A dozen soldiers burst through the front and back doors of a small home here in the middle of a July night, dragged Thangjam Manorama into a room and began to torture her. Her elder brother tried to stop them and was badly beaten. Her mother rose to defend her and was knocked unconscious.
After about an hour, Thangjam was taken out of the house. The next morning, the family found her bullet-ridden body by the side of the road nearly 5km away.
Soldiers later claimed that Thangjam was an insurgent who was shot while she was trying to escape.
A medical examiner determined that she had been shot from close range while lying down, that stains on her dress were from semen, but that multiple gunshots to her vagina made any determination of rape impossible.
There was little doubt who was responsible: The soldiers made little effort to hide their faces.
Thangjam’s death led to months of local protests, including one in which a dozen women stripped naked in front of the local military headquarters carrying a red-lettered banner: “Indian Army Rape Us.”
The circumstances of Thangjam’s death were so outrageous that even then-Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh promised redress.
However, a decade later, no one has been arrested or charged with a crime. Activists, lawyers and ordinary people here say they know exactly why: A colonial-era law in effect in India’s periphery gives blanket immunity from prosecution in civilian courts to Indian soldiers for all crimes, including rape.
Human rights advocates have for years called for the repeal of the law, known as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, wrote last year in a report to the UN Human Rights Council that the powers granted under the law “are in reality broader than that allowable under a state of emergency as the right to life may effectively be suspended.”
Yet it endures. As the world’s largest democracy and home of Mohandas Gandhi, a pioneer of nonviolent resistance, India has long been counted among the world’s most progressive nations, with robust anti-poverty programs and efforts to provide special benefits to marginalized communities. The country now has 168 state and federal rights organizations, including the National Human Rights Commission.
However, a darker reality has always lurked beneath this progressive image, particularly in India’s hard-to-reach places. In Kashmir, there are thousands of unmarked graves in secret cemeteries created by the army and the police to hide their crimes. Even when civilian officials confirm that innocents have been slaughtered, nothing is done.
“We have all these great human rights institutions, but still nobody in India gets justice when the state murders one of their family members,” said Henri Tiphagne, chairman of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development based in Bangkok. “That’s true all over the country, not just in Kashmir.”
Government commissions have repeatedly recommended that the law be repealed, but India’s military has stymied all such efforts.
“If we don’t have this constitutional protection, would you like us to be dragged to court for small allegations?” General J.J. Singh, the former chief of army staff, said in a 2005 news conference.
The law is in place in large parts of India’s northeast, a protrusion of land sometimes no more than 22km wide that loops around the top and eastern side of Bangladesh and nestles in green mountains along the border with Myanmar. The region’s vast array of languages, cultures and animosities have fueled decades of bloody insurgencies in a beautiful landscape.