Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Gandhigiri in Manipur

Farewell To Arms

Irom Sharmila's stir against army repression in north-east

Nandini Sundar

The Times of India, October 10, 2006

When we first heard of Irom Sharmila in 2004, she had already been fasting for four years in protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). In July that year, a young woman, Manorama, had been killed, and perhaps also raped, by Assam Rifles. Something came unstuck, and a dozen middle-aged women stood stark naked in front of the Kangla fort in Imphal, daring the Indian Army to rape them too. Manipuri civil society organisations came together to form the Apunba Lup. And finally, Manipur and AFSPA made national headlines for a few days.

In the months that followed, some of us visited Imphal. Our first impression was one of shock. We had never seen so many armed personnel — every corner has a military jeep, army posts are set up near villages, there is even a firing range within the university. We had heard of life under military rule, but nothing prepared us for this corner of our own country, a world apart from the democracy that it is supposed to be.

In the midst of all this, we met Sharmila. Alone, attached to a feeding tube in a dingy hospital room, with nothing to look at but a collage of newspaper cuttings fixed on the wall, and yet with a firm belief that her truth would prevail, that life had possibilities beyond repression and violence. Where does this belief comes from, a belief that wavers in us when we see the indifference of the Indian state? But perhaps that is why we need someone like Sharmila.

One official view is that Sharmila continues to fast because of pressure from the militants. One can only pity those who put forward this argument, for they have no sense of the sheer power of powerlessness. Used to taking orders from their political masters, such people will never understand what it is to die, or more importantly live, albeit slowly, painfully, for a cause. No one gives up food and even water for six years on anyone's orders.

Sharmila began her hunger strike on November 2, 2000, after the army arbitrarily killed 10 people at Malom, near Imphal. None of the victims was related to her. The army has blocked a magisterial enquiry into the incident. Under AFSPA, Union government permission is needed for prosecuting any army personnel, virtually granting them complete immunity. The Act empowers the army to kill anyone on suspicion, to destroy any structure they think is being used as a hideout, and to arrest without warrant any person they suspect. Once an area is declared disturbed and put under AFSPA, assemblies of more than five people are prohibited, as is the carrying of anything which could be construed as a weapon, even an agricultural implement.

Every year, Sharmila is released for a day, and then rearrested on charges of attempted suicide. This year, tired of the waiting, tired of the prevarications of a government which set up a committee to review AFSPA and then refused to implement or even make public its report, Sharmila left Imphal on her sole day of freedom and came to Delhi. She evaded detection by reversing the order of her name on the plane ticket. From now on, airline managers will scan every I S Chanu that boards a plane in Imphal to make sure Sharmila is not flying into the sky.

Sharmila came to Delhi, unhooked to any life support, and was fasting at Jantar Mantar. Her first trip was to Rajghat. Yet, possibly even Gandhi would have failed against the sheer callousness of the post-colonial Indian state — 72 hours without food and water, 72 hours after almost six years of nasal feeding, and yet all Shivraj Patil could offer the delegation which met him was that an official of the home ministry would come, and durwan like, read out the relevant contents of the Jeevan Reddy Committee report to her.

If the government was a little less inept, it would have realised that the report could not be concealed for ever. The five-member committee met over 100 individuals and organisations, held a number of meetings and public hearings across the north-east, including at least eight meetings with the army, CRPF and BSF. The overwhelming opinion was in favour of repeal (see Annexure II of the report).

In its report, the committee has balanced the views of the army that it should not be hampered in its fight against counter-insurgency with the concerns of civil society that the Act is used to shield excesses.

While pointing out that the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (ULPA), applicable to the whole country, contains all the shields the army desires, thereby making AFSPA redundant, it also recommends introducing further safeguards into ULPA.

These include limiting the right to fire only where weapons are reasonably suspected, setting up a special grievance cell, and incorporating the safeguards suggested by the Supreme Court. Why is the government not accepting the recommendation to scrap AFSPA? Perhaps, scary thought though it is, the army has veto power.

When we ask family and friends whether they have heard of Sharmila, the answer is invariably no. It is ironic, but perhaps inevitable, that at a time when the media is busy celebrating Gandhigiri, they have no time for the greatest living embodiment of Gandhism today.

The writer teaches sociology at Delhi School of Economics.