What makes a human being himself or herself is very much determined by the context of the social, genetic and environmental factors apart from the subjective will to make the necessary choices. When I look back, I am sure that I would not have become me, if Emergency was not declared in India. I learnt the fundamentals of political freedom because of Emergency. At this moment, I am seeing a parallel of my own experiences in Delhi more than three decades ago, on the present situations in the north east.
Recently, I was invited by the human rights activists in Manipur to participate in the celebration of the festival of `Hope, Justice and Peace’ commemorating the completion of the 10 th year of hunger fast by Irom Sharmila with the demand for repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Manipur.
In Manipur around 500 people are killed every year in the name insurgency. Around 300 women become widows every year. It has been established that most of the civilians killed have nothing to do with insurgency.
Irom Sharmila Chanu is a product of the context of Manipur. She has been on a hunger fast for more than 10 years, a sustained protest that no individual human being on this planet has ever undertaken. Her demand is simple and humane: Withdrawal of the draconian law, Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA). Her strategy for the struggle was drawn from Mahatma Gandhi.
Manipur is an absurd creation of Indian State. The civil society in the entire state gets only 3 to 4 hours of electricity. However, the Indian Army and the VIPs get regular special supply. The Manipuris have the luxury of buying oil in black for their vehicles. No other state in the mainland India would have tolerated such discrimination.
Like Mother Like Daughter
Sharmila’s context is something more than the brutalities of the Army in Manipur. Many were killed, raped and tortured. Many have witnessed such violence. But it is Sharmila who is undertaking the most heroic, sustained and dedicated fearless struggle, standing much above the powers of language of the guns. Why Sharmila? To answer this question, you may have to look at one major pillar of her strength. Her mother!
In her youth, Sharmila spent her energy and time in journalism, poetry and reading Bible, Koran and Hindu texts. In October 2000, when Justice Suresh from Mumbai led a commission to enquire about the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, Sharmila joined the team as an activist. Her interests in human rights of people of Manipur widened with her involvement with Human Rights Alert led by Babloo Loitongbam who is a lawyer in Imphal.
On November 2, 2000 , ten people were killed when a paramilitary force opened fire at a bus stop near Malom in Manipur. Most of the victims were women and students. Immediately after the firing, a brutal combing operation and curfew also followed. Shocked at this incident, Irom Sharmila decided to initiate a fast unto death demanding the repeal of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Before starting the fast, she went to meet her mother for blessings.
The conviction and courage of the 78 year old, illiterate, frail Sakhi Devi, the mother of Sharmila has always been the source of inspiration and strength for Sharmila `It was on a chilly and windy winter evening ten years ago, that my daughter came up to me and asked for my blessing for a human cause she was about to undertake,’ said an emotional Sakhi Devi with drops of tears trickling on her old withered face to a reporter.
Sakhi Devi never visited Sharmila after the fast. There was a deep fear that her emotions after seeing the daughter would break Sharmila’s determination. As per the words of Sakhi Devi `I am weak hearted. If I see her, I will cry. I do not want to erode her determination, so I have resolved not to meet Sharmila till she reaches her goal’. A long period of ten years have passed. The question before us today is: `Will Sakhi Devi meet her daughter?’
The Government had arrested Irom Sharmila on the grounds of attempted suicide. Commenting on the charge of attempted suicide, Sharmila responded: `If it’s true that I made an attempt to commit suicide, or if I really wanted to die, there is an electric bulb available. I would have used that. I have plenty of clothes I would have hung myself. It is not a matter of death’. For Irom Sharmila, fasting was a means and not an end in itself.
When the Killings Become Legal
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958 (AFSPA) equips the security forces with unrestricted powers including the power to arrest and enter property without warrant as well as the power to shoot, arrest and kill at the hint of suspicion, even without any threat to the lives of the security forces. This draconian law also provides immunity to security forces against legal action. Hence, `disappearances’, torture, rape, loot and killings by the security forces became a regular affair.
The reason for the State to introduce this draconian law was that Manipur was `disturbed’. The question is who disturbed whom? The north east had an independent history from that of the rest of India . The truth is that it became part of India in recent history entirely due to the power of the guns – a tradition which the Indian rulers followed from the British. And outside the power of the guns, the Indian state has no moral backing of the civil society in the north east.
