Stacked on a dining table which doubles up as a workdesk in the office of Human Rights Alert lie postcards written by schoolchildren in Manipur and addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging him to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and save democracy in India.

For years, Manipur’s people have been appealing and agitating for the removal of the act which grants immunity to military forces operating in parts of India declared as “disturbed” areas. But in the last week of May, the efforts received an unexpected boost when Tripura lifted AFSPA. “We wanted to send 25,000 cards,” said Babloo Loitongbam, the executive director of Human Rights Alert, an Imphal-based organisation, “but the post office did not have enough. We are sending 3,500 in the first batch."

Unlike Tripura, where the act was put in place in 1997, AFSPA and its colonial precursors have been in force in Manipur since 1950. The colonial Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance of 1942 was first deployed in the state to quell popular unrest when Manipur was merged into India. It became the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act in 1958 which was put in place to help the army crack down on the violent ethnic insurgencies taking root in the state.

Sixty four years under AFSPA and its predecessor have scarred Manipur. Despite the heavy military presence, the state remains one of the most violent parts of India. Over the last decade and a half, several insurgent groups in the state have morphed into extortion rackets. There is an accompanying breakdown in the functioning of the state government. Corruption is high. Not to mention a runaway VIP culture.

Postcards written by school children.

In recent days, buoyed by the lifting of AFSPA in Tripura, the people of Manipur had intensified their campaign asking for its removal. But those hopes received a bodyblow this Thursday when militants killed 20 soldiers of the Indian army in an ambush in Chandel. Claims reaching newspaper offices in Imphal suggest the attack was carried out by the newly formed United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia, comprising a number of insurgent groups from the North East, under SS Khaplang, the head of one of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland factions.

The ambush is certain to be cited by the armed forces to make the case for the continuation of AFSPA in Manipur, even though there is overwhelming evidence on the ground that AFSPA is doing more harm than good in one of the most exquisite states of India.

A land mauled by violence

Manipur is a narrow valley surrounded by hills. This valley – more of a plateau, really – is so small – less than a tenth of the state’s area and about the size of Delhi – that no matter where you go within it, you see the hill ranges bounding it to the east and the west.

The valley used to house a large ancient lake that would swell and ebb with the rains. In recent times, that lake has receded – Manipur's famous Loktak lake is all that is left.

Today, most of the plateau is used for growing paddy. It also houses towns like Moirang apart from the state capital of Imphal. The people who live here are the Meiteis – Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. They account for two-thirds of the state's 25 lakh population. The remaining one-third population that lives in the hills is almost entirely tribal – predominantly Nagas and Kukis.

The lives of Manipuris, however, contrast disturbingly with their arcadian surroundings. Violence is so commonplace that it pops up in most conversations. Every person encountered during a ten-day visit to the state – in buses, in jeeps, in hotels, homes and offices – had an incident to narrate. Incidents of post-traumatic stress disorder are high. Outsiders are frequently told to be back in their hotel rooms before dark.

The history of violence

In Manipur, shortly after India's independence, insurgency first started in four Naga-dominated hill districts where people wanted their own country. In the sixties, the valley began to see its own insurgent groups. In an article Blue Print for Counterinsurgency, EN Rammohan, a former director general of the Border Security Force and advisor to the Manipur government, said this was a response to corruption and underdevelopment where a set of cronies close to the Indian National Congress captured most contracts in the North East and then siphoned away the money.

Insurgency spread to the non-Naga tribal districts like Churachandpur after the Nagas staked claim over a wider area called Nagalim and issued notices to other tribes like the Kukis asking them to leave. Subsequently, groups fighting for autonomous regions for Hmars and others also came up .

In the early decades, the groups raised revenues through donations. But the requests soon turned into threats, and by the early 2000s, most insurgent groups in the state had mutated into extortion gangs. They also developed links with local politicians. Rammohan writes, “In the elections of year 2000, the different groups were hired by politicians of all hues, both state and national. The groups freely used their guns to intimidate voters and the elections were completely rigged.”

Between the early 2000s and now, things have changed further. The groups continue to have links with political parties. For instance, in the autonomous council elections in the state on the first of this month, insurgent groups in the five hill districts issued diktats variously prohibiting the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party from contesting.

At the same time, the quantum of extortion – while still quite high – has come down. A Congress leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, “At one time, people were scared to build houses or buy new cars. In the last five years, that has changed.”

Indeed, Imphal now has new car dealerships and hotels.

This is partly because, since the 2000s, the underground has found an alternative revenue source: contracts from the public works department. The Congress leader said, “Every group has an overground person it bids through.” Politicians, he added, encourage this system to keep the groups happy. If two groups want the same contract, there are negotiations. The latest development is the formation of a core committee: an umbrella organisation of insurgent groups which also coordinates extortion demands.

