For 16 long years, Irom Sharmila has been the face of resolute protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). But now she has had enough. No longer does she believe that her continuous fast-unto-death will make the powers-be repeal the draconian law. Recently she informed a local Manipur court that she intends to break her fast On August 9 next. Her fight will continue, but not as an activist. She plans to join politics and contest as an Independent in the assembly elections next year. Chances are she will eschew party politics, having earlier refused offers from the Aam Admi Party and the Congress. It remains to be seen how the political establishment will react to her in a new avatar. The ruling Congress is girding loins for a do-or-die battle to retain its Manipur stronghold, while the BJP is eagerly eyeing it as another NE state ripe for the picking. But in New Delhi, both Congress and BJP have been on the same page when it comes to AFSPA. Successive governments at the Centre have bought the Army top brass line that without AFSPA, there can be no fighting militants. So even if Sharmila makes a successful transition from an activist to a crusading (and winning) politician, her struggle will likely be lonely as before. Her immediate hopes rest on the Supreme Court, which is scheduled to wind up hearings early next month on a PIL filed in 2002 seeking repeal of AFSPA. Only this month, the apex court’s trenchant observations on the army’s ‘license to kill’ on mere suspicion have enthused victims’ families and civil society groups.
Ruling on a case of alleged fake encounters in Manipur, the Supreme Court made it clear that a war-like situation necessitating AFSPA cannot be allowed to continue for decades on end. It has called for tempering the law with justice — that security forces cannot use excessive and retaliatory force ‘akin to using a sledgehammer to kill a fly’, that there can be no absolute immunity from trial by a crimil court for causing unjustified death. The Supreme Court is presently seized with the Santosh Hegde committee findings of at least 16 genuine extra-judicial killings from over 60 such cases it considered. There has been a growing body of opposition against AFSPA, including the Jeevan Reddy committee which recommended its repeal and JS Verma committee which called for its review. At the very top, Manmohan Singh when he was Prime Minister reportedly wanted to gradually do away with it, while rendra Modi has spoken about making this law more humane. The fil fate of AFSPA is as yet unclear, but what has come through clearly is Irom Sharmila’s disenchantment with the waning public response to her protest. The ‘Iron Lady of Manipur’ may be recognized as the world’s longest hunger striker, a declared ‘prisoner of conscience’ by Amnesty Intertiol. But much of the country and the world is more taken up with firing deaths and pellet gun injuries inflicted by security forces in Kashmir. Manipur has figured low on this radar, despite suffering as many as 1,528 encounter deaths and several massacres by trigger-happy soldiers since AFSPA was imposed there in 1980. It was one such massacre at Malom on 2 November, 2000, that set Sharmila on her long fast. Ten civilians waiting at a bus stop were gunned down in that incident; the Assam Rifles claimed they were killed in the crossfire when militants were ambushing its convoy. The Manipur High Court was not taken in by this claim, ordering Rs 5 lakh compensation for each of the victim’s families in December 2014. Held in a hospital and force-fed with sal drip for the nearly 16 years she has fasted, Sharmila saw herself elevated to iconic, deity-like status, but little else as other people went about their lives. If she now wishes to lead a normal married life, she has earned it. Few have paid as heavy a price agitating for a public cause as Irom Sharmila has.