In a strongly-worded statement, the Coordination of Democratic Rights Organizations (CDRO) has pointed towards how the recent incidence of encounter killings in Meghalaya are proving to be “misuse” of Armed Forces Special Powers Act:
Coordination of Democratic Rights Orgnizations (CDRO) strongly condemns the continuing army terrorism in the name of combing operations in Meghalaya’s Garo Hills. While Meghalaya is not notified as a ‘disturbed area’ and the writ of the army does not run large, the AFSPA allows army personnel located in neighbouring states to conduct operations within 20 kilometres of the state border. On November 25th 2015, the Gurkha regiment stationed in Assam’s Rangjuli town shot dead two unarmed civilians, a few kilometres from Kharkutta Bazaar in the Garo Hills area, in Meghalaya.
The incident occurred at around 8.40 pm, when Alphus Momin, a school teacher, and SD Marak, a vendor, were returning home to Rajasimla village on a motorbike. Earlier, in March 2015, two daily wagers, Selba Sangma and Jekke Arengh, were shot dead by the Dogra regiment in the same area and, in a bid to cover its ‘mistake’ and pass off the killings as an ‘encounter’, the army planted two country-made pistols near the bodies. The matter came to light as two other men were also intercepted in the same incident and were taken to custody. The government had then ordered a probe into the killings.
Army lawlessness is inherent in the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) as it allows impunity and immunity to men in uniform. However, even within the next-to-negligible safeguards available in the Act, the army is supposed to inform the local police and seek its help before conducting operations. In the November incident, not only did the army not inform the local police station, it did not even bother to take the victims to a nearby hospital. Instead, it abandoned the bodies on the roadside. It was the local police which arrived on the spot after hearing the gunshots and it took the two men to Kharkutta PHC where they were declared, ‘brought dead’.
The police initially registered an FIR against unknown people but growing public protests prompted the army to acknowledge its ‘mistake’. On 26th November, the army submitted an FIR claiming that the incident occurred as the duo had not adhered to the security instructions and refused to comply with them at a mobile check post. Despite the army’s ‘face-saving’ denial, the magnitude of the protests, including that by the local MLA has compelled the Garo Hills Deputy Commissioner to promise a magisterial inquiry into the incident.
Given the prevailing nature of army lawlessness, it is imperative to question the Meghalaya High Court’s decision to ask the Centre to impose AFSPA in the Garo Hills. Making a case of deteriorating law and order, a three-member bench including the Chief Justice, on 4th November 2015, cited 87 instances of kidnapping and ransom demands by rebel groups and pointed out that even the Chief justice and other judges were receiving ‘veiled’ threats and that they would have to face ‘dire consequences’ after retirement.
Ironically, instead of upholding the rights and liberties of individuals, the Court damaged its reputation by acting on its own fears, as two of the judges are said to retire on February 2016. Besides, in asking for the imposition of the AFSPA, the Court also violated the constitutional arrangement of separation of powers by acting on its own authority. It is quite another matter that the Centre has decided not to heed the High Court and the state government has decided to file an affidavit in the next hearing.
However, it is to be noted that the Centre has promised the state government paramilitary troops for the Garo Hills. So, even while the Centre and the state government are opposed to the imposition of AFSPA, there is consensus on the issue of legal immunity as prosecution of paramilitary forces also requires official sanction.
Why didn’t the Meghalaya High Court acknowledge the issue of army abuses and why has the state government demanded more paramilitary forces from the Centre? Why is the army or the paramilitary the answer to the intransigent problems of the Garo Hills? It is a known fact that the nexus between the coal mafia, sections of rebels groups and the political establishment has thrived in the Garo Hills area. In such a scenario, where there is no effort towards a political resolution to the problem of the Garo Hills conflict, the issue of army lawlessness acquires greater magnitude.
As the above two incidents illustrate, the legal impunity and immunity that the army enjoys makes it the most dangerous adversary in conflict areas. Not only are civilians’ lives least cared for, the absence of routine checks and balances stipulated in normal law offers untrammelled powers to men in uniform. The army and paramilitary operations in the Garo Hills must immediately end and towards that, CDRO demands:
1. Stringent action against army personnel guilty of murdering Alphus Momin and SD Marak
2. Information on action taken against guilty personnel involved in the murder of Selba Sangma and Jekke Arengh
3. Compensation to the families of the deceased who have been gunned down by the army
4. Immediate halt to any paramilitary deployment in the area
Statement signed by C. Chandrasekhar (CLC, Andhra Pradesh), Paramjeet Singh (PUDR, Delhi), Pritpal Singh (AFDR, Punjab), Phulendro Konsam (COHR, Manipur) and Tapas Chakraborty (APDR, West Bengal) (Coordinators of CDRO)