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Home > News > Columnists > David Buhril

Manipur: The Irom Sharmila saga

February 21, 2007

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Irom Chanu Sharmila's move last year to shift her protest from the walled room of J N Hospital, Imphal to New Delhi last year for the repeal of Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958, has brought the issue to the national mainstream.

The change in venue negated and deconstructed various limitations imposed on the relentless fighter by the state authorities.

Sharmila was under medical care at the AIIMS hospital after she was arrested by the Delhi police from Jantar Mantar on October 6, 2006. She has since been shifted to Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital where she is still nose fed.

Lawyer Preeti Barma of the Human Rights Law Network complained that the police disallowed Sharmila to talk to or meet people freely. The change of venue also saw the change of her guards. In New Delhi, Sharmila is closely guarded by two women constables of the Delhi police. So the power and authority that controls her remains the same. Moreover despite the shift, Sharmila's protest language remains the same. She is determined to fast until the 'draconian' AFSPA is repealed unconditionally from Manipur and other states in the North East.

Babloo Loitongbam, Sharmila's associate, said, "We never expected we would be able to leave Imphal with Sharmila." The team took an early morning flight to Delhi to continue to protest against AFSPA.

On reaching Delhi, Sharmila immediately headed for Rajghat, where she said in her slow, tired, mincing words, "To pay floral tribute to my idol, Mahatma Gandhi." Later that evening Sharmila headed for Jantar Mantar for a protest demonstration. The six years of fasting and nasal feeding is showing on her. She looks weak, brittle, pale and haggard. She is physically tired. She seems to be trying hard to put a smile on her face. But the harder she tried; she was always overcome with tears that seem to have no end. She did not hide her tears. She seems to have been living with it.

On the Centre's attitude to her movement against AFSPA, as well as that of the civil society in Manipur and other North Eastern states, Sharmila said, "The government at the Centre looks down on the North East."

That is a telling comment on the Centre which has been swamping the North Eastern states with its armed forces in a quest to maintain peace, security and order. As the state fails to question the relevance and validity of the 'repressive' Act, Sharmila continues to find her movement more valid and relevant. Her determination for an AFSPA-free Manipur grows stronger with every passing moment. She yearns for peace and strongly believes that "real peace comes only through justice."

Despite her long struggle she has endured a numb and silent state's response. But Sharmila is resilient and said, "I am optimistic." That accounts for her steely determination and courage. When AFSPA resulted in violence and shedding innocent blood, Sharmila was certain that it must be overcome through non-violence. That has been her instrument and language since she resolved to fast until the draconian law is scrapped.

Sharmila was nominated to the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize by a Guwahati-based women's organisation, the North East Network. Sharmila was nominated for her passionate desire for social reform and her work on the issues of women's empowerment, peace and human rights, using non violent methods. Today she represents the voice of the thousands of voiceless people who are still braving the misuse of the "draconian law" in a state where the government's policy has been missing the very people it tries to protect.

Today, the need is for a searching engagement where diverse actors are involved and represented in the quest for a people centric alternative. Otherwise, activists like Sharmila will relentlessly pursue their quest for repeal of AFSPA.

But will Sharmila's presence in Delhi have any impact on AFSPA's prospects?

This is the first time that the relentless fighter stepped out of Manipur to continue her protest. Also in Delhi, the lady unhooked herself from the life support system that has been sustaining her six-year fast. The authorities in Manipur acted fast enough with the Chief Minister Ibobi Singh rushing to Delhi to appease Sharmila. Ibobi met Sharmila at Jantar Mantar and told her about the need for AFSPA to counter insurgency in Manipur. Though Ibobi was under strong pressure to fly Sharmila back to Imphal, the attempt was futile as Sharmila was resolute on her stand.
Apunba Lup, the umbrella organisation spearheading the campaign for repealing AFSPA, condemned the chief minister's insistence on continuing with AFSPA even after the Act was defined as 'discriminatory' and 'repressive' by the Jeevan Reddy Committee, which was appointed to review the Act.

