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Irom Sharmila: Defending human rights for a decade

POSTED ON 6 NOVEMBER 2010

wasbir hussain
director, Centre for Development and Peace Studies

Human resilience has found a whole new meaning with Manipur’s Irom Sharmila Chanu, now 38, completing a decade of fasting on November 4 to press for withdrawal of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 (AFSPA) from her state. On November 2, 2000, she was among thousands of people in Imphal, Manipur’s capital, who were shocked at the indiscriminate firing by men of the Assam Rifles near a bus stop in the Malom locality, killing ten bystanders, including 18-year-old Sinam Chandramani, a 1988 National Child Bravery Award winner. The paramilitary men had apparently retaliated in anger following a militant attack their colleagues faced some days ago.

Irom Sharmila may have got emotional and began her fast on November 4, 2000. Three days into the fast, the police arrested her on charges of attempting to commit suicide, and put her up at the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal, that has become her prison and home. She has been in and out of this hospital because every time she is freed, she would sit at a public place and continue with her hunger strike, and the authorities would arrest her again and send her back to her security ward at the hospital.

But what is that one thing that has made her sacrifice her life, surviving on forced nasal feeds twice a day, an act that is barbaric to say the least? The one thing that has kept her going with her protest for a decade is her steely resolve to defend the basic and fundamental human rights of her people. In doing so, Irom Sharmila has come to question the very foundations of Indian democracy. Such questions, in fact, should not have come up in the sixty first years of our country becoming a republic.

The tragedy today is that insurgency is thriving in Manipur despite the AFSPA coming into force in the state more than 25 years ago, in the mid-eighties. It is also a tragedy that the establishment in our country, including the political class, have come to accept the AFSPA as if it is a must for the nation’s security and integrity. The fact, however, remains that India had inherited this undemocratic piece of legislation from the Constitution of its colonial masters and that it is totally out of sync with the democratic ethos of the Constitution we got in 1950.

Look at the AFSPA — all that the authorities are required to do to enforce this Act is to declare an area ‘disturbed.’ Once this is done, the AFSPA comes into application and in accordance with its provisions, members of the armed forces can search, detain and question anyone without a warrant and even shoot to the extent of causing death merely on suspicion of the person being a militant. And to top it all, court proceedings against an accused soldier can proceed only after the central government’s prior approval. If these provisions are not against the fundamental rights of citizens, what is?

The British used provisions contained in what is today the AFSPA to maximize executive authority and actually use the available powers to try and contain the democratic protest by the masses against the colonial rule. In fact, the AFSPA is a revised version of a 1942 Ordinance promulgated by the British to deal with the Quit India Movement during the Second World War. In 1958, when Nehru was Prime Minister, this Act was passed, primarily to deal with the Naga rebellion. But today, there are dozens 6 of mutinies in the Northeast, big and small, and the ability of these mutinous rebel groups to take on the Indian state is rather limited.

Ironically, the Government is ever ready to talk peace with these groups, some of them with a cadre strength of just a few dozens!

Do we really, therefore, need an Act like the AFSPA to deal with ethnic rebellions in the Northeast? In fact, I would argue that in a state like Manipur, the AFSPA is in fact helping the cause of the militants. That’s because whenever soldiers commit excesses under the shadow of this Act that provides them enough legal immunity, the masses take to the streets and vents their ire against the Indian state. That really helps the insurgents’ cause. But who bothers! The Army top brass wants the AFSPA to remain and New Delhi cannot gather the courage to dilute its provisions. Yes, the AFSPA is in force in peaceful Mizoram as a ‘sleeping Act.’

No surprise, therefore, that Irom Sharmila has stated publicly that she would continue with her fast until the Act is withdrawn from Manipur. An amendment would not do for her. That’s Irom Sharmila’s spirit— keep battling injustice.

(courtesy: The Sentinel)