Irom Sharmila and AFSPA Debate- Where is it Heading?
After 16 years of fasting demanding repeal of AFSPA act, Irom Sharmila, the indomitable activist broke her fast in August 2016. Sharmila had gone on fast in November 2000 to protest against what is called as the ‘Malom massacre’. The massacre witnessed 10 people being shot dead and 42 other dragged out of their houses in Malom in Manipur by the Assam Rifles personnel.
Manipur has been under AFSPA since 1980 and in all the sixteen years since Sharmila has been on hunger strike, the successive government at the centre refused to heed to her demand. This is even after a commission appointed by centre under justice Jeevan Reddy which had recommended repeal of law in 2005.
Now, Sharmila’s decision to end fast and adopt a political route to achieve her and the people of Manipur’s demand has received mixed reaction. In fact many Manipuris including those who were supporting her all these years have expressed deep disappointment with the decision and have virtually abandoned her.
Reason to withdraw the fast
It has been an extraordinary personal struggle for Irom Sharmila’s 16 years of fast. It did not picked up the momentum nor grew as a mass movement. Instead it was waning. She had every right to take a decision to reach her goal in whatever she manner she can do it the best. A peace-loving woman had been on a one-sided engagement with the government of India for 16 long years through the most non-violent means ever. As a citizen of India who feels there is draconian law to be corrected, she has the right to choose her path to be politically active.
In last 16 years, she hoped that something will come out of a non-violent protest but she had been disappointed by the centre’s inaction. There was no initiative from the political parties or larger society. It was not about isolation. The AFSPA had become DNA of the Indian state. Even when former PM called to make an inhumane act into humane act, not much was done. The Jeevan Reddy committee report was not implemented. And it seemed that AFSP was going to operate in North-east just like this for many years. Hence, she chose to change her path.
After her decision to end the fast, she met a group of women activists and they agreed that the common objective is to repeal AFSPA but they agreed to part ways. The women activists’ organisation will continue to fight in the civil society as a pressure group and Sharmila wants to experiment with electoral politics. It is a positive development so far.
It is not a setback for the demand of repeal of AFSPA when Sharmila decided to end her fast. For a struggle, there is not one constant relentless mobile offensive action. There has to be a mid-course change of the path. It is not that she has not achieved anything. The SC has curbed lot of powers of army like they cannot fire in an unrestricted manner, cannot infringe upon civil rights etc. It is a personal struggle of an individual who staunchly follows Gandhijis ideology of non-violence. The way to fight injustice is to cause harm to yourself and not the oppressor and it is this non-violence with love that will change the heart of the oppressor. With this spirit she had started her struggle for the people. For 16 years she had been virtually in solitary confinement. Even for murder, one gets 14 years of punishment and that too not a solitary confinement. All of this was to change the heart and conscience of the central leadership. However, she feels that not only central government but also people of India have not been able to understand her concern of her fight. Therefore she feels she has to fight another battle with same target.
Situation so far
16 years of absolute non-violent struggle and it goes to deaf ears. The government appoints a commission but does not respond to its recommendations. The AFSPA has to be repealed by the central government or the parliament to withdrawn from Manipur. It shows that successive governments and Parliament has become insensitive to the issue of human rights violations in general, which is what AFSPA is all about. In particular, the heroic fast by a young woman failed to stir the conscience of most members of government, of Parliament and unfortunately, of civil society. Therefore, she felt that the only way out is to try and get into politics, get into government of Manipur and then try and change the law.
The civil government when feels that it is required to be declared as a disturbed area, AFSPA is enacted. It first came to be in north-eastern states only. First time in Assam in September 1958. In Manipur it had come in 1979-1980. As far as going into the mainstream is concerned, Manipur is one of the good examples as it is not going off the target. It has made its marks in sports, literacy, culture etc. Mary Kom is the brand ambassador of Manipur. Manipur has been hailed as a picturesque place and a place which gives India best sportsperson, but on the other hand when the government and the military spokesperson say that it is a disturbed area and there should be military rule without any accountability, it is not acceptable.
