Manipur is the land of Khamba Thoibi, Iromba and Thang-Ta. It is arguably, the most culturally rich state in Northeast India. But, ask some one from mainland India about Manipur and they will be quick to retort with bomb blasts, bandhs, Armed Forces Special Powers Act (henceforth referred to as AFSPA) and Irom Sharmila.
They are not to blame. Manipur has been rocked by five decades of violence stemming from the actions of many militant and separatist groups demanding independence from India. The state in turn has responded by dispatching tens of thousands of security personnel, who have been repeatedly accused of rampant human rights violations. And this violent impasse has continued, tearing into the seven-hued culture Manipur and the psyche of its people.
An Assamese friend recently visited Imphal. On the way, near a field towards the end of Senapati district, he saw 4 Army jawans questioning a teenager. The boy would have been 14, hardly 15 and by his body language, he knew he was in trouble. The driver of the vehicle my friend was on turned to my friend with a wry smile and told him, “Manipur mein aapka swagat hain.”
It’s to acts like these that Irom took to fasting, the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act that gave the Army to rule roost. The Iron Lady, as she is popularly called, Irom Chanu Sharmila, is determined to end the terror this act has been to the people of Manipur for years now.
On November 2, 2000, hearing about the alleged killing of 10 civilians at Malom near Imphal, Sharmila began her on-going fast-unto-death, over 12 years in the process. The government has since then repeatedly detained her and have been feeding twice a day by tube attached to her nose.
The AFSPA of 1958 is on the lines of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance, put up by the British in an attempt to the repel the resistance during the ‘Quit India’ movement of 1942. The AFSPA was first imposed in Nagaland in 1958, comes into force when an area is declared “disturbed” by the central or state government. AFSPA was supposed to be in one year operation only. It has been 55 years now and AFSPA continues to annex with furious abandon. AFSPA is in effect in “disturbed areas” in all the seven northeastern states.
AFSPA confers fascist-like powers to the armed forces to shoot at sight on mere suspicion or summarily arrest people on whim, conduct searches without the need for warrants and bulldoze through a property where a or suspects are thought to be hiding. The biggest and the most contentious clause is that it provides the armed forces with immunity from prosecution. Armed with the AFSPA, the Indian Army chooses to play God.
With a steely resolve to not end her fast until the curse of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is lifted from all Manipur, Sharmila, in 2006, brought her protest to Delhi where she was arrested by police and charged under section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. It is only now that her case has gathered momentum and with that legal charges.
The 40 years old peace activist has been charged by a Delhi court on Monday for allegedly attempting suicide by undertaking a fast unto death for two days in 2006. Metropolitan Magistrate Akash Jain framed charges against Irom Sharmila under Section 309 (attempting to commit suicide) of the IPC after she refused to plead guilty countering that hers was a non-violent protest against mass atrocities. During the hearing, Irom rejected the charge that she had attempted suicide over 6 years back saying, ”I do not want to commit suicide. Mine is only a non-violent protest. It is my demand to live as a human being. I love life. I do not want to take my life but I want justice and peace”. To this, the magistrate Akash Jain said, ”I respect you, but the law of the land does not permit you to take your life”. If law doesn’t permit one to take one’s life, was Gandhi’s freedom struggle unlawful too?
Cut to modern times to Anna Hazare and his never-ending cycle of fasting, which was broadcasted live on national television. Now, is the charge sheeting Irom Sharmila’s protest and debasing by calling it a “suicide attempt” a Government approved step taken at appeasing the Indian Army? It surely looks that way. Sharmila has been a constant thorn in the flesh in the Army operations, making sure people looked twice at whatever the Army has done.
“Why is the government afraid of Army? Why is it appeasing the Army? Why can’t it take a decision for the good of the people,” she said.
Irom’s counsel Svetlana told the court that she is protesting in a non-violent way like MK Gandhi, for the people of Manipur. ”People of Manipur are neglected by the government and this is our request that she should not be forced to take food orally,”
It is not that Irom Sharmila has taken a Joan of Arcesque endeavour to save her homeland from the brutality that is the AFSPA. On 11 July 2004, 17th Assam Rifles jawans of the Indian Army forcibly entered the house of Thangjam Manorama at night, took turns to rape her, then took her away at gun point, brutally tortured and finally killed her. Bullet holes marked her breast and lips. In retaliation, on 15th July, a group of 12 Manipuri women took to protest in front of the Assam Rifle headquarters at Kangla fort in Imphal. They stood naked, holding banners like “Indian Army Rape Us’’. It put the administration to shame and our mothers stripped themselves of their shame and pride so that the Army could learn a thing or two of humanity.
Similarly, Pebam Chittaranjan, the advisor of the Bishenpur unit of the Manipur Students’ Federation, self-immolated himself. He left behind a note which read: “It is better to self-immolate than die at the hands of security forces under this Act. With this conviction I am marching ahead of the people as a human torch’’.
The nude protests at Kangla Fort and the self-immolation by Chittaranjan clearly shows Sharmila is not alone in her struggle to have this draconian act repealed. Meanwhile, the State has succeeded in alienating itself from its people, filling in them a raging anger towards it.
While the 13-day fast by anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare got the Indian government huffing and puffing into acting on his demands, a 12-year fast by Irom Sharmila, has ruffled no feathers in Delhi. If Sonia Gandhi can express her concern at Anna Hazares fasting, it is only fair to ask Sonia Gandhi, a woman, to not empathise but at least sympathise with another fellow woman in Irom.
However Sharmila refuses to cow down, “If we keep fighting, the law will be repealed. Our voices will be heard,” the fires burn bright still.
All one can possibly ask for is the State and Central please adequately respond to the issue for which Irom Sharmila has fasted for a decade. She’s given up her life so others can live with dignity, so that somebody’s son can have a without being eyed suspiciously by the Army as an alleged terrorist/insurgent. Mainland India has had a lackadaisical attitude towards Sharmila and her struggle because they have been fortunate enough to not feel its pincers around their necks. But, if one can be touched by Koni and Darfur across the seven seas, it is time they shared some of that concern closer home.