Dialogue April - June, 2004 , Volume 5 No. 4
Human Rights Situation in the North-East
Chaman Lal, IPS (Retd)
India’s North-East comprising the States of Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh is the truest symbol of its pluralistic character. While the ‘seven sisters’ have a number of common features, such as distant location, difficult terrain, permanently cloudy weather, vast natural resources and a predominantly tribal way of life, they constitute a highly heterogeneous region with their uniquely separate identities in terms of origin, growth and history of the various tribes and their integration with the mainstream of India. The Noth-East offers a fascinating area of study to the anthropologists, social scientists, military strategists and political thinkers. The perennially disturbed status of a large part of the region and the never changing military response of the Central Govt. make the North-East a subject of great interest for the students of Human Rights also.
Ever since independence most parts of the North-East have remained afflicted with insurgent movements having goals ranging from outright secession to autonomy of varying measure. The magnitude, intensity and duration of the armed struggles have made the North-East synonymous with insurgency. The root cause of these insurgent movements can be traced to a chronic sense of neglect and alienation of the people of the region compounded by a fear, real or imaginary, of losing identity due to the influx of outsiders. Mis-governance resulting largely from an unplanned and hurried imposition of modern institutions of governance and administration on indigenous societies enjoying since ages a good measure of self- rule has made the single largest contribution to the widespread feeling of “otherness” encountered in the North-East.
Naga Insurgency, the mother of all insurgencies in the North-East, has to be considered separately in view of its consistently ideological basis rooted in the history of the land and its objective of establishing a sovereign and democratic Nagaland governed by the principles of socialism ‘refined’ by the tenets of the Christian faith.
The response of the Central Government to unrest in the North-East has always been shaped by the geo - Strategic significance of the region which has 99% international border and only one percent domestic border. The deployment of Army and other armed forces of the Centre that began with the out-break of the armed Naga struggle in mid 50s has continued unabated. The effort all along has been to deal with the violence militarily instead of addressing its underlying causes and conditions. Besides resulting in a heavy militarisation of the entire environment, this approach has corroded the ability of the States to develop and maintain a viable apparatus of their own to execute the responsibility of maintaining law and order. It would not be wrong to say that the Governments of the North-Eastern States, particularly Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura have abdicated their constitutional obligation and are being virtually run by the Centre with the help of the army and para-military forces.
The Concept of Human Rights
The North-East is an area of special significance from the viewpoint of Human Rights. The complexity of governance, economic backwardness, varying levels of development and a lack of political awareness of the general public have added to the responsibilities of these States to promote the economic and social rights of their people while respecting and guarding their cultural heritage. Permanent and heavy presence of the army and other armed forces in areas of normal policing and civil administration have rendered the people of this region more vulnerable to violations of their Human Rights than their counterparts in the rest of India.
It is unfortunate that Human Rights have become a controversial subject because of their linkage in popular perception with the safety of the society and integrity of the nation. The issue is approached even by many knowledgeable persons mostly from the angle of the rights of criminals and anti-national elements. The term “Human Rights” is viewed as something offensive in relation to conflict situations such as terrorism and insurgency. Many well meaning persons hold Human Rights as a western concept unrelated and unsuited to our ground realities which, they say, is being used by enemies of the nation to demoralise the security forces and weaken the Government’s resolve to fight terrorism. A proper understanding of the vast canvas of Human Rights and their indispensability to a just and humane society is being totally missed in this confusion.
Human Rights are those basic rights whose enjoyment and protection is universally recognized as an entitlement of every human being without any distinction of race, religion, language, nationality and status etc. The concept is as ancient as human civilization although its enunciation in the present form is attributed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenants on (a) Civil and Political Rights and (b) Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The concept has been expanded further by acknowledging Group Rights, such as the right to development, right to clean environment, right to food, right to peace, etc. Human Rights have now been integrated with human development as both share the same vision and have common goals of establishing a just and humane society securing to every member of the human family the two basic freedoms – freedom from fear and freedom from want.
Human Rights and Constitution of India
India is privileged to have a rights based constitution which recognizes the worth of Human Rights in its preamble and incorporates civil and political rights as Fundamental Rights in Chapter III and economic, social and cultural rights as Directive Principles of State Policy in Chapter IV of the Constitution. Fundamental Rights are justiciable with constitutional remedy provided under Article 32. Although the Directive Principles are not justiciable, they have been declared fundamental to the ‘governance’ of the country. A number of economic and social rights mentioned by way of Directive Principles have acquired the status of Fundamental Rights by “judicial creativity”. The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the word “life” in Article 21 to mean “not merely animal existence or survival” but a “life with dignity” has had the effect of transforming the Directive Principles related to primary education, nutrition, standard of living, non-exploitative working conditions, etc. into Fundamental Rights.