Sharmila has been on fast since November 2, 2000 after the Malom massacre where ten people were killed by the Assam Rifles. The army disallowed a magisterial inquiry into the incident. The high handedness by the army prompted Sharmila to resort to her fast. AFSPA empowers the Governor, as a representative of the central government, to subsume the powers of the state government with the power to declare "undefined" disturbed areas. It also empowers non-commissioned officers of the armed forces to arrest anyone without a warrant, to destroy any structure that may be sheltering absconders without verification, to conduct search and seize operations without warrant and even shoot to kill. No legal proceedings against abuse of such arbitrary powers can be initiated without the prior permission of the central government. While introducing AFSPA on August 18, 1958, the government accepted it as an emergency measure and it was supposed to have remained in operation only for one year to tackle the Naga insurgency.

The Malom massacre represents one of the many cases that have already become routine affairs in Manipur and other North Eastern states. However due to the imposing blanket of AFSPA, the bloodshed by state actors remained untouched and untraced. AFSPA was modelled on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance, which was promulgated by the colonial British government on August 15, 1942 to suppress the Quit India Movement. It is true that states have legitimate obligations to take all necessary measures to eliminate terrorism in the pursuit of protecting and safeguarding the national's interest. However, does that give the states the power to take away the right to life and block the path to justice? Despite the arbitrariness of AFSPA, the Supreme Court of India upheld the constitutional validity of many harsh legislations on the ground that "Parliament is competent to enact the laws in exercise of the legislative power conferred on it."

Today Manipur is tagged a "disturbed area", which actually allowed AFSPA to be imposed. In the original version of AFSPA of 1958, only the state governments had the power to declare an area as disturbed. However, amendments in 1972 took away the power from the state government and handed it over to an appointee of the central government, which is the Governor.

Manipur has been declared a 'disturbed area' since September 8, 1980. Since then the order has been re-issued after every six months. The big question today is, whether AFSPA is an exceptional and temporary measure or a permanent one? Twenty five years seem long enough to get closer to attain permanency.

In 2004, in the wake of intense agitation that was launched by several civil society groups following the death of Manoram Devi, while in the custody of the Assam Rifles and the indefinite fast undertaken by Sharmila, Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil visited Manipur and reviewed the situation with the concerned state authorities. In the same year, Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh assured activists that the central government would consider their demand sympathetically.

The central government accordingly set up a five member committee under the Chairmanship of Justice B P Jeevan Reddy, former judge of the Supreme Court.

The panel was given the mandate of "review[ing] the provisions of AFSPA and advis[ing] the Government of India whether (a) to amend the provisions of the Act to bring them in consonance with the obligations of the government towards protection of human rights; or (b) to replace the Act by a more humane Act."

The Reddy committee submitted its recommendations on June 6, 2005. However, the government failed to take any concrete action on the recommendations even after almost a year and a half.

The 147-page report recommends that "The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, should be repealed." During the course of its work, the committee members met several individuals, organisations, parties, institutions and NGOs, which resulted in the report stating that "the Act, for whatever reason, has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high handedness." The report clearly stated that "It is highly desirable and advisable to repeal the Act altogether, without of course, losing sight of the overwhelming desire of an overwhelming majority of the [North East] region that the Army should remain (though the Act should go)."

But activists say the Reddy panel despite its recommendation for the 'repeal of the Act' has nothing substantial for the people. The report recommends the incorporation of AFSPA in the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, which will be operable all over India. The question is, will this be "a more humane law", which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised the Apunba Lup in November 2004?

While the democratic expressions are for the unconditional repeal of AFSPA, Manmohan Singh has to balance "national security and the rights of the citizens." Now that the Reddy Committee report has recommended the repealing of AFSPA, Sharmila is, no doubt, resolute in her demand for the total repeal of the Act.

David Buhril, a native of Manipur, is a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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