AFSPA is a colonial act to suppress the Indians in 1942. But, the Republic of India brought this act again and it was modified in a more brutal way where the army personnel are given unaccountable power. AFSPA dismantled the judiciary power because they have an act and hence, they have the ultimate power.
It is a wrong way of putting that AFSPA is to counter the insurgency. When AFSPA was passed in 1958, there were issues in Nagaland but there was not any rival group as far as Manipur is concerned. However, the first PM said in 1956 that India needs to have a general policy for the people of north-east as they have been part of India in last six-eight years. An inference can be made out of it that Indian civilization of 5000 years is different from civilisation of north-east people and hence, there is a need of ‘military policy’ to administer them. This is what has happened in Naga issue.
AFSPA is a short Act consisting only of 6 sections. This Act is necessary to give some basic powers to the armed forces to act against militants operating in the north-east and also to give them some basic protection against malicious prosecution.
AFSPA gives power to the Central Government as well as Governors of the State Governments (where it is applicable) to declare areas affected by militancy, which are in disturbed or dangerous condition, as “disturbed areas”. The Act also confers special powers on the armed forces personnel operating in “disturbed areas” to search without warrant, as the operations against the militants call for surprise “attacks and searches” in places where heaps of arms are stocked. Process of getting warrants would alert the militants and would give the opportunity to change the venue.
Points for AFSPA
AFSPA is nothing but a mechanism which is sine qua non to the deployment of armed forces in disturbed areas to deal with internal security challenges.
The only other option is to not to deploy the armed forces for dealing with these internal problems and let the regular police forces (which may be augmented with sufficient resources and manpower) deal with such situation.
It is unimaginable to expect the armed forces to deal with internal security threats (which is not their primary duty, since their primary duty is to deal with the external threats) without having even the basic legal powers to deal with the insurgents, and the requisite minimum protection against false prosecution.
Why AFSPA in Manipur?
AFSPA was imposed in Manipur on September 8, 1980 to tackle the lawlessness created by four main insurgent groups through dacoity, ransom and killings.
AFSPA was supposed to be a temporary measure. But it has been there for the last 35 years. Two generations have grown up under the presence of Army. It was supposed to only aid the democratic government in tackling law and order situation created by insurgent groups.
However, it was argued by the government that AFSPA was still needed to maintain law and order as insurgency continued to thrive in the state given its porous international border. When AFSPA was imposed, there were four prominent insurgent groups, after 35 years, there were more than a dozen prominent insurgent groups in Manipur.
However, it is argued that if AFSPA is removed, it doesn’t mean army cannot be deployed in Manipur. They can counter the insurgency, they can fire and kill the insurgents particularly in self-defence. But they can torture and murder innocent, non-violent and defenceless people and yet escape from any accountability under AFSPA is not done. This is what has been breeding the sense of alienation amongst the people of North-East as well as Kashmir. The main reason for their alienation is that they feel that they have been subjected to military occupation and that to without any accountability.
Of course there is no absolute impunity in human rights violations. There is court martial where the decision is given very fast. But, the act is in hands of the army and without the sanction of the central government, there cannot be any investigation. So, army has power of execution and legislature and there will be no judiciary. Civil courts have no power to summon the army officers.
In a democratic country like India, and after almost 70 years of independence, no state or part of state should be under absolute military rule which is not accountable.
Questions/Debates dodged till now need answers
North east is not extensively covered by national media, hence its issues are not debated nationally. If such an act of fast had been carried out in other parts of India like Gujarat or Bihar, would it have still taken 16 years, and that too without any result?
AFSPA has been since 1980. Even after 35 years, why it has not been able to remove the insurgency?
What will happen if AFSPA will be removed from Manipur? Will the army anyway have all the powers to conduct their duty, except for no immunity against human rights violations?
Connecting the dots:
Irom Sharmila’s fight against AFSPA has not ended. Instead, it has taken a new beginning. Analyse the role of AFSPA and its validity.