Assam Rifles, the oldest paramilitary force of the Indian government established in 1835, has set up its first women contingent. The 181-year-old paramilitary force inducted 100 women officers within its fold after they successfully completed a year-long training programme.
However, the said development has taken place at a time when there has been little progress in the case of Thangjam Manorama. On July 10, 2004, Manorama, who was suspected to be a militant, was allegedly taken into custody by the Assam Rifles. The following day her body was recovered from a field situated about four kilometres from her house in Bamon Kapu village of Imphal.
As allegations of rape and murder surfaced, several protests were carried out against the Assam Rifles. These included a demonstration by Manipuri women who marched naked on the streets of Imphal. The matter is currently pending in the Supreme Court.
“In the eyes of the local Manipuri people, there is no difference between Assam Rifles, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Army or any other security force. They are seen as very brute, oppressive and over smart,” says M. Amarjeet Singh, associate professor at Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Millia Islamia.
Last year, Singh paid a visit to Manipur as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s delegation. His interaction with locals and security personnel did not reflect a positive image of Assam Rifles.
“The Director General of Police (DGP), Manipur told me that he is ashamed of inviting the Assam Rifles Inspector General (IG) to his office,” says Singh.
Emphasizing on past instances of violence and abuse by the security forces, Singh suggests that there is a huge gap between the local residents and Assam Rifles.
“These incidents of rape and molestation usually occur in remote, isolated areas. Many of such incidents have not been reported in the mainstream media,” says Singh.
He believes that the prevailing distrust will continue as the Army and Assam Rifles are not accountable to the Manipur government.
Adding that the reputation of the Manipur Police is also very notorious, Singh states that if the Manipur Police indulges in some criminal activity then they can be hauled up by the Manipur government. But the same rules do not apply to the Army or Assam Rifles because of the immunities they enjoy under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).
“There are several human rights cases pending against the Army and Assam Rifles in Guwahati High Court. But the officers hardly bother to appear before the court,” says Singh.
According to Singh, the first women contingent of Assam Rifles will hardly make a difference as there is mutual suspicion between the security forces and local people. However, he stresses that cases of abuse have come down in recent years because the people have become alert.
“The behaviour of the forces has changed over the years because of a sustained movement against state excesses. Because of that the security personnel also stay clear of harassing locals but incidents do occur,” says Singh.
In January 2013, Supreme Court appointed a commission headed by Retd. Justice Santosh Hegde to probe into six alleged cases of extra-judicial killings in Manipur.
“We found that all the six cases of encounter were actually murder. I remember that I wrote in the report that since Indian soldiers are trained to kill, we shouldn’t make them fight the civilians,” says Justice Hegde.
“Normally, the greater the power, the greater the restraint and stricter the mechanism to prevent its misuse or abuse. But here in the case of the AFSPA in Manipur this principle appears to have been reversed. We should not forget that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” says the 114-page report prepared by Justice Hegde and others.
According to Justice Hegde, a long stay away from the family generally turns uniformed personnel more brute. Therefore, Justice Hegde-headed commission recommended “strengthening, equipping and training of the civil police in the State so as to altogether do away with the deployment of Union armed forces (in reference to Assam Rifles, CRPF, BSF) in aid of the civil power.” It added that “nothing would sooner normalize Manipur than confining Union armed forces to combating foreign enemies.”
Rasheed Kidwai, senior journalist and author, feels that crimes against women and sexual assault are not uncommon among paramilitary and armed forces in various countries.
“The US army for instance has had history of rapes and sexual misconduct against women recruits but it has evolved and found a mechanism to deal sternly with culprits. I strongly feel that raising all women contingent in organisations like Assam Rifles would empower women and act as a deterrent,” says Kidwai.
He adds that presence of women at various hierarchical levels in Assam Rifles would increase gender sensitivity. However, M. Amarjeet Singh asserts that such women contingents have been raised in the past by different units of security forces but they won’t have any impact as far as the brute reputation of the Assam Rifles is concerned.
With conviction in cases of abuse by security personnel being far from satisfactory as evident from the tale of Thangjam Manorama, it is highly unlikely that Assam Rifles would manage to win over the trust of the Manipuri people in the near future.