(This excerpt has been taken with permission from Simon & Schuster India from 'The Eastern Gate: War and Peace in Nagaland, Manipur and India’s Far East' by Sudeep Chakravarti.)
In early August, CBI had filed charges against Major Vijay Singh Balhara for allegedly causing the extra-judicial death in Manipur of a 12-year-old boy, Azad Khan. A commission of enquiry by retired Supreme Court judge Santosh Hegde had earlier identified the incident—from six that he chose at random to investigate from a basket of over 1,500 cases in Manipur alone—as an extra-judicial killing by the major and his colleagues.
The major had at the time been on secondment to Assam Rifles. Justice Hegde had questioned evidence that, among other things, accused the boy of being a member of a militant group.
In this most curious of cases, General Rawat criticised the action of his colleagues in public. On 2 September, during an interaction with senior officers and their spouses in New Delhi, Gen Rawat questioned the need for about 380 officers and other ranks to take a plea a day earlier to the Supreme Court, pleading against any possible dilution in AFSPA.
Nearly 360 army personnel had earlier filed a similar petition, triggered by the charges brought against Major Balhara. As we have read, Gen Rawat was far from being a proponent of diluting AFSPA. But his recent irritation was understandable.
What the army personnel had done in their apparent defence of a fellow officer was merely highlight AFSPA in general, and an officer’s case and the situation in Manipur in particular.
The fresh petition and the general’s response spotlighted AFSPA when all the army wanted was for the law to remain but lawlessness attributed to it buried. It opened up for the army the awkward possibility, as Gen. Rawat himself hinted at during his interaction on 2 September, of the Supreme Court suggesting a review or dilution of AFSPA. His position was made more awkward in the third week of September when a serving major general, Rajeeva Kumar, joined the 740 petitioners.
Far from diminishing interest in AFSPA, it continued to arc light AFSPA.
The arc lights also brought back to focus an additional embarrassment that, barely reported by national media at the time, had already arrived a few weeks that very July.
It was in the form of an affidavit in Manipur High Court. It maintained that a serving lieutenant colonel, Dharamvir Singh of the Para Commandos, had complained in 2016 to higher authorities about corruption—and several custodial deaths of Manipuris in the headquarters of 3 Corp in Dimapur in Nagaland; besides allegations of several killings of non-combatants by the army in Manipur.
The colonel’s wife filed the affidavit maintaining that Singh was arrested by his colleagues to stanch such leaks. It didn’t take much to figure out the pressure: some of India’s top generals had commanded 3 Corp around the time of the lieutenant colonel’s complaint and arrest.
'Several Tricky, Sticky Questions'
The thing was, even with all the ire and attempt at justice brought to bear by two judges of the Supreme Court, AFSPA could change its character only through legislation in India’s parliament where it was born.
The government’s own scathing reviews of AFSPA since 2005—or, more precisely, by government-appointed committees—hadn’t had any effect in the face of massive pushback by the army and policy hawks. So, an adverse Supreme Court decision would only raise the patriotic pitch that was any government’s go-to policy in times of political adversity and imminent general elections to parliament.
The Court knew this. Naturally the Army and the government knew this too.
But they all also knew that the ongoing saga in the Supreme Court will have raised several tricky, sticky questions. The more the matter stayed in the limelight, the more awkward it would be
So, the Army and government tried to push back again. The collective of army petitioners pushed for recusal of the Supreme Court bench of Justices Lokur and Lalit. The plea was based on a development on 30 July, when the two-judge bench had criticised CBI director Alok Verma for going slow on investigation and filing cases and charges against several accused of extra-judicial killings. The bench suggested that ‘murderers’ were meanwhile roaming free in Manipur. The petitioners quickly latched on to this statement as proof of the judges being biased and demanded their recusal.
'All the Army Received Was...'
In end-September 2018, India’s attorney general at the time, K.K. Venugopal, underscored this collective plea for recusal by telling the bench of Justices of Lokur and Lalit that he had ‘instructions from the Union of India that we are supporting these petitions’. Former attorney general and senior lawyer, Mukul Rohatgi, told the bench of ‘genuine apprehension’ among petitioners that they wouldn’t receive a fair trial. Both suggested security forces were demoralised on this account.
On 12 November, Justices Lokur and Lalit dismissed the plea and the apprehension. They said it should be ‘clear’ to all that security personnel ‘are made of much sterner stuff than is sought to be projected … It is unfortunate that a bogey of demoralization of the Indian Army, paramilitary forces and the State Police is being raised …’
All the Army and government received was the Court sticking its judicious pins into the voodoo doll of the army and government’s own making—and making it all a matter of judicial record that would continue to be leveraged by human rights petitioners, activists and judges who could rise above stupendous establishment pressure.
And India’s army chief Bipin Rawat could now say to several hundred of his officers and men: I told you so; it was a bad idea to go to court in the first place. The embarrassment also extended to Manipur police personnel who continued to be discomfited by a Supreme Court mandated investigation being conducted by CBI into extra-judicial deaths in Manipur.
The muck simply wouldn’t go away.
(Sudeep Chakravarti is a writer, an analyst of socio-political and security issues in South Asia and a columnist. Tweet to him @chakraview. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's alone. The Quint neither endorses them nor is responsible for them.)