New chapter in a remarkable struggle
On August 9, 2016, Irom Charu Sharmila ended her historic 16-year-long fast. The “Iron lady” had been on a hunger strike since November 2000, demanding the repeal of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in her home state. Throughout her hunger strike, she had been force-fed through a nasal tube to keep her alive at a prison-turned-hospital in Imphal. Sharmila’s struggle has been the heart of all protests against AFSPA in Manipur and the neighbouring Northeastern states. Last month, Sharmila had announced that she would break her fast and join politics. Her decision to join politics stems from her desire to repeal AFSPA through political means. One has nothing but respect for her decision to join politics and change the system from within. In a state where multiple insurgencies have sought to challenge India’s sovereignty, her unshakable faith in democracy and non-violence should be held in high regard. But her decision to join politics also marks a significant shift in her strategy. Before any further discussion on her strategy, one must present a little context.
On November 2, 2002, an Assam Rifles battalion of the Indian Army had shot and killed 10 civilians in a village called Malom near Imphal, while they were waiting at a bus stop. While troops of the Assam Rifles claim they were exchanging fire with extremists after its convoy came under attack, the Manipur High Court observed there was no evidence of any encounter. In response to the incident, Sharmila embarked on her fast demanding the revocation of AFSPA. To the uninitiated, AFSPA (1958) applies to most of Manipur and grants security forces the power to search properties without a warrant to arrest and to shoot-at-sight if there is “reasonable suspicion” that a person is acting against public order. The Act also prohibits soldiers from being prosecuted for alleged rights violations unless granted express permission from the federal government. Suffice it to say, prosecutions into the alleged criminal acts of the military are rare.
Her decision to join politics has been met with both praise and derision. It isn’t hard to understand why Sharmila chose to change her strategy. In a recent column for a media website, Anubha Bhonsle, the author of a book about Manipur titled Mother, Where’s My Country, writes: “She is brave, hopeful, and perhaps tired enough to come to a pragmatic decision that if a decade and a half of peaceful protest, built on Gandhian principles of non-violence, has not resulted in much, then perhaps something needed to turn.” Earlier in the column, Bhonsle refers to her peaceful protest as an “eco-chamber, reverberating the same sound in an enclosed space, while the State outside remains totally deaf”. But her decision has elicited anger from certain entities within the state. Two insurgent groups have already reminded her of what happened to “former revolutionary leaders [who] were assassinated” because they forgot about their cause. Now that she has entered politics, there will be greater scrutiny on her. Will Sharmila descend from the moral high ground she currently occupies in her bid to tackle politics? One cannot predict what the future holds. But her decision to join politics is a very bold step and in tune with the courage, she has shown all these years. “I am not a separatist. I am struggling for India’s integrity too,” Sharmila once said.
“After the way the army has behaved here, if the government does not agree to repeal AFSPA, India will lose Manipur automatically.” The 147-page report of the Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy Committee, which was appointed by the first UPA government, has unambiguously recommended the repeal of the controversial law. The committee was strident in its claim that “the Act, for whatever reason, has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness.” Of course, the then Central government refused to entertain the recommendations of the committee. In the context of sexual violence against women in conflict areas, the Justice JS Verma Committee had also recommended that military personnel should not be allowed to take cover under AFSPA. One cannot forget the sight of nude protests that were held outside the Assam Rifles base by anguished women against the alleged rape, torture and murder of 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama in 2004.
This protest did lead to the withdrawal of AFSPA from seven Assembly constituencies in Imphal. Since then, however, the number of fake encounter killings has only increased and those responsible remain largely unaccountable for their actions. But in a respite for the people of Manipur, the Apex Court has recently ordered a probe into a number of such incidents.
Legal experts and human rights organisations have demanded a comprehensive review of the act on a repeated basis. The act falls short of the established norms of natural justice, such as equality before the law, the right of the accused of appearance before a Magistrate within 24 hours of arrest, a fair trial in a public court and access to competent legal counsel, among others. It is imperative to remember that the Indian state’s claim on its constituent territories is underwritten by consent. New Delhi must create the requisite conditions to retrieve that consent. The withdrawal of AFSPA is one such step. Without taking these requisite steps, governance in the state turns into occupation. To give our fellow brothers and sisters a sense of belonging to the Indian Union as citizens, Parliament must initiate steps to either amend or completely withdraw AFSPA from the state.