Extortion, incidentally, is why Imphal has such ramshackle buildings. A good looking house, cemented on all sides, looks prosperous, and might draw the groups' attention.

Why is the character of these groups changing? “When a conflict goes on for over 25 years,” said Loitongbam of Human Rights Alert, “local people, militants, even the armed forces, start creating their own survival strategies within the violence.”

The mutants

This has created a world very different from the one when AFSPA was first imposed. Till the 1990s, there was a duality, said Loitongbam. “There was the state. And there were militant groups that opposed the state.”

Things are different now. In a sequence of rising distance from the centre, you now have the army, the paramilitary, the Indian Reserve Battalion (which is controlled by the state but paid for by the centre), Manipur Rifles, Manipur Police commandos, Manipur Police, village defence forces. Then come the militant groups managed by the military and ones with links to politicians. And then, finally, the six or so groups listed as terrorist organisations under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act – PLA, UNLF, KVKL, KCP, Prepak and MPLF.

“The underground is no longer hardcore militants,” said a police official. “The groups are now using drug addicts and HIV positive women to drop off their extortion demands and bombs. The people we catch say someone they did not know gave them some money or that they were contacted through phone calls. In some cases, those calls came from Burma or, increasingly, Nepal.”

Backward and forward linkages have formed between some of these actors. A human rights activist cited an instance where a group demanded money from a hospital. “It refused – the amount was too high. Angered, the militant who came to collect the money threw a bomb inside and was running out when he was caught by some Bihari labourers.” In response, he said, “The militant took out an ID card from his pocket and showed it to them – it said, Indian Reserve Battalion.”

Another time, the activist added, another set of people who got a very high extortion demand complained to the police instead of paying. A trap was laid. “But then, the vehicle that came to pick up the money was an Assam Rifles vehicle.”

What you are seeing now, he said, is a dynamic where some of the forces, when they capture militants, do not hand them in. “Instead, they are telling them to keep making these calls while retaining 80% of the money extorted.”

Scroll sent email queries to Manipur chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh, Manipur's Principal Secretary for Home Suresh Babu, and to the office of Gen Dalbir Singh, Chief of The Army Staff. They did not respond.

The paradox is that while the nature of the insurgent groups has changed, the imposition of AFSPA has continued much as before. There are other puzzles. AFSPA is in force in every part of Manipur except the one region that sees the most violence – the town of Imphal.

A world of impunity

Both the political economy and the culture of impunity that AFSPA has spawned goes beyond just the army. While the act gives absolute power to the military – to the extent of allowing it to kill people without being hauled by the courts – the state police too behaves as though it enjoys similar protection.

In early 2012, civil society groups in Manipur submitted a memorandum to Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, arbitrary or summary executions. Between January 1979 and May 2012, it noted, Manipur had seen 1,528 fake encounters by the security forces. Assam Rifles was responsible for killing 419 people in such encounters while joint teams of state police and central paramilitary forces were responsible for 481. On their own, the state's police and commandoes had killed another 377 people.

Even the state administration operates with a similar disregard for the rule of law. In April, a senior police official, Amitabh Arambam, driving home one night with his wife and two young children was beaten up by the security guards travelling with the speaker of the state assembly, Thokchom Lokeshwar Singh, ostensibly because he had not allowed the speaker's cavalcade to overtake.

However, people close to the official said the incident occurred on a wide and deserted road. The guards continued to beat up the official even after he told them he was with the police. And the speaker did not intervene even when the official's wife – who got pushed around as well – pleaded with him.

But it gets murkier: Arambam was the second officer in command at a special investigations team set up on 13 January, 2011, with 13 handpicked officials. In its first year, among other wins, the team nailed an army colonel ferrying Pseudoephedrine – a drug used for converting poppy into heroin – in three fully loaded SUVs. A few days later, it also found drugs in the garage of the state's previous speaker, TN Haukip.

Shortly after this raid, a year into its existence, the team was disbanded. Given this context, it's not clear whether the attack on Arambam was coincidence or threat.

Scroll made attempts to contact the speaker but he did not respond.

Loitongbam traces this decay back to AFSPA. “It has given absolute power, in the name of national interest, to the military. So much power that even the courts cannot intervene,” he said. This culture of impunity has seeped into other institutions. “As long as you pledge allegiance to national interest, you can do what you like. Similarly, at the state level, national interest has come to be equated with the ruling state Congress government.”

In such an environment, he said, it becomes easy for the government to brand people as anti-national. “People can be killed on just suspicion.” A 2013 report for the Supreme Court by Justice Santosh Hegde, former election commissioner JM Lyngdoh and former Karnataka DGP Ajai Kumar Singh on AFSPA documents how little it takes for innocent people to be killed.

