Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Arming citizens creates state mercenaries

The government of the Indian state of Manipur has declared that it will provide arms, training and cash incentives for individuals to fight "terrorism" in the state. While the Supreme Court of India has yet to make a final decision on a petition challenging the rationale of arming citizens, allegedly to counter armed underground groups, more states are resorting to this "dirty" tactic.

The chief minister of Manipur, Okram Ibibi Singh, has declared his ministry will arm civilians in the Heirok and Chajing regions of Manipur state as the first phase of implementing this plan. The decision follows civilian demands to carry licensed weapons for self-protection, especially after the killing of four persons by armed insurgent groups in the recent past.

The state government has received encouragement from the Union Home Ministry in New Delhi. The project will be initially implemented for a period of one year. The newly armed civilians will be given the official title of "special police officers" and will be provided training by the government. The first batch of an estimated 500 persons will be paid 3,000 rupees (US$74) as a monthly allowance.

The Manipur government is repeating the same mistake the central state of Chhattisgarh made a few years ago. The special police officers in Chhattisgarh work closely with a parallel group called the Salwa Judum, also supported by the state government. The similarity of the two groups, and crossover of individuals between them, makes it difficult to identify who is an SPO and who is a cadre of the Salwa Judum. Both groups are notorious for the atrocities they have committed in the past few years.

While considering the petition to ban such groups, the Supreme Court has already commented that the state cannot be allowed to arm factions among the citizenry, as this would imply state liability for the actions committed by such groups and could be abetting crime. Legal common sense prohibits this. Yet there are other, deeper issues that have not been addressed.

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong if a citizen possesses a weapon for a legitimate purpose. Possession of arms in India is regulated by the Indian Arms Act, 1959. But the situation is completely different when a faction of the citizenry is armed, trained and paid to help maintain law and order, yet the state is not accountable for its actions. This practice is comparable to engaging mercenaries. Though the usage of the term might not qualify under the definition provided in Article 47 of the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of Aug. 12, 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, in practice it is pretty much the same.

The alleged purpose of engaging SPOs in Manipur is to help the state maintain law and order. There is nothing wrong with expecting civilians to contribute to maintaining law and order, but "outsourcing" this state duty to ordinary citizens might not be a good option.

Problems arise when people are trained to use arms and provided with weapons and cash incentives.

For example, the SPOs do not have a statutory existence. No law in India covers their recruitment, training and deployment. This means the state cannot be held liable for their actions. It means that if an SPO commits a crime it will not be treated as a crime committed by an agent of the state. Once the SPOs are deployed there is no credible mechanism to monitor them. This makes it easy for them to abuse their power and makes them vulnerable to abuse as well. In short, discipline will be hard to enforce among this group. The Manipur state government need look no further than Chhattisgarh for examples of these problems.

The fact that ordinary civilians have demanded weapons to protect themselves against anti-state groups must suggest to the government that something has gone terribly wrong with its own law enforcement agencies. Arming civilians, rather than correcting the operational mistakes of the law enforcement agencies, could be viewed as a recipe for more violence.

The people of Manipur have seen enough violence in the past six decades. The armed forces, operating with statutory impunity provided by virtue of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, are responsible for murder, arbitrary executions, rape, torture and disappearances in the state. The social psyche of fear generated by the misdeeds of state agencies is continuously exploited by anti-state factions. Providing the people with more arms in an attempt to curb violence in this situation makes no sense. Manipur is one of the most militarized states in the country.

There are several parallels between the engagement of SPOs in Chhattisgarh and Manipur. Most important is the fact that in both states SPOs are recruited from tribal communities -- the same communities that have lost their land and other resources to the state and corrupt bureaucrats. From these communities, SPOs are armed to fight their own people on behalf of the state. In short, this method is the continuation of the age-old practice of divide and rule.

There are several other places in India where law and order have deteriorated. For example, in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, abduction for ransom, murder and rape are commonly reported. There are other issues such as caste-based discrimination, where members of the lower caste have been forced into bonded labor and the local administration and police have done nothing much to address this.

If the logic of Manipur and Chhattisgarh was applied in these states -- if the victims of caste-based discrimination were given arms to fight against their oppressors, for example -- sooner or later India would deteriorate into a state of lawlessness where everyone was allowed to use arms against everyone else.

Now that the approach of these two states has been approved by the Union Government, the Indian Parliament must soon consider amending Part III of the Indian Constitution to include one more fundamental right -- the right to bear arms.


(Bijo Francis is a human rights lawyer currently working with the Asian Legal Resource Center in Hong Kong. He is responsible for the South Asia desk at the center. Mr. Francis has practiced law for more than a decade and holds an advanced master's degree in human rights law.)

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