Human Rights have thus been taken beyond the realm of philosophical statements or moral principles and accorded a practical shape by their incorporation in the Constitution and domestic laws of the land. Any democratic country governed by the Rule of Law is obliged to ensure practical realisation of Human Rights by all without distinction of any kind and provide for an effective mechanism to protect these rights from the State as well as non-State actors. The higher judiciary in India plays an important role in the redressal of citizens’ grievances of violation of their human rights. The instrument of public interest litigation has become a very effective way of securing the human rights of the socially disadvantaged and economically handicapped persons.
National Human Rights Commission
The setting up of the National Human Rights Commission in 1993 is an important step in the growth of Human Rights movement in independent India. The Commission was constituted under the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 with the specific objective of ensuring “better protection of human rights” in the country. It is mandated to inquire into complaints of violation of human rights or negligence in the prevention of such violation by public servants. The Commission is tasked to promote awareness and spread Human Rights literacy among the various sections of society. The Commission is also required to review the efficacy of the safeguards provided in various laws for the protection of Human Rights, examine conditions in jails, hospitals and observation Homes and encourage the efforts of the NGOs working in the field of Human Rights, in order to realise its ultimate objective of creating a human rights culture in the country.
For a correct understanding of the Commission’s role and a fair assessment of its effectiveness, the following limitations provided under the Protection of Human Rights Act have to be borne in mind:
1. Definition of Human Rights.- The definition of Human Rights provided in the said Act restricts the Commission’s jurisdiction to the rights relating to “life, liberty, equality and dignity of the individual” guaranteed by the Constitution or embodied in the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, social and cultural Rights which are enforceable by courts in India. This, in effect, means that the Economic and Social Rights barring those transformed into Fundamental Rights by judicial pronouncements lie outside the charter of the Commission.
2. Time-limit – The Commission is debarred from inquiring into cases where the alleged violation of human rights is more than one year old.
3. Sub-judice matters - The Commission is not empowered to look into any matter that is sub-judice or pending before a State Human Rights Commission or any other Commission of Inquiry.
4. Limited role in relation to the Armed Forces - While dealing with complaints of violation of human rights by the members of the central armed forces which means Army and para-military forces of the centre, the Commission can only obtain a report from the Central Govt. and make whatever recommendations it considers necessary after its perusal without enjoying any powers to initiate an inquiry into the matter.
Complaints of Human Rights Violations
An analysis of the complaints handled by the Commission since its inception may be found very useful in assessing its effectiveness. The total number of complaints which was 173 in 1993-94 (September 1993 to March 1994) and rose to 2790 in 1994-95, grew exponentially and reached the peak of 71,517 in 2000-01. It has now stabilised around 70,000. The number of complaints entertained in 2003-04 was 72,907.
UP has the dubious distinction of holding the top position in terms of number of complaints received by the Commission since 1995-96 accounting for more than 50% of the total. Bihar has been the runner-up since 1996-97 but has been pushed to 3rd position by Delhi which has moved from its consistently 3rd position since 1996-97 to 2nd in 2003-04. MP, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Haryana have been competing for the 4th and 5th positions.
In the year 2003-04, UP with 40,661 of a total of 72,907 complaints (55.8%) was at the top followed by Delhi (4636 – 6.4%), Bihar (4541 – 6.3 %), Haryana (2965 – 4.1%) and Maharashtra (2792 – 3.9%).
While States like Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Orissa, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Uttaranchal have been making sizeable contribution to the total number of complaints, the share of Himachal Pradesh, J & K, and Kerala has been relatively much smaller.
The number of complaints expressed as proportion of the State population (2001 census) presents an interesting picture which, however, needs a thorough examination before any final conclusions are drawn. The Commission has not, so far, made such an analysis. UP was at No.1 position in terms of number of the complaints per 100,000 population in 2001-02 (14.94%) and 16.62 in 2002-03. In 2003-04 it came second with 24.49 complaints per 100,000 population. Delhi which was second on this scale in 2001-02 and 2003 registering 14.05 and 18.35 respectively rose to the top position in 2003-04 account for 33.63 complaints per 100,000 population. While Kerala remains shining on this scale registering 0.38 in 2001-02, 0.46 in 2002-03 and 0.81 in 2003-04, the picture in respect of Himachal Pradesh and J & K is not as bright as the number of complaints would indicate.
