a public place. The authorities will detain a child found alone in a public place.

The facts stated above must raise a few questions. First, why were the security forces operating in the state not aware of the fact that the armed groups were abducting children from all over the state? Manipur, a state in the northeastern part of India has a huge presence of security forces deployed from various limbs of the Indian military and paramilitary forces since the past two decades. In fact, the number of security forces deployed in that state to maintain law and order is very high even in comparison to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Manipur also has the highest police-people ratio in the country, with 627 police officers for every 100,000 persons. Given this fact, it appears that the security forces were not acting upon information available to them to prevent the abduction of children or to rescue those who are already in the control of the underground militant groups.

Secondly, why are the parents who lost their children failing to complain to the authorities? It appears that the people, from their experience in the past, know that once they complain, there would not be any action by the security forces, and in addition, they run the risk of being accused by the security forces of having connections with the underground militants. This apart, the people also know from experience, that if they complain, they will antagonise the underground militant groups, against which in practical terms, there is no remedy in available.
The order issued by the security forces, that the parents must accompany their children in public places, illuminates the height of disregard for individual freedom by the state agencies in Manipur. It also suggests that they have no clue how to deal with the situation. Normal life has become impossible in Manipur, a state in India that fails to guarantee the least possible in terms of law and order.

This fact is apparent from the sheer number of incidents of extortion reported from the state. Places of worship, educational institutions, human rights organisations, hospitals and commercial establishments are brought systematically under the extortion net, run by almost all the militant outfits operating in the State.

On 30 March 2008, the state Chief Minister Mr. Okram Ibobi Singh, publically admitted that militant groups were extorting money. On 12 September 2008, the Kanan Devi Memorial School at Pangei in the Imphal East district was closed for an indefinite period due to a demand by the militant groups for a sum of 10,000 USD. Three days later, on 25 September, extortion demands forced the closure of two government colleges in Imphal. Hospitals have similarly been affected by the extortion networks. On 18 January 2008, two private hospitals, Langol View at Lamphel Sanakeithel and Imphal Hospital, in Imphal, were closed down due to extortion demands of 10,000 USD each, served on them by a militant group.

On 28 August 2008, hundreds of commercial establishments, including pharmacies, located on both sides of the Tiddim Road along National Highway - 150 from Keishampat to Kwakeithel in the Imphal West district remained closed to protest the unbearable monetary demands served on them by Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) cadres. The KYKL is one of the most notorious militant groups operating in Manipur. Later, the shopkeepers along the Dingku Road of Imphal West district revealed that their businesses were divided into three categories by the militants - bigger shops were asked to pay 600 USD, middle size shops 400 USD each, while the small ones were asked to pay 200 USD. In a similar incident, on 29 October 2008, pharmacies in and around the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences Hospital at Lamphel in the Imphal West district remained closed for the day in protest against extortion threats. Extortion drives are backed with widespread intimidation of, assaults on and armed attacks against target groups of the population.

There are about 18 underground militant groups operating in Manipur. Most of them do not have an established chain of command or any form of organisational structure. Many thrive on extortion money or from the income generated by illegal drug traffic between India and Burma. Most of them have their hideouts in Burma, along the Indo-Burma border. Places like Moreh, a small town along the Indo-Burma border about 110 kilometres from the state capital Imphal, have become hotspots for militant activity. Though the Moreh border outpost is manned by the security forces, owing to the corruption among its ranks, militants openly deal with contraband articles in the town.
The militant groups demonstrate their power, as has been the trend in previous years, by issuing numerous 'decrees'. On 31 January 2008, the KYKL reiterated its ‘decree’ of using Meetei Mayek language on signboards of shops, offices and institutions in the four valley districts - Imphal West, Imphal East, Bishnupur and Thoubal. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), yet another notorious underground militant group in Manipur, 'banned' the export of rice or paddy outside Manipur with effect from 12 December 2008, to discourage the growing of cash crops. With the state's ability to provide security to its citizens virtually non-existent, any refusal to fall in line with these decrees has proven fatal. On 17 March 2008, at least seven non-Manipuri traders selling tobacco products and betel leaf, which were 'banned' by the PLA, were shot dead by PLA militants at Mayang Imphal Hanglun in the capital.

