DATELINE Guwahati /Wasbir Hussain
I certainly regard Irom Sharmila Chanu as an iconic Gandhian symbol. This week, Sharmila surprised everyone by announcing that she would end her 16-year-long fast on 9 August, contest the upcoming Manipur State Assembly elections, and also get married. For the past decade-and-a-half, she has not eaten anything as part of her protest against the stringent Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Now, she has decided to end this form of protest but embark on a new course—contest the elections in the State and take her demand for repeal of the controversial Act inside the floor of the House. With this plan, Irom Sharmila has demonstrated her unflinching faith in the Indian Constitution and the country’s democratic traditions.
As a free citizen, she is at liberty to embark on a fast or end it. She is free to contest an election or get married. Therefore, it is ridiculous to find some people in Manipur, including a few of her friends and family members, unhappy with her decision to end the fast. They feel the movement against the AFSPA would get weakened. I wonder if they are her well-wishers. Were they then waiting for her health to deteriorate further so that they could take to the streets, call bandhs and infuse steam to the agitation? If they really think the movement would weaken with her decision to embark on a new path, some of them can come forward to do what she did 16 years ago—fast. Or they could launch any other form of protest as long as it is democratic and non-violent like Sharmila’s.
We all know what prompted Irom Sharmila to begin her fast as a young woman of 28. It was that shocking incident on 2 November 2000 when ten civilians waiting at a bus stop at Malom, near Imphal, were shot dead by the paramilitary Assam Rifles. The security establishment contested the claim that the deceased were civilians. That’s a different debate, but the alleged cold-blooded killings led Sharmila to launch a hunger strike on 5 November 2000. She would not break her fast ever since, forcing the authorities to charge her with attempts to commit suicide and force-feed her with sal drips to keep her alive. A cabin at the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal has become her home since then. She has, of course, been in judicial custody.
Now, she has decided to break her fast apparently because the Government of India paid no heed to her protracted hunger strike demanding the repeal of the AFSPA. And, her decision to contest the Assembly polls in Manipur, due next year, as an Independent candidate, is aimed at raising the demand for repeal of the same Act inside the House. Obviously, she wants to continue her fight against the AFSPA by being a part of the Indian political system. This actually is the moot point—she believes in the democratic processes.
There are two key issues involved here—one is the issue of human rights violation and the other is politics over an issue. Now, human rights have been violated in a state like Manipur (as also elsewhere) by both the security forces as well as the militants. But rights violation by men in uniform comes to hog media attention because they are law enforcers, and no one is surprised by it. The cause for concern is the politics over an issue like the AFSPA because militants and a variety of their supporters actually thrive on excesses by the armed forces whose members get a lot of immunity under the Act.
Significantly, Irom Sharmila has decided to end her fast at a time when the AFSPA has—for the first time since its inception in 1958—hit a roadblock put up by none other than the Supreme Court. In an unprecedented judgement delivered on 8 July, the apex court said, rather umbiguously, that members of the armed forces cannot simply shoot to kill militants engaged in interl disturbances by regarding them as ‘enemies’. The Court also said members of the armed forces would have to face crimil prosecution if found using excessive force even in such areas where the AFSPA is in force.
The judges delivering the apex court judgement said: “If members of our armed forces are deployed and employed to kill citizens of our country on the mere allegation or suspicion that they are ‘enemy,’ not only the rule of law, but our democracy would be in grave danger,” the judges noted. This observation debunked the general understanding that the AFSPA provides complete immunity to the armed forces personnel from facing a trial for their acts, particularly charges of excessive use of force. “There is no concept of absolute immunity from trial by the crimil court,” the judgement noted.
I strongly feel Irom Sharmila has actually achieved what she had set out to do—raise the tion’s consciousness against draconian measures to contain rebellions. 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.
This brings us to the question whether AFSPA is the sole effective instrument to tackle insurgencies. 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. But, that is only one side of the story. The other is equally strong—what should the armed forces do when armed insurgents train their automatic weapons at them? They cannot simply wait and think about altertive options to deal with the emergency.