This also shows up in how the state treats opposition to development projects. In the 1980s, when work had just started on the Mapithel dam in Ukhrul district, said KS Thanmi, a candidate for the Naga People's Front, “Anyone who opposed the project was treated as a militant or anti-government. Protesters were arrested, some were tortured.” In more recent times, he said, whenever villagers have sought to oppose the project, the government has declared Section 144 CrPC which bans more than five people from assembling together. In Chadong village, where I met Thanmi, Section 144 had most recently been imposed two months ago. “This last happened this April when the government wanted to do a household verification of project affected people,” said Thanmi.

Mapithel is a government project. But there is at least one instance where people opposing private projects were beaten up. In November 2012, public hearings for Jubilant Energy's oil exploration project were conducted in Tamenglong district under the heavy presence of Assam Rifles and Indian Reserve Battalion. In Churachandpur district, two land owners, from a village called Lungthulien near Parbhum town who refused to give land for the project, said F Doliensung, the joint secretary of Hmar In Pui, the apex association of Hmar tribals in India, were “brought to Churachandpur thana and beaten through the night”.

The failure of accountability

What has enabled these drifts is the collapse of the institutions that ensure accountability.

The police is the first port of call for citizens anywhere but in Manipur, deeply implicated in the violence and its pay-offs, the police is unresponsive to complaints.

A doctor in Imphal pulled out his smartphone and showed me photographs of smashed windows and blackened walls of his clinic. Last year, he had received ransom demands for Rs 10 lakh. When he refused to pay, a grenade was thrown into his lobby. "We know who was behind the attack," he said. "They had sent us a note demanding money. And yet, the police have not caught anyone.”

This breakdown is corroborated by RN Ravi, a former special director at the Intelligence Bureau who led peace talks with the Nagas. In an article titled  AFSPA – The Biggest Impediment to Peace, he says: “Against the all India average of police filing charge-sheet in 88% of reported heinous crimes after investigation, Manipur’s record is 4%!”

In cases where a complaint has been filed, the judicial system drags its feet. In their 2012 memorandum to Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur, Manipur's civil society organisations say judges at the Guwahati High Court “award monetary compensation to the families of the victims but remain silent on the prayer for prosecution of the perpetrators of the crime.”

As for the lower courts in Manipur, the memorandum says, judges refuse “to cooperate with the victims' families to register an FIR... and actively discourage any effort to criminally prosecute perpetrators of custodial violence by not taking cognizance of torture and ill-treatment leading to death.”

In the case of Amitabh Arambam, said the human rights activist, “The High Court is not registering the case. It is only asking the government to file a reply.”

What about the State Human Rights Commission? It is defunct as the state government has not nominated new members since 2010.

Rival political parties have been coopted as well. In Manipur's tiny economy, the state government is the primary economic engine. Political parties cannot survive long without funds. Access to those comes only with power. And CM Ibobi is in power for a third consecutive term now. As for the local press, it depends largely on the government for advertising revenues. Besides, it is dangerous for local reporters and editors to speak out too loudly against local power structures.

The AFSPA nightmare

Look at Manipur and you see myriad reasons why AFSPA continues. There is a perception amongst the country's top leadership that AFSPA is needed to hold the country together. State governments often support the act, at least in areas that they want to control. In Tripura, the act was imposed only in the state’s tribal areas. The indigenous people, as Ravi writes in his article, “believe it is a tool of ethnic domination by the ruling Bengalis. Tribals, doomed to eternal neglect, are kept suppressed and at bay by this Act.”

In Manipur, AFSPA is in place in all the hill districts which are the ones not controlled by the dominant Meiteis. As Mapithel shows, it can be used to mute opposition to projects. It also enhances fund flow to the state, not to mention justify more egregious actions by the state. There is anecdotal evidence – like the instance of the extortion done using the vehicle of Assam Rifles – that shows how some within the army too are benefitting from the Act.

Says Loitongbam, “You need the army if there is an entrenched rebel camp – as in the case of Blue Star. But that was a limited intervention. How do you justify army rule for 57 years? That is completely unacceptable if you want to call yourself a democracy.”

“The government needs to come out with a white paper laying out the rationale for the continued application of AFSPA in the state,” said Sobita Mangshatabam, the secretary of a Manipuri women's organisation, Women Action for Development.

Agreed Loitongbam, “The more I look at it, I am convinced that the imposition of AFSPA in Manipur has nothing to do with insurgency.” Other parts of the country like central India, he says, see far more violence than Manipur does. And yet, AFSPA is in force here. Not there.

In that sense, all that AFSPA has achieved is deepen anger against India. The separatism it sought to control is what it has ended up fuelling.

“We are not getting the taste of democracy. We are only getting its smell," said Mangshatabam. "People feel that you do not love us. You only love our land and its resources. For that reason, a self-determination drive is starting up. Why should we be a part of India?”

Corrections and clarifications: The name of police officer Amitabh Arambam had been misstated in an earlier version of this article.