Pressure on India
Even the international community has demanded the repeal of AFSPA. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2007 urged the Indian Government to repeal AFSPA and replace it with a more humane Act within one year. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women also asked the Indian Government to do the same. In 2009, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Navanethem Pillay said that the Act breached `contemporary international human rights standards’. Later, on June 14, 2010 , the European Parliament raised the demand for the repeal of AFSPA. Many human rights bodies like Amnesty International have demanded the repeal of the Act.
National Bodies like the Prime Minister’s Working Group on Confidence-Building Measures in Jammu and Kashmir recommended the same. Repeal of AFSPA was also recommended by the Second Administrative Reforms Commission. `The Act, for whatever reasons, has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high handedness,’ stated Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission appointed by the Prime Minister to look review AFSPA. Jeevan Reddy Committee also recommended the removal of AFSPA. However, all these never reached the dead ears of the Indian Government so far.
AFSPA was introduced with a pretension to control `insurgency’. When the Act was introduced, there was only one insurgent group in Manipur. Today, there are more than forty. It is therefore, clear that this law has never controlled insurgency, but instead it has strengthened insurgency.
Murder of Manorama
The human rights issues in Manipur or Nagaland or other parts of the North East were never reported by the national press for several decades even after the Armed Forces Special Powers Act was implemented. For the Indian mind, the north east never existed, except as some ethnic dances of the indigenous people & are treated as Chinese. The China phobia also helped the Indian mind to look at the North East as something `separate’.
On July 11, 2004 , Thangjam Manorama was picked up by the Indian Army and was shot dead after multiple rape and brutal torture. The protest against the AFSPA took a major leap soon after when the mothers of Manipur stripped and laid siege to the Assam Rifles Head Quarters at Kangla. Newspapers all over the country splashed photographs of the naked mothers of Manipur with the message written in bold red `Indian Army Rape Us’. There was a deep selfish reason of the media to cover such an incident, because the photographs of the protest had a `sensational’ visual potential for them. The question therefore is: If the Indian Press had played a minimum role to defend the democratic traditions from the time AFSPA was introduced, would the mothers in Manipur be forced to go to that level of protest?
Recognition for Sharmila
Irom Sharmila is today recognized internationally for her work on the issues related to empowerment of women, peace and human rights as well as for her long dedicated non-violent means of protest in a region where guns make the rules. Sharmila was awarded the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights and the Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize. However, despite her international recognition, the Indian government has chosen to keep her under judical custody, forcibly feeding her through the nose. There are heavy restrictions for her to meet visitors.
Sharmila has not taken food or water for ten years. She is hungry for justice. Nobody can feed her, unless the insensitive people all over wake up and intensify solidarity actions and protests. When documentary film maker Kavita Joshi asked Sharmila what she missed most, she replied: `The People. As I am a prisoner here (in hospital), everyone is restricted from meeting me without permission. So I miss people a lot’.
With all the might of the large and unproductive army staff, guns, weapons, nuclear bombs and all other defense facilities maintained by misusing the tax payers’ money by the Indian State, it is clear that during these 10 years of Sharmila’s hunger fast, the power of the gun is collapsing in front of the power of the heart.
It is time for the parliamentary representatives of the north east to lift their heads, for they have buried them so far under their own feet with guilt and shame to face their own people. It is time for all the democratic groups who understand the alphabets of human rights in India to come forward and take up the cause of Irom Sharmila, for if the struggle of Sharmila fails, it would be the biggest failure of the democratic traditions of this country. And in such a situation, let us be clear that we will be the next victims of the brutalities of the Indian State power. And finally, let us work to make that day possible for the mother of Sharmila to meet her own daughter, in full contentment about her achievement. Not for them, but for us! Not as a matter of charity, but as a matter of our own dignity and freedom!
The seeds of resistance have grown among the minds of a large section in the world during the last ten years of hunger fast of Irom Sharmila. Since she has planted these seeds on fertile, morally superior humane ground, no weapon of destruction can destroy their growth. Only people’s action can facilitate the meeting of Sakhi Devi and Sharmila. And if they do not meet, it will only be because of you and me!
This is edited version of the article on Sharmila Irom by K P Sasi that appeared on 1st Dec. 2010. The entire article can be read by clicking on this link
K.P Sasi is an award winning feature film and documentary director. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org