Babloo Loitongbam is a prominent human rights activist and has worked with Irom Sharmila. He has been fighting for the rights of the people for more than two decades. He is the executive director of Human Rights Alert, an NGO in Imphal, Manipur, which works to secure justice for the widows and parents of victims killed by The Security Forces.
In this interview he talked to us about AFSPA, Bezburah Committee, Inner Line Permit, working with Irom Sharmila, importance of socio-political activities in colleges and Much More.
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One of the major problems with sensitive areas is the standards of education. The parties in conflict use education as a medium to spread their agendas and propaganda. In J & K, we see school-going children shouting slogans against India and calling for freedom. Does similar kind of problem exist in Manipur as well?
There are many things that are common to students all over. I think in this world where there is an information overload, it is important that students are taught how to discern information and frame their own opinion and this is important in the context of Manipur because people know their roots, which helps them in forming an independent opinion instead of accepting the dominant discourse that is imparted through the education system.
Well, in Manipur people are very conscious of this conflict, as a result of which their human rights have been violated, so there has been a tendency among people to assert their identity. However, I don’t think that the situation is as polarized in Manipur as it is in Kashmir. All Manipur people want is that, their culture, identity and autonomy is respected. There are a few factions who are fighting for independence but these are not as decisive in Manipur as those in Jammu & Kashmir. In Manipur, as long as democracy and rule of law is respected, the situation is under control.
Most of the universities that offer professional courses try to isolate their students from social realities by making them focus excessively on academics and other college activities. They believe that engaging in socio-political activities is a distraction. How far is this notion true? Do you think that students should indulge in these activities?
I think it is important that students engage in social and political activities. I became a human rights activist because I had the opportunity to be a part of different organizations and committees working for social and political cause, within the college. It is necessary because we live in a society which is real and therefore as students and as citizens, it is important for us to be sensitive. Subjects like law and social sciences cannot be insular to what is going on around us and it is our capacity to respond effectively to these issues, is what will help in development of a better society. If you are creating robots who are good in academics but are unable to respond to social realities of the world, then the purpose of education is defeated. I think it is very important that we gear our education system towards creating students who are able to understand the social realities of the country. I firmly believe that universities should play a key role in addressing social injustices.
After the death of Nido Tanya in 2014, Government established Bezbaruah Committee to look into the matter of racial discrimination against north eastern people. The committee in its report estimated that over 2 lakh people from the Northeast migrated to Delhi between 2005 and 2013, and that about 86% of them have faced discrimination it also made some recommendations to contain the situation. Do you see anything changing on the ground?
Well, the ball has started rolling, we are recognizing the issues in main stream policy discourse. The basis of recognition of minorities in this country is either religion or language whereas, what people in North- East need is recognition as racial minority. While the Bezburah Committee stated crimes against North-Eastern people as an act of racial discrimination, it didn’t call for recognition of North-Eastern people as a minority group, but anyways, formation of Bezburah committee was a positive step towards equality. However, it is surprising to find that a lot of recommendations of the Bezburah Committee still remain in paper. The problem with our system is that we are very good at forming committees but when it comes to implementation of the reports of these committees, we back off. We need to first understand and recognize the issues, if we turn a blind eye and say nothing exists or keep swiping it under the carpet then it will eventually explode and that would create a problem against nation building.
The supporters of AFSPA say that if it is revoked, then Manipur would tear itself apart, because, apparently, there are numerous factions, each having their own agendas, fighting for power in Manipur. How valid is this argument?
See, in Imphal, AFSPA has been lifted since 2004, but the social and political conditions there, are pretty calm. So, it is baseless to say that if AFSPA is lifted from Manipur, then insurgents would take over the state. Human Security is what is more fundamental, only when an individual realizes that he is protected by the state in which he lives, can he pledge allegiance to that state. If individuals think that their security is constantly threatened in the name of national security then no matter how many security forces are deployed or no matter how much a draconian law is implemented, it will never solve the problem. The government has experimented with AFSPA and other related laws for the last 60 years and the situation has only aggravated. So, I think, it is better to find an alternative. The government must see to that, not only the brutality of military is curbed but also that the grievances of the affected persons are addressed.
The Supreme Court, in 2016 ruled, “the use of excessive force or retaliatory force” by the police or armed forces is not permissible, despite the AFSPA. It also laid down certain principles for the armed forces to follow in these regions. What has been its effect?
In 2016, the Supreme Court laid out certain guidelines, it didn’t order investigation into the issue of human rights violation in Manipur. We are expecting the order to come out after summer vacation, may be somewhere in July. But nevertheless, even setting out these principles has made a huge impact, till 2012, the Supreme Court noted, the killings in number, were 1 per day i.e. 365 people were killed every year. The number of deaths as a result of extra-judicial killings has been reduced to almost zero now. The fake encounter phenomena has almost completely stopped.
