Irom Sharmila’s 15-Year-Long Hunger Strike Against AFSPA Is Still A Symbol Of Hope

“Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth,“ said Albert Einstein about Mahatma Gandhi. We wonder then, how he might have contextualised Irom Sharmila into words, had he been alive today. Gandhi galvanised support during India’s freedom struggle by maintaining a fervent commitment towards non-violence and consistently deploying methods like social boycotts and hunger strikes to have his demands heard and met. While fighting for India’s independence from Britain, he once refused food for a period of 21 days, and even went on hunger strikes to quell the strife during India’s partition. To draw a surprisingly similar parallel today, Manipur’s Irom Sharmila hasn’t eaten a bite of food voluntarily in 15 years in protest against India’s callous military law–the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA).

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Irom Sharmila Chanu lived in a large compound in Imphal’s Porompat Colony, along with an extended family of 19. She was the youngest of nine siblings, and is said to have stood out as a loner among her gang of brothers, sisters and cousins, according to an extensive profile of her by The Indian Express. School wasn’t a particularly rewarding experience for Sharmila who gave up on her dreams of being a doctor when she realised that she wasn’t cut out for it, though she did try to clear her class 12th examinations. Irom Nanda, her father, was an attendant in the state veterinary department and the family survived through farming and rearing pigs. In many ways, they remained isolated from the insurgency of the 1980s, only exposed to its nuances through bedtime stories about the heroes of Manipur and those who were lost in conflict. But like any other teenager growing up in Manipur at the time, Irom could not shelter herself from daily violence and the overbearing presence of the army.

“Once I was on my bicycle coming back from a friend’s house. At the corner of a bridge, there were three rickshaw pullers, one of them barely a child. His face was half covered with a dirty cloth “,narrated Irom.” An army vehicle drove by. And, suddenly, without rhyme or reason, one of the army guys took his baton and started hitting the boy from inside the vehicle.  They just took off after that. I was so shocked. I have never forgotten that,’’ rued Irom. Her own encounter with the armed forces and their brutality was yet to come.

She went on to complete a six-month-long course in journalism and learned stenography for a year. On November 2nd, 2000, her brand of activism changed forever.  She was at a preparatory meeting for a peace rally, as a volunteer with the Human Rights Alert, when she first heard of the shooting of 10 people at a bus stop by the Assam Rifles in Malom. It was Thursday, and as a part of the ritual for every Hindu Manipuri woman, Irom had kept a fast—the beginning of the same fast that she continues till today.

“I thought what is the point of working for peace unless we do something drastic. I was so upset that I didn’t eat. At first, I thought, ‘Let me keep lying in bed’. I didn’t even tell my mother that I was still fasting,” reflects Irom. While she was in attendance at a meeting on the fourth day of the fast, people around her understood that something was wrong and urged that she take her fast into the public sphere. She went home to get her mother’s blessings and then left her house.

Image Source: Independent

Image Source: Independent

“Everyone was in the paddy fields. Sharmila had stopped talking to everyone, so disturbed she was about Malom. She came and asked me for my blessings. I didn’t know of her intentions, so I blessed her. If I had known, I would never have let her start it,’’ Irom Sakhi, Irom’s 84-year-old mother said in 2014, when she was asked to recount the day Irom left her home  “Even as a child, she was stubborn. If she decided to do something, she would do it. So, once I realised what her cause was, I decided to support her.”

Ever since that day, right up to the present, in 2015, Irom has seen many small wins for her cause, but not nearly enough outright victories. She has been repeatedly charged under Section 309 of the IPC, declaring that her hunger strike for the cause is an ‘attempt to commit suicide’. She has continuously refused food and water but the government force feeds her through a tube, which has accompanied her for 15 years now. “She refuses to drink water. So when we have to give her tablets or vitamins, they are crushed with her food,’’ says Dr. Th Biren, her attending doctor at Jawaharlal Nehru Institute Of Medical Sciences in Imphal, where the hospital’s Room Number 1 in the Special Ward has been Sharmila’s home for 15 years. Her daily diet consists of a mix of Cerelac, Appy, Horlicks and protein shakes, to provide her with the necessary 1,600 calories a day. ”Medically, you can be fed through the Ryles tube for months even, as we do with patients with strokes. But for 14 years? That’s unimaginable,’’ said Dr. Biren, in 2014.

So then what is this cause, which has caused a Manipuri woman to ostracise herself from her family and induce such self-harm? As the capital prepares for a visit from Sharmila herself, this is the story of AFSPA and the repeal and removal that she has been fighting for for so many years.

Impunity with no cost

Representational image. Source: Reuters

Representational image. Source: Reuters

The Armed Forces Special Powers Act came into being on September 11, 1958. The act followed the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Ordinance of the same year, where it was brought in to tackle the insurgency by Naga militants in Assam and Manipur. At the time, it only applied to the two states, but this was amended after the northeastern states were re-organized in 1971. The act now contains different sections as applicable to the situation in each state, making it non-uniform. Section (3) states that the governor of a state or union territory can issue a notification on The Gazette Of India, a public journal and authorised legal document of the Central Government, declaring a region to be disturbed, upon which the central government has the authority to send in the armed forces for civilian aid. However, it’s still unclear whether the governor has to prompt the centre to send in troops or whether the centre can send troops in on its own. AFSPA is said to be required when the central or state government considers the area to be disturbed ‘by reason of differences or disputes between members of different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities.’

The most pertinent provisions of AFSPA, however, made famous by the now iconic scene from the Hindi film Haider, states ‘Any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank in the armed forces may, in a disturbed area, if he is of opinion that it is necessary so to do for the maintenance of public order, after giving such due warning as he may consider necessary, fire upon or otherwise use force; even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law or order for the time being in force in the disturbed area prohibiting the assembly of five or more persons or the carrying of weapons or of things capable of being used as weapons or of firearms, ammunition or explosive substances.’ The ensuing list of provisions then goes on to define the powers the officers can wield, such as destroying any arms dump or shelter he suspects of being used for an attack, searching a place on the basis of suspicions without any warrants, or arresting a person without a warrant simply on the basis of suspicion.

Image Source: IndiaSpend

Image Source: IndiaSpend

Needless to say, the vague nature of the law itself has meant that its execution and use has been abusive if one were to put it mildly. The act has repeatedly been targeted by activists, various journalists and editorials including The New York Times,and human rights organisations such as Amnesty International. If such widespread condemnation still seems debatable for any reason, a quick look at the kind of brutalities that have been committed in the name of the act will suspend any such notions.

The Malom Massacre, which prompted Irom to go on her fast unto death, was found to be a case of a fake encounter in which 10 people were brutally murdered by a team of 17th Assam Rifles. The team claimed that they were exchanging fire with extremists after a convoy came under attack but the Manipur High Court found no evidence of the claim and it ordered a Rs. 5 lakh compensation to the families of the victims. In fact, a Supreme Court appointed committee investigated 10 encounters by security forces in the state, and found all of them to be fake. But the brutality of it is not simply restricted to the murder of innocent people. It has also perpetuated sexual violence.

In Jammu and Kashmir, where the imposition of AFSPA has been mired in a legal and technical debate for years, sexual violence has been a part of the narrative since the act’s enforcement. A 1991 report in The New York Times  details an incident in Kunan, Kashmir, where locals claimed 100 women were molested in some way or the other. “A large number of armed personnel entered into the houses of villagers and at gunpoint they gang-raped 23 ladies, without any consideration of their age, married, unmarried, pregnancy etc.,” said S.M. Yasin, a district magistrate in the regional centre of Kupwara in a report he filed where he identified the perpetrators belonging to the Fourth Rajputana Rifles. But the most brutal example of the impunity enjoyed by the armed forces under AFSPA comes from Manipur again in a case that rivals Irom’s struggles against AFSPA.

The Assam Rifles arrested 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama from her house by the on July 10th, 2004, under the charge of having explosives and being a member of a banned insurgent group. Her bullet-ridden body was discovered on 11th July at 5:30 am, just four kilometres away from her house. She even had bullet wounds in her private parts and some injuries clearly suggested sexual assault. The shocking nature of the incident saw widespread protests, none of which are as iconic as the image below. A declassified report from a judicial commission called the Assam Rifles defence in the incident ‘a naked lie’ while it stated how the Assam Rifles tried to invoke AFSPA with the Enquiry Commission. The backlash resulted in the removal of AFSPA from Imphal.

A protest lead by Manipuri Women after killing of Manorama Image Source: YKA

A protest lead by Manipuri Women after killing of Manorama Image Source: YKA

The uproar over the AFSPA excesses has seen occasional cases being taken up with political zeal to seek justice, as in the case of the Macchil Fake Encounter, but these can be regarded as exceptions in the face of the norm. An IndiaSpend report shows, for instance, that in Arunachal Pradesh, 38 requests were filed with the central government for prosecution of army personnel between 1991 and 2015—none of which had been acted on. 30 were rejected and eight are still under review. The report also states that the highest number of security forces killings were, in fact, in the Maoist infested states where AFSPA wasn’t even technically implemented.

The Act continues to be in force despite several judicial recommendations to repeal it. A five-member committee by the erstwhile UPA Government in 2004 had recommended that AFSPA be repealed, stating that the Act was ‘too sketchy, too bald and quite inadequate in several particulars’. The report in its entirety has been rejected by the present government. The Justice Verma Report which came out in the wake of the gruesome Delhi gang rape, pulled up AFSPA, stating the following, ‘Due to the number of reports of sexual offences committed by the armed forces in India’s conflict areas such as Kashmir and the North East, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – a controversial law that gives sweeping powers to and often confers immunity on security forces – must be reviewed. Security forces must be brought under the purview of ordinary criminal law rather than under army law.’ The earlier Supreme Court appointed committee had bemoaned the inequality of power the act offered, declaring, ’Though the Act gives sweeping powers to security forces even to the extent of killing a suspect with protection against prosecution, it does not provide any protection to the citizens against its possible misuse’ with even a committee to study status of women in the country by the government wanting the act repealed.

Idolised into isolation

If the intricacies Irom Sharmila provided to The Indian Express are to be believed, the decision to enter the hunger strike was more of an emotional response than a pragmatic strategy to force the hand of the Indian government in repealing the dangerous act. The quaint Manipuri girl, who had admitted to having no firm purpose in life but seemed keen to do something, which would help those around her, seemed to have found a purpose in the repeal of AFSPA with some unintended sacrifices. She recently received flak for her speech where she was projected to have blamed the recent attacks on the army men in Manipur on AFSPA. But even among her supporters, who hold her in deep reverence, a rigid possessiveness has settled in which fails to take cognizance of her frail humanity.

 

An Example of the backlash Irom faced after her statement

“The man I love is waiting for me impatiently. He came here to meet me but my supporters refused that idea,” declared Irom in 2011 as she professed her love for activist Desmond Coutinho. She insisted that her supporters were against the association because he was a British citizen of Goan origin. Desmond, now her fiancé, was sent to jail after a scuffle with her supporters, where he stayed after refusing to pay bail. He had gone on a two-day hunger strike previously to be allowed to meet Irom. “I don’t want people to keep me on a pedestal. I don’t want to be treated like a goddess. I want to live an ordinary life, experiencing common emotions. People here, my own people, can’t absorb the fact that I can also fall in love. They have put my fiancé in jail,” Irom said in February, a prisoner of her own exaltation.

While Irom Sharmila has never changed her stance against AFSPA, the struggle has become synonymous with her. As a result, it has made her a symbol and her supporters have forgotten that she is as human as the rest of us.If Sharmila never started her fast and protest at the behest of someone, why is she expected to not end it at her own discretion and lead a normal life with the man she loves?

India’s forgotten conscience

If civil society and multiple ex-judges, along with the citizens in the AFSPA states have called for its repeal, why is there such lethargy in action? The answer lies two-fold in both our apathy and political collusion. The Anna Hazare fast made many people question why was so much media attention was diverted to his cause while it had been close to 11 years of Irom’s hunger strike. The mainstream media cycle would occasionally rake up the story, only to forget it in pursuit of ‘bigger’ stories while our politicians are happy to condemn AFSPA to fate.

An AFSPA protest in Pune Image Source: Kangla Online

An AFSPA protest in Pune Image Source: Kangla Online

“We can’t move forward because there is no consensus. The present and former army chiefs have taken a strong position that the act should not be amended (and) do not want the government notification … to be taken back. How does the government … make the AFSPA a more humanitarian law?” said former Home Minister P.Chidambaram in February 2013 while present Home Minister Rajnath Singh earlier stated that he hoped for a time when AFSPA “should not be needed anywhere in the country.” The flimsy justifications can be perfectly countered with Irom’s simple argument,” The government fears that repealing AFSPA will result in losing Jammu and Kashmir to Pakistan as well. I would like to ask the government: why don’t you try and connect to the hearts of the discontented people?”

While the requirement of the army’s presence in the states suffering insurgency is critical, one can’t find any defence for the continuation of AFSPA other than the protection of Armed forces privilege. The removal of AFSPA in Tripura in May and the recent Naga Peace Accord have perhaps been the brightest symbols of hope in the struggle against AFSPA as millions who live under it hope for freedom from fear.

For Irom, the removal of AFSPA may not just mean a moral victory for one of the toughest fights in human history, but also an opportunity to get her identity back. Director Vishal Bharadwaj visited Irom Sharmila this year and concluded his article stating ’I remember Sharmila every time I eat’- a statement everyone who has ever read her story might find themselves in agreement with. We hope for the day we can report her first bite from her own hands as Irom Sharmila Chanu ceases to be synonymous with an act, and regains human life—frail, flawed and yet perfect.

Words: Devang Pathak 

 

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