The response of the Government of India to the insurgent activities has thus far remained ineffective for obvious reasons. It is virtually impossible for anyone to approach the state police to file a complaint against a threat from an underground militant group. The state police lack the basic infrastructure to properly investigate crimes. With facilities to function scarce, the alarming trend within the state police is to discourage by threat and intimidation anyone who wishes to lodge a complaint. The most commonly used tactic is to accuse the complainant of having connections with the underground groups.

In addition to discouraging the complainants through various means, the state police as well as the security forces are engaged in extrajudicial executions in the state. According to the Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs, 483 persons were killed in Manipur in 2008. The Ministry however claims that 347 of them were insurgents. This is in addition to the death of 16 persons from the security forces. Of the 483 persons, an estimated 420 persons lost their life in ‘encounters’ with the state agencies. Not a single case was subjected to independent enquiry. As of now in Manipur, or for that matter in any part of India, such a process does not exist. The practice is to accept, without a question, whatever report an officer sends to the superiors after an incident of encounter killing.

In this context, instances of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, illegal detention and other forms of violation of fundamental rights is on the raise in Manipur. In fact 92.51 percent of persons detained in prisons in Manipur are those awaiting trial. Given the current pace of disposal of cases in India, these persons will stay in pre-trial detention for a period ranging from four to ten years.
The imposition of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, a draconian law pressed to use in several parts of India, in the states of Manipur and Jammu and Kashmir in particular, provides statutory impunity to the state agencies. The vires of this law was repeatedly challenged before the Supreme Court of India. Each time the Court dismissed the petition. Caught between two equally inhuman forces, the underground militants and the state agencies, the people of Manipur live as if they are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Concerns have been expressed about this situation by domestic and international agencies. For example, the National Human Rights Commission of India has repeatedly requested the Government of India and the state administration to deal with the situation of law and order in Manipur on several occasions. The annual reports of the Commission for the past four years consistently reflect this fact.

Justice B. P. Jeeven Reddy Commission, deputed to study and report to the Government of India about the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 has also highlighted this fact, in addition to recommending to the Government of India an immediate withdrawal of the law from the state. The Commission filed its report to the Government in 2005. The Prime Minister of India responded by stating in a press conference that the law will be withdrawn as early as possible. Since then nothing is heard about the government’s plan to withdraw the law.

International human rights organisations have also expressed similar concerns. The Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) and its sister concern the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has been reporting cases of human rights violations committed by the security forces in Manipur. In most cases the authorities have been taking cover under this draconian law. In spite of all these, there has been no substantial intervention by any UN agencies on issues concerning Manipur.

As of now, the people of Manipur are left at the mercy of two diagonally opposing forces – the state security agencies and the underground militant organisations. Time and again it has been proved that help at the domestic level is almost impossible without an external strong intervention. In this context an intervention by the UN Human Rights Council, particularly emphasising upon the Government of India’s voluntary pledge promising to protect and promote human rights, thereby bringing order and rule of law in Manipur gains importance.

The ALRC therefore requests the Council to:

1) Encourage the Government of India to immediately withdraw the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958;

2) Suggest the government to constitute an independent agency to investigate and prosecute cases of human rights violations committed by the state agencies in Manipur;

3) Recommend the government to implement the recommendations made by the Justice B. P. Jeevan Reddy Commission submitted to the government in 2005;

4) Urge the government to simultaneously find a political solution to the problems affecting the rule of law in Manipur though a process of interactive dialogue with the people and their leaders, thereby creating an environment of mutual respect and understanding.

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About ALRC: The Asian Legal Resource Centre is an independent regional non-governmental organisation holding general consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. It is the sister organisation of the Asian Human Rights Commission. The Hong Kong-based group seeks to strengthen and encourage positive action on legal and human rights issues at local and national levels throughout Asia.

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