Pull the army out of Manipuri towns

Indians should not have to live with their army in their midst

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed some fine sentiments during his visit to Manipur last week. It was also politically astute to agree with the popular sentiment prevailing in the state that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act needs to be amended and made “more humane”. While talk of amending or scrapping the Act allows politicians to join the chorus of various well-intentioned and not-so-well-intentioned activists, repealing the Act or diluting its provisions will be severely detrimental to the armed forces. The Acorn has consistently argued that the army should be deployed on internal security duties very sparingly, in exceptional circumstances and for very short durations.

The army on the other hand, exists to handle a very specific sort of threat – to handle external aggression. That involves using deadly force to secure primarily territorial interests of the state. But dragging the army into cities and villages for counter-insurgency tasks frequently pits them against its own countrymen, that too in very civilian contexts where target-to-innocents ratio is relatively low. The inherent dissonance in using the army for internal security operations ultimately leads to incidents like Thangjam Manorama Devi’s death. Therefore, calling in the army must be the last resort of the state. [Beefing up internal security forces]

The Indian government must not attempt to chase wild geese (thanks Sriram) by examining how the army could be made more humane and less lethal, for that would only blunt its edge. Rather, it should focus on evolving a comprehensive framework to address internal security threats—from insurgencies, to communal violence to even organised crime. That needs a doctrinal change, as much as it requires a re-organisation of existing paramilitary forces (like CRPF, BSF and the Rashtriya Rifles) into a composite one. It will also require review of the current legal framework and suitable adjustments to balance the “more humane” with the “more effective”.

Good sense seems to have prevailed in New Delhi: Justice Jeevan Reddy’s recommendations—to repeal the AFSPA—have been quietly set aside. The unfortunate stealth in the government’s action is primarily due to the UPA’s earlier bluster. But the people of Manipur have a valid grouse—that the overbearing military presence in their midst does not square with living in a free country. It is also not good enough to justify the army’s presence in towns and cities on the grounds that this is necessary to secure the border with China. Their grievances can only be addressed if the army is pulled out of population centres.

Manmohan Singh’s development package—which includes the setting up of regional institutes of technology and medicine in the state—is a step in the right direction. But unless the central government gets the right force for the right job at the right place, tackling popular disaffection will be much harder and success much less certain.

3 thoughts on “Pull the army out of Manipuri towns”

  1. RS,

    Possibly. And their time will come too. But right now that’s wholly different kettle of fish: for instance, no neighbouring state is claiming Manipur is disputed territory that rightly belongs to it.

    update: Just noticed this post on the sidebar.

  2. CRPF has already taken over internal security duties in Srinagar, and its envisioned that whats handled by the army today will be handled by the CISF and the CRPF in the future.

    Another alternative is to raise a Manipur Rifles kind of paramil. force with at least 40-50% Manipuri soldiers/officers.

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