5 minutes into our phone conversation, Babloo Loitongbam, Executive Director of the organization – Human Rights Alert, based out of Manipur, says emphatically, “AFSPA has to go!”
On this December 25 and 26, excavations underway for the construction of a new market complex at the former site of Tombisana High School in the heart of Imphal, unearthed sinister findings.
8 human skulls.
Babloo Loitongbam is not surprised.
“There was a paramilitary base camp on that site for about 30 years. Besides, a dreaded interrogation cell which was allegedly used for torture too, lies barely half a kilometre away from the site. It doesn’t take rocket science to infer the truth.” Manipur, like Kashmir, has been subjected to the draconian AFSPA for over 5 decades. It bore the brunt of insurgency and counter-insurgency operations and like Kashmir, it has had its fair share of ‘disappeared people.’ “The Families of the Involuntarily Disappeared’s Association was established by grieving families whose kith and kin had vanished without a trace. There have been thousands of cases of fake encounters especially between the 1980s and 1999, and while most of the army men receive gallantry medals for these, the bereaved have to undergo the harrowing and traumatising time of finding out what actually happened to them.”
However, the genial soft-spokenHuman Rights activist been working tirelessly to make sure the search for truth doesn’t go in vain. Says Babloo, “We at Human Rights Alerts have clubbed together over 1500 cases of disappeared people with the Supreme Court, currently pending judgement. What we want is a fair impartial probe to be set up to find out what happened to the disappeared, so that their families can know the truth, which they deserve to know. And we definitely want the guilty to be punished.”
On being quizzed about comparisons with Kashmir and the attention of the mainstream media, Babloo candidly replies, “Mainstream media has largely ignored the North-East, but hopefully the ‘Looking East’ program would give us some much needed attention. Also, Kashmir is much more of a geo-political issue – Pakistan is involved, so is China to a lesser extent, there is an infiltration problem. Manipur doesn’t have those kind of problems. They are relatively much simpler.”
He goes on to stress the role of the army, on how it ideally should be, vis-à-vis how it is currently. “The role of the army should be taking care of the law and order situation, keeping the Constitutional rights of the citizens in mind. Citizens of the country in the North-East, particularly Manipur, do not get to exercise their full Constitutional rights, living in constant fear of the camouflage-clad getting away with whatever they want to.”
Irom Sharmila comes up invariably and Babloo has a rather interesting take on it. “I spoke to Shri Gaikhangam, the Home Minister for the state on this issue and presented him with two scenarios. First, let Irom be the way she is. She will eventually perish in a few years and there will be a massive backlash when that happens. You will perhaps be able to contain it. Maybe it will take a week, maybe a month. But you will be able to contain it. There is no doubt about that. The feeling of dissent in the general populace, however, will not die down. Second, think of scenario where the Prime Minister of the country offers Irom her first glass of orange juice, making her break her fast and promising to take care of the matter. Think of the political capital it will generate and the good press it will make for the state and the North-East in general.”
An afterthought and a chuckle later he adds, “Someone has to get the Prime minister to do that though. Someone has to bell the cat!”
His optimism is almost infectious and it surprises me. When I ask him about it, he replies, “There have been a lot of bad things that have happened, but being pessimistic about them is only going to foster hopelessness which never helped anyone. We must have the audacity to hope! And there is reason to hope. Given a recent Supreme Court directive about the accountability of encounters, the number of fake encounters has drastically gone down from 500 in 2008 to 2 in 2013 and none so far till the end of the year.”
He also reserves his faith in the committee set up to review AFSPA. “Retired General Raghavan and members of the committee have publicly denounced the Act. Hopefully in the future, when they come out with their findings, action can actually be taken to repeal the Act or at least modify it so that it doesn’t affect the basic rights of a citizen.”
Anger and suppressed rage does lie somewhere, deep seated, inside the extremely polite Babloo Loitongbam when the subject of Thangjam Manorama comes up. “Those bloody army men raped her and killed her and instead of being punished, they are being awarded gallantry awards?! They are supposed to protect us, not prey on us. According to UN conventions, in a conflict zone, every army personnel is supposed to have a humanitarian obligation to leave the innocents unharmed. These men are drunk on the power that AFSPA has assigned them!”
Despite the anger, Babloo remains cautiously optimistic about the future. “Hopefully, with all the democratic procedure being followed in the judicial process, justice will be delivered and an independent probe can be launched to look into the issue and the guilty will be brought to bear the full brunt of the laws that apply to their offences.”
I thank him for his time and candidness as we end the call. And I sit there and take it all in.
The anger and rage displayed for those few seconds by Babloo Loitongbam is the state of mind of nearly every person residing in the North-East, living under the shadow of that barbaric Act, day in – day out. The North-East has been shunned from the attention of the mainland for over a lifetime now, and though many may not know, AFSPA was imposed in Manipur years before it was in Kashmir. Such constant barbarism over decades has served to extinguish hope from the minds of the people and turn them into extremely cynical humans.
One sentence on the recording of the call, however, challenges the futility of my thoughts.
“We must have the audacity to hope!”