Complaints of Human Rights Violations Pertaining to North-East
The States of the North-East are found to be occupying bottom positions, both in terms of the number of complaints and the number of complaints per 100,000 population. The following tables will be found very revealing in analysing the complaints of violation of human rights pertaining to the North-East handled by the National Human Rights Commission:
Year Total No.of Complaints No. of complaints Pertaining to N.E Percentage
1994-95 2790 89 3.19
2000-01 71,517 328 0.46
2001-02 69,039 341 0.49
2002-03 68,713 323 0.47
2003-04 72,907 357 0.49
Before any conclusions are drawn, let me present another set of figures whose significance will be explained later. These relate to the complaints against the Army and Para-Military Force (PMF) personnel:
No. of complaints No. of complaints Against As % of total number of complaints received by
Year Army PMF Army PMF
2002-03 223 137 0.32 0.20
2003-04 149 95 0.20 0.13
Table - III
Year No. of complaints Pertaining to N.E against As % of total No. of complaints received by the Commission against
Army PMF Army PMF
2002-03 36 27 16.1 19.7
2003-04 27 28 18.12 29.4
No. of complaints pertaining to NE No. of complaints pertaining to Army/PMF
2002-03 323 63 (19.50%)
2003-04 357 55 (15.4 %)
Table – V
State Year No. of complaints Complaints per 100 Thousand population
Arunachal Pradesh 2001-02 33 1.47
2002-03 28 1.56
2003-04 41 3.76
Assam 2001-02 189 0.39
2002-03 170 0.44
2003-04 207 0.78
Manipur 2001-02 44 1.30
2002-03 36 1.00
2003-04 37 1.55
Meghalaya 2001-02 19 0.48
2002-03 28 0.87
2003-04 20 0.87
Mizoram 2001-02 12 0.67
2002-03 6 0.56
2003-04 5 0.56
Nagaland 2001-02 14 0.25
2002-03 14 0.45
2003-04 11 0.55
Tripura 2001-02 30 0.44
2002-03 41 0.81
2003-04 36 1.13
State Year Total No. of complaints No. of complaints against Army/PMF
Andhra Pradesh 2002-03 742 4 (0.54%)
2003-04 1040 10 (0.96%)
J & K 2002-03 178 36 (20.22%)
2003-04 214 34 (15.88 %)
M.P 2002-03 2120 26 (1.23 %)
2003-04 2257 8 (0.35 %)
Tamil Nadu 2002-03 1211 9 (0.74 %)
2003-04 1546 1 (0.06 %)
U.P. 2002-03 40838 44 (0.10)
2003-04 40661 32 (0.08 %)
Delhi 2002-03 3834 31 (0.80%)
2003-04 4636 30 (0.65)
Punjab 2002-03 995 23 (2.21 %)
2003-04 1047 11 (1.05 %)
A careful examination of the above tables will reveal:
(a) While the number of complaints handled by the NHRC through petitions or suo-moto cognizance has increased by 2513 % (more than 26 times) since 1994-95, the North-East has registered an increase of 301% (4 times). Increase in the number of complaints especially of this magnitude does not necessarily mean that violations are more rampant now than they were before the NHRC appeared on the scene. It is a proof of the people’s increasing awareness about their rights and the existence of a credible redressal mechanism in the form of NHRC. The rise in such awareness noticed all over elsewhere in the country is found to be much lower in the North-East.
(b) North-East accounts for a major share of the complaints against army and para-military forces – 17.5 % in 2003 and 22.5 % in 2004-04.
(c) While the complaints against army and para military forces constitute a negligibly small fraction (less than 0.5 %) of the total number of complaints in the country as a whole, they are sizeable in North-eastern States – 19.5 % in 2003 and 15.4 % in 2004.
(d) J&K is found to be similarly affected because of large scale deployment of Army and PMF.
I do not consider the number of complaints filed with the NHRC from the North-East as a reliable index of the human rights violations in these States. As most of the alleged violations involve the Member of the armed forces of the Centre and the NHRC is viewed to be “toothless” in dealing with these forces, the victims either choose to suffer silently or knock on the doors of the Guwahati High Court. The number of Habeas Corpus writs filed in that High Court can give a more realistic measure of the extent of violation of rights and freedoms of the people of this region. Guwahati High Court is found to have intervened a number of times in favour of the citizens’ rights much to the annoyance of the Generals of the army and para-military forces. However, the share of the North-East in the number of cases in which the Commission has secured immediate interim relief to victims has been fairly good. Out of a total of 582 cases involving the immediate interim relief of Rs. 7,23,40,475,39 cases (6.7%) with relief amounting to Rs.86,90,000 (11.9%) pertain to the North-East.
