AFSPA: How long will it go on?

Last Updated: Thu, Jul 28, 2016 08:54 hrs
Irom Sharmila: A decade of starvation for a state's cause

In under three weeks, at least fifty people have died and thousands have been wounded in Kashmir, including security forces.

In the other part of the country where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is in force, a woman made a decision that should have dominated the front pages of the national dailies and started a debate on the AFSPA.

Irom Sharmila, popularly called ‘The Iron Lady of Manipur’, announced that she would end a 16-year long hunger strike on August 9, and enter politics.

Her reason for ending this long struggle, on which she embarked to protest against the AFSPA, is heartbreaking – the government hasn’t done anything to prove that her fight matters; she has become an annual fixture in the media, where, every year on November 3, pictures of her tiny frame with its stubborn, square jaw, her face smiling behind a nose tube, are flashed on television screens and newspaper pages. No one cares for her struggle. No one cares for the story behind it. No one cares for the atrocities that have been lent legitimacy by the horrific provisions of the AFSPA.

Is it any wonder, then, that Sharmila feels the only way she can fight the AFSPA is from within the government?

Yet, when Irom Sharmila made her announcement, NDTV carried the sensationalist headline, “Irom Sharmila to end fast after 16 years, wants to marry, fight elections.”

The AFSPA had been in force in Manipur long before Sharmila began her fast. The Act was passed by the Parliament in 1958, and initially introduced in the seven North Eastern States, and extended to Jammu and Kashmir in 1990.

The Act allows Armed Forces personnel to fire upon people who don’t obey the imposition of Section 144 under the Code of Criminal Procedure – assembly of five or more people, or people carrying deadly weapons. They can search any place without warrant on suspicion that someone who has committed particular offences is hiding there. They can make arrests without a warrant, using force if necessary. People can be detained on suspicion of being rebels. The forces have the right to occupy property during counterinsurgency operations. In short, even if an innocent is killed by a member of the Armed Forces, the shooter(s) cannot be prosecuted.

It is like a permanent state of Emergency.

Despite several NGOs and the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) repeatedly calling for the repeal of the AFSPA, after allegations that the Act has been abused, several Central governments have deemed it necessary.

The tipping point for Irom Sharmila was an incident that became known as the ‘Malom Massacre’.

On November 2, 2000, ten civilians were shot to death at a bus stop in Malom town. It was alleged that a company of the Assam Rifles had shot them on suspicion of being insurgents, who were rumoured to have been hiding in Malom after attacking a convoy. Eventually, it became known that one of the victims was a National Child Bravery Award recipient, who had won the honour in 1988 for saving a baby from drowning. His name was Sinam Chandramani. Among the victims were two of his relatives, two government employees, and three students.

The next day, Irom Sharmila had a last meal of cakes and began her fast. Four days later, she was arrested and charged with attempted suicide.

Since then, her story has become an annual routine, down to the press coverage on November 3. She is arrested, hospitalised, force fed essential nutrients through a tube, released, and re-arrested for removing the tube after release. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, has met international human rights activists, and been the subject of books, documentaries, and plays.

But the AFSPA has not been repealed in Manipur, except in some parts, following the infamous ‘nude protest’ in 2004 by twelve middle-aged ‘imas’ (mothers) after the rape, torture, and extrajudicial killing of Thangjam Manorama, which was allegedly perpetrated by the Assam Rifles.

Sharmila’s quiet fight for its repeal throughout the state gets attention on only one day of the year. Most human interest articles about her centre on the man in her life, and whether being in love will distract her from her mission.

Kashmir, the other state in which voices against the AFSPA are loud, shows no signs of repealing the Act either.

When then Chief Minister Omar Abdullah suggested that it could be withdrawn in some parts of the state in 2011, the Centre went into a tizzy. Four days after his announcement, there was a series of militant attacks in Kashmir, and eventually Abdullah conceded that a decision on the Act would have to be deferred until “there [was] consensus from the stakeholders on the issue”.

Every time there is outrage against the Act, a committee is formed. The committee usually recommends the repeal of the Act. The government mulls over it, and decides that the time is not ripe.

The time will perhaps never be ripe.

It is a vicious cycle of humiliating interrogations and torture turning innocents into militants, who will create conditions that justify the imposition of the AFSPA, which will permit humiliating interrogations and torture on innocents.

But, with photographs of eyes blinded by pellets confronting us every day and a woman acknowledging that a 16-year long fast has not got the government’s attention, we have to ask ourselves how much longer we can sustain our claim to democracy when such a draconian Act is in force in every area that is deemed ‘disturbed’.

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage.