A poster of Irom Sharmila at the tenth anniversary commemoration of her hunger strike. Oinam Dorem/Demotix. All rights reserved.
On 2 November 2000, Irom Chanu Sharmila, the ‘Iron Lady’ from Manipur, India, started a fast unto death, and, after 12 years, her hunger strike continues today. She is constantly kept under state custody and force-fed through her nose to keep her from dying. The sheer willpower and fortitude displayed by this brave lady is unparalleled in the history of humankind. Every year Sharmila is produced before the court and sentenced to confinement under section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC): “attempt to commit suicide.” The sheer ingenuity of the Indian state in devising tactics to suppress dissent deserves a word of praise; even the colonial British government could not come up the with the idea that people staging a hunger strike could be charged with attempting to take their own lives. Mahatma Gandhi, arrested several times by the British, was never booked for attempting suicide through hunger strike!
Irom Sharmila is no violent terrorist; she has but one demand: that the Indian state must enforce its own constitution in its northeast region and Kashmir by repealing the dreaded Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). This law gives the armed forces the power to search, arrest, and execute any individual in the areas where it is in force. Under the provisions of this act even a Non-Commissioned Officer can shoot to kill on the basis of mere suspicion and all army officers enjoy complete legal immunity for their actions. Originally meant to be introduced as an emergency law for six months, the law has been allowed to remain in force for 55 years. In fact, AFSPA is a mutation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance promulgated by the British government on 15 August 1942 to suppress the ‘Quit India Movement’. In the name of suppressing insurgency, terrible atrocities have been perpetrated upon the people of the northeast and Kashmir. For the people of these areas, democracy does not properly exist; for all practical purposes they have been living under a continuous state of undeclared public emergency. Disappearances, abductions, and rapes have become so frequent that they have begun to assume the air of normalcy.
The supporters of this draconian law try to justify it by raising the bogeyman of terrorism and insurgency. It is argued that without this law in place insurgent groups would run amok and assume full control of the so called ‘disturbed areas’ like the northeast and Kashmir. Little attention, however, is paid to the fact that in most of the areas where this law is in place, insurgency has increased since the law was put into force. When the law was first brought into being in 1958, Nagaland was the only state affected by insurgency. Since then, however, insurgency movements have proliferated to all parts of the northeast and Kashmir. Tyranny feeds insurgency. People do not become rebels out of a love for violence; it is unjust state polices, denial of democratic rights and equality, and bare-faced exploitation that turns them into rebels. If the Indian state cannot ensure equality and justice for a people, then what justifies keeping them bound to the nation through a colonial law?
In March 2012 Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions (SR EJE) released his report on his findings during an official visit to India. It said that retaining a law such as AFSPA runs counter to the principles of democracy and human rights and its repeal will bring domestic law more in line with international standards, and would send a strong message that the Government is committed to respecting the right to life of all people in the country. The report’s findings reflected a gross misuse of AFSPA leading to extra-judicial executions, detentions and rapes. This report was dismissed by the mainstream in India as one informed by a malicious western agenda to malign the image of the world’s largest democracy, but the same charge cannot be leveled against the Supreme Court of India, which declared in April 2013 that a committee appointed by it found instances of fake encounter killings in Manipur. In March 2013 a Lieutenant Colonel, along five others, was arrested while attempting to smuggle drugs through the Manipur-Myanmar border (AFSPA is in force in Manipur). These are just a few of the numerous reports and observations that reflect that AFSPA is being grossly misused by vested interests within the army. Fake encounters, rapes, and murders, when they happen, leave deep wounds upon entire communities. The trauma and depression are borne by entire generations; the May issue of Tehelka (a reputed Indian Journal) has a story which revealed that the Kashmir valley has one of the highest suicide rates in the world today. In 2004, when the Manorama Devi rape incident surfaced, a group of middle-aged affiliates of the ‘Manipur Mothers Organization’ stripped naked and protested outside the headquarters of Assam Rifles (a regiment of the Indian army) with banners wrapped around their naked bodies that said “Indian Army Rape US”. Perhaps we cannot even imagine the kind of helpless rage that the people affected by AFSPA feel; what drives middle-aged mothers to strip naked in public? Unfortunately, most of the Indians living in mainland India do not even know about the incident because it happened in distant Manipur. One can only wonder what the public reaction would have been like if a similar thing had happened in Delhi.
Can we measure the greatness of a nation through the number of peoples it can keep in utter subjection through the use of brute force? Surely when the people of India fought against the British for freedom, they did not visualize a future where India would treat its vulnerable and marginalized peoples in the same manner her former masters did. A truly great nation would ensure that all its people get the right to determine their fates freely. Is India, the ‘emerging economic powerhouse’ achieving greatness by turning the northeast and Kashmir into a veritable barrack within which the army is allowed to run amok? Today the northeast and Kashmir are among the most militarized zones in the world. A truly enlightened army is the bulwark of the people’s rights, or else it is nothing more than a tool of suppression. In giving freedom to the unfree, we also assure freedom for those already free. An army that does not respect the freedom of some cannot be expected to grant us any quarter when the people of mainland India themselves turn dissenter for some reason. A people that keep the rest in subjection cannot themselves remain free for long.
Indians love to look across the border and gleefully compare the virtues of their parliamentary democracy with the succession of military juntas that have ruled over Pakistan through most of its post-independence history. Yet they never notice that they have themselves consigned vast areas of their country to military rule. Perhaps it would not be wrong to say that in India the idea of democracy has been completely hollowed out and has come to denote hypocrisy. Howard Zinn, an American Socialist historian, said during the anti-Vietnam War protests, “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people”. A law like AFSPA has no right to exist in a civilized world. On the twenty-second of May, Irom Sharmila was again presented before Patiala Court in Delhi to be tried for ‘attempt to commit suicide,’ and, like every year, the court sentenced her to imprisonment. In my opinion, the only entity attempting suicide and succeeding is India’s collective conscience.