Human Rights Situation in the North-East
In any account of human rights violations in India, the North-East would certainly find a prominent place. North-East presents an area where the harassment of the general public at the hands of the army of independent India began in mid 50s in fight against Naga insurgency. As the trouble spread to Mizoram, Manipur and Tripura, more troops were rushed to the region and more brutal methods were employed to control the situation. Straffing of civilian areas and the ‘grouping of villages’ turned army operations into a full-fledged war making more distinction between combatants and non-combatants. As DGP, Nagaland from September 1993 to Feb. 1996, I did not come across a single family in the State without a tale of sorrow linked to army atrocities/excesses. Although the overall situation in the North-East has improved in recent years and efforts are on to find a negotiated settlement to the complex Naga problem, the North-East remains disturbed with militant movements continuing with ferocity in Manipur, Tripura and parts of Assam and Meghalaya. These States continue to be administered militatarily because of an overwhelming presence of the Centre’s armed forces and the incompetence and demoralization of the State police organisations. While the harassment at check points and aggressiveness during search and cordon operations are stoically accepted as part of normal life in the North-East, people express their resentment and agitate for their rights when a major incident involving large scale destruction of life and property of civilian population results from indiscriminate, panicky, firing triggered by an unprofessional or revengeful attitude of the armed forces. Frequency of such incidents may not be alarmingly high but they are not a rare phenomenon in the militarised environment of the affected States. The State Human Rights Commission, in place in Assam and Manipur, have no jurisdiction in regard to violation of human rights by the members of the armed forces and therefore cannot entertain any complaints against them. The NHRC, besides being distant has no worthwhile powers to make any effective intervention. This is the sad reality of the state of civil and political rights of the people of the North-East.
The indivisibility of two sets of rights – civil and political rights and the economic, social and cultural rights emphasized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has not received much attention from the international community in the actual operationalisation of Human Rights, especially in the developing countries of the world. A misplaced hierarchy has put the civil and political rights concerned mainly with the worth and dignity of the individual, higher and above the economic and social rights which are crucial to the ordering of the individual lives and well-being of the community. The economic and social rights incorporated as the Directive Principles of the State Policy are now being acknowledged increasingly as more significant in the context of nation-building and socio-economic transformation based on the principles of democracy, equity and justice. A comprehensive review of the human rights situation in the North-East is, therefore, required to include the state of economic and social rights of the people regardless of the fact that most of these rights are presently treated as non-justiciable. In my opinion, the State of these rights in the North-East presents much gloomier picture than what is seen in respect of the civil and political rights.
One human right of the people of North-East which is found to be violated most glaringly and massively is the right to humane governance which means corruption-free governance with focus on serving the common interests of the general public rather than the special interests of the elite corpus of bureaucrats and elected representatives. Mis-governance is seen to be the common bane of the entire North-East. Its manifestation is visible in the economic backlwardness of the region and poor standards of public services. In an area blessed by nature with abundance of water sources, there are many pockets where people are facing shortage of drinking water. Universalisation of elementary education, a fundamental right of the people is a distant dream despite all claims made by the Govt. on this score. The Govt. schools lack elementary infrastructure, teachers are irregular, and dropout rates are high. The children of the common people who cannot afford to send them out for education against reserved seats end-up as semi literate after schooling. For want of any other opportunity to earn a living they take the only available career option of joining the undergrounds who pay them reasonably well. Public distribution system, a key activity of a welfare state has also been in a State of disarray in the North-East with the bulk of the allotted quota reaching the influential people for diversion into illegal channels including smuggling into Bangladesh. The public health-care service built with generous financial grant from the Govt. of India for creating a reasonably good infrastructure are almost non-existent. While HIV/AID has emerged as a serious menace in the North-East, TB and malaria continue to claim numerous lives every year in the rural parts of the region.
Per capita plan outlay for the North-Eastern States is found to be many times that of other large States of India. One estimate says that over 50,000 crores of rupees have been pumped into North-East during the last six years. A substantial portion of the development funds find their way to the coffers of the corrupt elements in Government, administration and business with the undergrounds taking a cut from others’ shares in addition to their own slice of the cake. I had, as DGP Nagaland, the privilege of being chosen as a member of a small group of DGPs for an interaction with the then Prime Minister Shri P.V. Narasimaha Rao during the 1995 Annual Conference of the State DGPs. I told the P.M that the people of the North-East believe that there are unwritten instructions of the Govt. of India not to monitor development in their area with the result that the funds meant for development are being utilized with impunity for the enrichment of the few who operate the livers of power in Government and administration. A look beyond the posh homes and luxurious life-style of State capitals and a few cities of the North-East would reveal the abject poverty of the masses and explain why the common people of the North-East do not like being lectured on the need of mainstreaming with the rest of the country. It is these issues and not merely the presence and functioning of the Army and security forces that determine the State of Human Rights in the North-East. Unless the basic needs of the people are recognized as their Human Rights and the quality of governance is improved to ensure equitable development of all sections of public peace will remain elusive in the North-East.
There is an urgent need for launching a people’s movement for the realization of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of the North-East. Academic institutions, citizens’ groups and media persons from States outside Noth-East can play a vital role in this endeavour. The Centre for North-East Studies and Policy Research founded by eminent journalist and writer Sanjoy Hazarika has taken up this challenge as part of its efforts to build bridges between the people of the North-East and the rest of India.
|Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati|