Saturday, December 10, 2011

The army's special powers and Lord Curzon

Yesterday, on the eve of Human Rights Day, Clark House (an arts initiative run by Zasha Colah and Thakur Sumesh Sharma), Tushar Joag and Sharmila Samant put together a programme of screenings and discussions titled Against AFSPA at the National Gallery of Modern Art. Apart from a demand for the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, it was an act of solidarity with Irom Sharmila, who has been on a fast for over a decade in protest again the repression of Manipuri citizens by the Indian army and paramilitaries. She has been held captive for attempted suicide and force-fed for all these years.
I was pleasantly surprised that an event so harshly critical of Indian state policy was taking place inside a government-run institution. Maybe the NGMA Director Rajeev Lochan's bureaucratic exterior conceals a radical, subversive agenda.
The proceedings were chaotic, bearing only a passing resemblance to the schedule provided on the invite. But they did a good job of demonstrating how insanely cruel the Indian government has been and continues to be to the people of Manipur. For over fifty years, an emergency law has been in place permitting soldiers to arrest, rape and kill with impunity. Mihir Desai, a participant in a panel discussion about AFSPA, and the only person on stage who spoke cogently, pointed out that any prosecution of soldiers needed central government sanction; and that, from over 500 cases forwarded to Delhi for consideration (I forget the exact number Desai mentioned, I think it was 581), not a single trial has been green-lighted.

I thought of Lord Curzon who, at the end of the nineteenth century, had a series of run-ins with the British army. Soon after he arrived in India as Viceroy, he heard that soldiers from the West Kent Regiment had gang-raped a Burmese woman. The perpetrators had gone unpunished after witnesses were threatened, and the matter covered up. Curzon had the culprits dismissed from the army and the entire regiment transferred to Aden (a punishment posting in those days) and denied leave or benefits for two whole years.
In 1900, after a private in the Royal Scots Fusiliers battered to death a 'punkah-coolie' (a man who operated cloth fans), Curzon wrote: "That such outrages should occur in the first place in a country under British rule; and then that everybody, commanding officers, officials, juries, departments should conspire to screen the guilty is, in my judgment, a black and permanent blot on the British name. I mean, so far as one man can do it, to efface the stain while I am here.”
In 1902, three troopers of the 9th Lancers Regiment (a cavalry outfit packed with members of the British upper class), just arrived in Sialkot, beat a cook named Atu so badly that he died after nine days of agony. Curzon lashed out at the biased investigation which, he wrote, "Consists of two Captains and a subaltern, not one of whom so far as I can make out, understands a word of Hindustani. Their idea of taking evidence and holding an inquiry consists in examining four witnesses, all natives. They never think of sending for the doctor or for a non-commissioned soldier or for the inspector of police. In fact they make not the slightest effort to arrive at the truth... I will not be a party to any of the scandalous hushing up of bad cases of which there is too much in this country, or to the theory that a white man may kick or batter a black man to death with impunity because he is only a 'd- d nigger'.”

Some day we might get a leader in Delhi who has the courage and moral conviction to hold soldiers responsible for a few of the innumerable atrocities perpetrated in Kashmir and the North-East over the past decades. Right now, we can't even provide the millions of citizens living under AFSPA as much protection from the army's cruel excesses as the British colonial system did.

7 comments:

Jabeen said...

And whenever there is talk of lifting the AFSPA, we are told that the army cannot be pulled out from the Northeast/Kashmir. But the two things are not at all the same, which no journalist or even activist seems to point out.

Girish Shahane said...

Indeed; and even within Kashmir, and within those areas in Kashmir which are still targetted by militant separatists, there's a difference between requiring an army presence and permitting armymen to get away with murder. But TV channels throw softballs at Generals rather than asking really tough questions like: why is the army protecting soldiers who killed five Kashmiri civilians back in 2000 and claimed they were foreign militants, just to get a medal? They tried to fudge the DNA samples, but sent across alternate samples from women, which led to the exposure of the fraud. A subsequent exhumation and second round of DNA testing led to a clear conclusion that soldiers had killed locals in cold blood. Yet, the army has fought cases for over a decade on behalf of the murderers instead of court martialing them.

seana said...

I was trying to post some links to a couple of things I happened to be reading last night about Amrica's slow slide toward an acceptance of torture that would have been abhorant pre 9/11. Unfortunately this seemed to boot me out so I stopped. But I think that the distinction between a military presence and a complete sanctioning of anything the military does is important. There have certainly been a lot of problems with U.S. bases around this kind of thing.

Girish Shahane said...

Seana, I've been receiving huge amounts of spam, which may have cause Google to start rejecting all messages with links.

seana said...

Well, it doesn't matter much in this case. The connection was probably really more something that made sense to me than it would to anyone else anyway. Also, it could have been my own error.

jaimit said...

I am reading the book “Until My Freedom Has Come: The New Intifada in Kashmir”, close on the heels of “The strange case of the Parliament attack 13 Dec”. On one hand it’s good to see that in our democracy we can still have these books which are severely critical of the government, without being banned; but at the same, one wonders, what the real truth is. Our media on one hand seems excessive militant in dealing with stories refuses to ask real questions. How can the media sleep when we find tons of unmarked graves and burial sites in Kashmir? While no one seems to answer, the bigger question is that who is asking?
BTW – your spell check seems to have corrected Irom Sharmila to Iron Sharmila. Though she is called the Iron lady.

Girish Shahane said...

Thanks for the correction, Jaimit. Needless to say, I agree about the mainstream media not asking the right questions. In a way, what's happening in Egypt is representative of the weird attitude to the military and its excesses. Though Mubarak was a military leader, the Egyptian public continued to worship the army while protesting Mubarak's rule. With Mubarak gone, they're finally seeing the army's true colours.