THEY’D SNEAK THIS IN AS A MONEY BILL IF THEY COULD
By Robin Shukla
On April 12, 2017, the Indian government tried to get the Supreme Court to withdraw its July 8, 2016 order making FIRs mandatory for encounter deaths during counter-insurgency ops. This SC order covered disputed areas currently under Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in the North East states and Jammu & Kashmir. Whatever arguments for and against, it must first be noted that the SC intervened in mid-2016 because of a spate in human rights abuses.
On April 27, 2017, snubbing the Centre’s excuse that its order could jeopardize efforts to maintain peace and security, the SC upheld its directive for mandatory filing of FIRs against the armed forces for every encounter death, even in areas under AFSPA.
The situation in Kashmir today sees armed forces pitted against militants on one hand and a section of sympathizers throwing stones and receiving bullets in return on the other, with a whole population caught in the middle of the conflict.
We are also seeing a civil society existing within the Indian framework but under siege because separatists are goading sympathizers on to the streets while they themselves remain in the safety and comfort of their homes or hideouts. While there is a new trend to come out and throw stones at soldiers in a bid to stop them from neutralizing terrorists trapped or being fought off in some localities, not all people falling to bullets are connected to the azadi movement.
The infamous pepper gun has disfigured or blinded for life, if not killed, more innocent children than any terrorists. Stray bullets have killed children asleep in their beds beside their parents. There is growing disillusionment with India regarding its unconcern over such extensive collateral damage, with the international community expressing concern over our handling or mishandling of the Kashmir crisis.
Blood flows red as the flag
Ground realities are difficult to comprehend not just in Kashmir and the North East, but in the so-called Red Corridor where Naxalite activity exists right from north east Maharashtra, through Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand, part of UP, Bihar and Bengal. The body count of militants or terrorists or ultras or whatever the administration chooses to call them is outmatched by that of fatalities in the security forces, and the latest massacre of 25 CRPF personnel in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma forest region is a case in point . Reprisals are sure to follow with tribals inevitably becoming collateral damage. This almost makes it looks like the nation is at war with its own citizens. Apart from the announcement of financial bonanza packages before elections in any particular state and political posturing there are no real efforts at engaging all the players in any kind of dialogue which could render hostility as irrelevant.
Law at odds with itself
The situation is therefore probably too complicated to be wholly subordinated to a draconian rule that now seeks to empower itself even further by becoming totally unanswerable to the judiciary of the nation.
Furthermore, as far as the Indian judiciary itself is concerned, there seems to be a legal slugfest going on between sitting Calcutta High Court judge, Justice CS Karnan, and the Supreme Court’s seven judges including Chief Justice JS Khehar.
The nation is being treated to front page news of Karnan recently directing the DGP, New Delhi, to take all seven judges and produce them to a psychiatric medical board attached to the AIIMS Hospital.
In retaliation, on May 1, 2017, the Supreme Court ordered medical examination of Karnan to determine his mental condition in the face of his constant refusal to appear before it in a contempt related case.
On May 3, 2017, Justice Karnan issued a non-bailable warrant against the seven SC judges and directed the registrar-general of the Calcutta High Court to issue the warrant through the New Delhi DGP or Commissioner of Police. Karnan has invoked his powers under Article 226 of the Constitution
and Section 482 of CrPC and in the ‘interests of the nation to protect the general public from corruption and unrest…’
How much of subjectivism or governmental pressure can colour decisions at the highest levels of judiciary should be a matter of concern to all citizens, and not just those who could get impacted by a decision to scrap the requirement of FIRs in case of deaths during counter-insurgency operations.
The widely shared video of armed soldiers showing uncharacteristic
and remarkable restraint against some Kashmiri youths heckling them and hitting and kicking them as they walked, another one of a civilian tied to the bonnet of an Army jeep, one showing four security men brutalizing a screaming Kashmiri boy who is writhing with pain on the ground, one of Muslim youths, some bruised and crying, being forced to utter Jai Shree Ram and Bharat Mata Ki Jai by abusive security personnel inside a vehicle, and the latest one of security forces shooting at children, have evoked anger and hatred from all sides of the dispute.
There is a sort of online video war in progress and while many originating from Kashmir anger viewers from both sides of the conflict, the ones of maniacal gaurakshaks affiliated to the Bajrang Dal and other violent outfits brazenly attacking and assaulting or murdering their victims are revolting and a shock to any civilized society.
There are heart-warming stories and videos of Indian soldiers going beyond the call of duty to rescue civilians during natural disasters,
and of bravery in battle against terrorists just as there are those of civilians coming to the help and rescue of stranded or injured army men. But these are quickly appropriated by tech-savvy elements out to twist and repackage them to reinforce a rabid and isolationist brand of patriotism.
Today, anybody wanting peace in Kashmir without the total annihilation of Kashmiris is branded an anti-national, and those suggesting that laws be followed in apprehending illegal beef traders or cow smugglers are put down as anti-Hindu!
The angry tweets and FB posts in support of the soldiers, and others mocking the civilian tied to the army vehicle, with no sympathy expressed for the battered Muslims being forced to utter Jai Shree Ram or for that matter for insanely growing number of victims traumatized and murdered by gauraksha and love-jihad vigilantes , reveals how it is okay to be selective in your concerns in this day and age while overlooking violations and abuses ‘in national interest,’ whether they are happening in Jammu & Kashmir and in the North East states, or in state of Uttar Pradesh under the new rule of the BJP.
Immunity from prosecution therefore, if given to armed forces operating in areas under AFSPA, will be easily perceived as another BJP initiative to suppress the minorities and the marginalized, thanks also to the consequent inevitable misuse and exploitation of such news by pro-BJP trolls.
Murky record of truths and untruths
As per reports, Farooq Ahmad Dar, the man on the jeep was a shawl artisan who had actually defied separatists and heeded government advice to go out and vote. Even after attempting to prove his innocence by showing the indelible ink mark on his finger to the soldiers, he was tied and driven around several villages from 10 am to 5.30 pm, and was released from the 53 Rashtriya Rifles camp only at 7.30 pm after the village headman and elders went there and pleaded with the soldiers. The Army itself later went on to identify the unit involved and decided to conduct an enquiry into the incident. A week later an FIR was registered at the Beerwa police station in Kashmir’s Budgam district.
The Centre’s decision to back the Army officer who took the call to tie Dar to the jeep pits it against its own police force as the BJP rules the state in coalition with the PDP.
Stories are still emerging about this man being a stone-pelter, but while most truths in the Valley remains elusive, this is being seen as part of the fake news constantly being spewed out by pro-BJP trolls. Lieutenant General (Retd) Harcharanjit Singh Panag who spoke against the treatment meted out to Dar came in for some low-grade sniping from various quarters including singer Abhijeet, notorious for his unpleasant tweets against citizens who do not toe the BJP line. The unfazed General Panag has since also stated that the AFSPA should be lifted from Kashmir when the situation gets calmer.
Elsewhere, the J & K police filed an FIR against the BSF after a boy named Sajad Hassan died in Srinagar’s Batmaloo area when troops fired in the air to deter an attempt at rifle snatching. The BSF had given his age as 22, but relatives say he was a student of Class 9 and was just 15 years old. Such variance in easily verifiable details does not help while evaluating the capabilities or intentions, leave alone the integrity of the security forces.
Army chief Bipin Rawat, while publicly announcing that stone pelters seeking to prevent forces from nabbing terrorists will be treated as terrorists, has also subsequently called upon Kashmiri youth to shun violence. Can he ignore the jingoism of the armchair warriors of the government and take steps to engage the population, while sensitizing his troops so that they are not viewed as a rampaging occupation force?
BSF jawan Tej Bahadur, who posted a video showing the meagre fare provided as food to soldiers fighting against desperate odds to protect the country, was termed a disciplinary case, then a mental case, was punished and threatened and finally cashiered. This move points to an inability to reconcile and rehabilitate those with a seemingly genuine grievance or difference of opinion.
Lance-Naik Roy Mathew, who posted a video against the sahayak system and was interviewed by Delhi-based journalist Poonam Agarwal, was found hanging inside a room of an abandoned barrack in Deolali Cantonment. The Army got Agarwal and a former army officer, Deepchand, booked by police for entering a restricted area, abetting the suicide of Mathew, and violating the Official Secrets Act. A local court has rejected their anticipatory bail! The real issue of an outmoded system of subservience is not being addressed here at all, even though a soldier committed suicide in despair over it.
In Mumbai’s highly secure Navy Nagar, a 13-year-old girl was being sexually exploited and blackmailed for almost a year by a couple of Navy men. Some of them have been booked from time to time for swaggering around Colaba in a drunken stupor and misbehaving with women. On being confronted, they have been known to flash their ids and declare they cannot be apprehended by local police. Only last week, Navy officers Sandeep Malik and Ankit Malik were arrested for stalking a Colaba woman. One can only guess to what extent their misbehaviour and rapaciousness could go when officially freed to do so in areas under AFSPA.
With such a questionable underside, there is a need therefore to properly examine the risks involved in admitting and acceding to this plea for immunity from prosecution, especially when it comes from a government headed by a surprisingly reticent Prime Minister who has repeatedly failed to rein his own party’s increasingly violent cadres and followers. A carte blanche could soon become red with the blood of innocents.
The so-called Naxal-infested belt or Red Corridor that runs right across nine states of the country, from Gadchiroli in north eastern Maharashtra through Chhattisgarh and past Andhra Telangana up to Bihar and Bengal, is a grey area, with highly trained elite forces encountering suspected or confirmed Maoists from time to time. Their ‘successes’ are countered by surprise attacks by Maoists that see a higher body count of security personnel killed and wounded in landmine or IED blasts and subsequent gunfire.
The Sukma attack is a case in point, where 26 CRPF personnel lost their lives on April 24, 2017.
This is a vicious cycle that keeps recurring in spite of state-sponsored anti-Naxal vigilantes being trained and given a ‘free hand’ to conduct their own intel and deterrent activities or participate in joint operations with security forces.
On the overground, publicized civil efforts are being made to wean rebels away from the jungles, so that give up militancy and join the mainstream. But there lies the catch. These areas are impoverished zones of the country, rich in minerals and ores and are being exploited by big business. Very little is re-ploughed into the region except by token gestures of clinics and primary schools and not many jobs for the locals. Add to that the displacement of tribal populations without compensation and proper relocation, robbing or appropriation of water sources, and unchecked environmental degradation with restriction imposed on tribals on the use of forest products that they have been accessing for thousands of years, and you have nothing in the so-called mainstream to come back to. Authorities and police working in cahoots with industry and widespread sexual exploitation and starvation deaths and the picture cannot be any grimmer.
Activists comprising doctors and other medical fraternity, lawyers, social workers engaged in the upliftment of the tribals and journalists reporting objectively about poverty or excesses are all deemed anti-national and are accused of colluding with the Maoists. Most are hounded by various government agencies and police forces. Intimidation and violence are routinely used to dissuade or deter them from working in or reporting from tribal areas. In the meanwhile any report of rape and other atrocities keep getting vehemently denied by the police and government agencies.
Sometimes, it becomes too much to live in denial, as in the case of Varsha Dongre, Deputy Jailor of Raipur Central Jail who posted this damning indictment of the nation as a whole on Facebook, and later deleted for obvious reasons: ‘I am witness to the torture of minor tribal girls…in the police stations women personnel have stripped and tortured girls as old as 14 and 16…they were given electric shocks on their hands and breasts. I have seen the marks…I was horrified…Why third-degree torture on minors?
We need to introspect, because those who are getting killed in either side of this war in Bastar are our own people. The capitalist system is being forced on Bastar, tribals are being pushed out of their lands, their villages are being burnt, women raped — all this to grab land and forests. All this isn’t being done to end Naxalism. The tribals can’t leave this place as it is their land but when law-enforcers target women and minor girls and false case are registered, where do the victims go for justice? The CBI report says it, the court says it — this is the reality. When human rights workers or journalists tell the truth, they are sent to jail. If everything is fine in tribal lands, why government is so afraid and why people are not allowed to go there?’
This brave, upright and conscience-driven woman was subsequently removed from her post for speaking the truth!
The shocking crookedness of the government and the complicity of the judiciary can be seen in the following situation:
In October 2015, security forces went of an assault, rape and plunder spree in about six villages of Bastar region. Fourteen months later, after careful investigations, the National Human Rights Commission in its findings has reported the rape of 16 tribal girls and women by police, and was in the process of recording statements of other victims. FIRs were filed. One of the places where women were brutalized and raped is Kunna village in Sukma!
The quest for justice has not been easy. One of the assault victims has this to say, ‘I went once with a few others to record my statement. But the policemen stopped us outside the gate, and made us wait till the evening. In front of our eyes, people left and the court shut. We returned.’
In October 2016, a Bijapur court issued non-bailable warrants against some of the women for not appearing to record testimonies on the scheduled dates!
The recent appeal to courts by the prime minister, seeking to relax rules protecting environment and forests so that development can take place, are a pointer to how the state is complicit with big business and mining contractors and how the fight between the powerful and the dispossessed may continue into the indefinite future. It is ironical, that in this fight to keep the exploitation of people and natural sources going, the armed forces are reduced to the role of security guards for industrialists with the danger of death and injury constantly looming over them as much as it does over the tribals living there.