Also Watch:In this video Babloo described his life from childhood to becoming an Activist
The proponents of Inner Line Permit say that it is necessary to regulate the population of Manipur. But, if we go by their logic, then states like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar etc., which have a much larger population as compared to Manipur, should also use ILP. What’s your view on this?
Manipur’s population is 0.4% of India’s population and it has a very unique civilization, a very unique culture which is rooted to the land. It is not possible for Manipur to develop completely isolated from rest of India and for that matter rest of the world. But how many people should come and settle in Manipur must be regulated because of its unique culture. As I have earlier stated that minority is defined only on the basis of religion and language and as such most of the Manipuris being Hindu are considered to be majority, whereas, they are minorities having their own unique cultural identities. I think, when Manipur becomes the center of transition highways and railways, steps must be taken to protect the local population and its ways. Perhaps, ILP may not be the best solution because it was something that was conceived by the British to isolate Manipur, but one has to work out a way to see that development takes place but at the same time this small and unique population is protected from over-swamping. A mid-way has to be found so that the interests of both the natives of Manipur as well as those who visit and settle in Manipur are considered and it will not be resolved through protests, we need to sit together and decide which interested is to be protected and which is to be compromised.
When do you think will AFSPA be lifted? There was a time when certain insurgents had banned Hindi songs and Indian flags in Manipur. How active are these groups now? Where do you see Manipur in the upcoming years?
The sooner AFSPA goes, the better it is for Manipur because there is also a need for closure. It’s not that those groups who once opposed Hindi songs and Indian Flags have lifted the ban but they are also not enforcing it. So, if you put things in order, if everyone’s basic needs in terms of their livelihood, education, employment, security etc. are fulfilled then even the most hardcore protesters lose their nerve. The present CM, Mr. Biren Singh, is trying very hard to build a kind of environment which is conducive to participatory democracy. He declared 15th of every month as People’s Day, on which date, he meets with aggrieved people. I think it is a good initiative. However, there are certain key political problems that need to be addressed before we open a new chapter in Manipur, like, for example, the insurgency has not yet died down, there are internal conflicts among different factions, for political power; also, the problem of Human Rights violation has still not been completely resolved. So, these are certain issues that must be countered in order to gain confidence of the people. And if all the pieces fall into the right place then we will definitely see a well-developed Manipur in the near future. But again, it requires a lot of efforts form the state government and hand-holding from the center.
You have worked with Irom Sharmila. Her decision to call off her fast and go for elections, didn’t pan out very well for her. What’s your take on this?
Sharmila is a very strong activist but a very bad politician. We all admire her courage and determination, she continued her fast for fifteen years. But in politics, determination is not enough, you need to take people into account. The way she ended her fast alienated her traditional supporters- it was all very gawky. What she possesses, is what we call spiritual power and that power could have been converted into political power if she had followed certain procedures…it was all done in a very clumsy manner and that is why it was a catastrophe. We revere her for what she has done for 15 years to bring out the sufferings of the people under AFSPA, but as a politician, she has failed miserably to gather confidence from her own supporters as well as from others.
Many students who want to become human right activists are deterred by bleak income prospects. How well founded is their fear? If given an opportunity, would you switch your career for something that yields better income?
Well, the income prospects are very dim and I am sorry to say, but this is the reality. However, the notion that you do not achieve anything is not true. When I look back at my life, I feel happy because now I am able to raise voice against the problems that I faced as a student, the problems which are still prevalent today. It as achievement in itself that we have been able to highlight the issue of discrimination and human rights violation both at National as well as international level. I think I am making a better world for my children and my grand-children to live in. However, one only wish that our government’s attitude towards human rights activists changed a bit. They should see these activists as agents of change and democratization rather than enemies who are opposing them. We are not opposing them, we are only addressing the issues that the society is facing, we are only strengthening our democracy. So, I hope that the contributions of human rights activists are realized so that students who are into human rights get inspired to fight for the rights of the society.
How did your degree of law help you in your fight against Human Rights violation in Manipur?
I think the background of law is very important. From my study of anthropology, I took up the human aspect and from my study of law, I took up rights. In social Sciences, you understand the world but you don’t have the means to change it. Whereas, the knowledge of law equips you with the means to change the society. You get to know how the system works, what are the issues and how are you going to address them within the legal framework. So, it is important for a student of law to have a clear understanding of Jurisprudence, constitution, and criminal law because they are basically the building blocks of your human rights approach.
What would be your parting message to the students?
It is important for us to critique the system but it is also important for us to engage the system; the very purpose of a democratic setup is inclusiveness and in order to fulfill that purpose, it is imperative that the system responds to the needs of the people. So, I would encourage the students to be assertive, to speak out their minds. There is a tendency among the north-easterners to live in ghettos built by them, I think, we need to break those ghettos and make them be more involved with this society. I think, interaction among students should not be bound by ideas like religion, caste, race etc. Because, that is how we can build a truly inclusive India where the dignity and rights of North-Easterners are also respected equally.