A woman challenging state-sanctioned violence in Northeast India

When repression is a reality, individuals often rise up to uphold democratic principles. In India, Irom Sharmila’s nonviolent struggle has riled the government, rallied the masses and inspired victimised populations.

Bhavana Mahajan
27 January 2016
Irom’s cause reaches Delhi, where this 2009 protest took place to challenge the AFSPA. Joe Athialy/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Irom’s cause reaches Delhi, where this 2009 protest took place to challenge the AFSPA. Joe Athialy/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Democracy, or rather democratic sincerity, means more than just free and fair elections. It is reflected in every aspect of society – from a free judiciary and space for civil society to thrive, to freedom from fear and violence in everyday life. When repression is a reality, even in an established democracy such as India, individuals often rise above the state’s diktats to uphold democratic principles. This is the story of one such individual, Irom Sharmila.

Irom lives in India’s troubled northeast region, where many citizens have for decades suffered from arbitrary state violence or fear of such violence, which has been made possible by a long outdated act. This act — the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) — continues to be challenged through civil resistance, both locally and nationally. The issue has become a litmus test for the democratic sincerity of one of the world’s largest democracies.

Irom’s story is one of how an individual act of resistance can help gain recognition of civil rights for many. Irom Chanu Sharmila is a civil rights activist who has been on a hunger strike that has entered its sixteenth year now. Starting on 2 November 2000, at the age of 28, she has been on what is now the world's longest documented hunger strike. Since then, she has been arrested on charges of “attempt to commit suicide”, hospitalised, only to be force-fed by the Indian state, released, only to be re-arrested — in annual cycles — because this woman refuses to eat or drink voluntarily. Needless to say, the state is really vexed by her simple, yet persistent defiance.

But what caused her to take up and endure such an extraordinary feat? For this, let me take you on a trip to her home, the Indian state of Manipur in north-east India, a beautiful, yet poignantly distressed part of the country.

The history of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act

Amnesty International recognizes Irom Sharmila as a prisoner of conscience. Wikimedia. Some rights reserved.

Amnesty International recognizes Irom Sharmila as a prisoner of conscience. Wikimedia. Some rights reserved.After India gained independence from British colonial rule, for administrative ease, the country was divided into territorial units called ‘states’. While the mainland of India is congruent, there are seven states in the north-east that share international borders with many countries of south-east Asia and are therefore unique and distinct from those in the mainland. Geographically land-locked and cut off from the mainland, these states are home to many distinct tribes and ethnic groups distinguished by dialects and cultures that often differ even from village to village.

Due to this diversity as well as cultural dissonance with the states in the mainland (which are all contiguous), integration and assimilation of the north-east in mainstream polity has continued to remain a challenge for the Indian government and all central policies have tended to treat the region as a collective unit.

One of the states in the north-east is Manipur. Originally a kingdom, Manipur acceded to India in 1949. However, many groups within Manipur viewed this merger as being against their ethnic and territorial interests. There are over 30 different ethnic and tribal groups in Manipur, with some wanting a separate state under the Indian Constitution, some seeking sovereignty in alliance with sister tribes from neighbouring countries, and others demanding protection of their customary laws.

AFSPA has caused widespread human rights violations.

The state therefore has suffered from tribal wars, insurgency, and terrorism ever since. In 1958, the Indian government passed a law, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), that granted security forces unprecendented power to curb insurgency, including but not limited to the power to search properties without a warrant, to arrest people, and even to shoot at will if there is "reasonable suspicion" that a person is acting against the state.

Ever since its enactment in 1958, AFSPA has become an “emergency” tool of state policy and has been enforced in several parts of India to curb insurgencies. Under this act, the armed forces, trained to fight international wars, are vested with extraordinary powers to combat internal strife. Such unlimited power can, however, be the source of more wrongs than right. Henri Tiphagne, Chairperson of FORUM-ASIA notes, “AFSPA has caused widespread human rights violations like enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, torture and sexual violence...[it] has been used to justify killings on mere suspicion as well as granted virtual immunity through a clause prohibiting legal proceedings without sanction from the federal government, which is virtually never granted.”  

Since it was first promulgated in 1958, the act has been extended to other states including Assam, Nagaland, Tripura and parts of Arunachal Pradesh in addition to Manipur, just within the region of north-east India. Subsequent to being enforced, it has only been rolled back in one state, namely Tripura, in May 2015. In another part of the country, Jammu and Kashmir, AFSPA has been in force since 1990. In another northern state, Punjab and the union territory of Chandigarh, the act was enforced in 1983 and withdrawn 14 years later, in 1997.

Once enacted for a state, there is little relief for local populations under this act. This continual state of state-sanctioned terror is what led Irom to take up her protest.

After the "Malom massacre", Irom’s protest gains nation-wide support

Since the act confers extraordinary powers to the security forces, it has not only been misused but has led to the massacre of many civilians. One such massacre occurred in Manipur on November 2, 2000.

Reported as the “Malom Massacre” by mainstream media, 10 civilians were allegedly shot and killed by the security forces while waiting at a bus stop in Malom, a town in the Imphal valley of Manipur. A group of rebels had attacked a convoy of the paramilitary forces and in retaliation, the soldiers opened fire on people at the bus stop. Victims included a 62-year-old-woman and a young boy who had been awarded a national award for bravery as a child. But the town’s woes did not end at this.

After the attack, reportedly 42 people were dragged out from their houses and severely beaten. People were in shock, and this is when Irom embarked on her protest — the law that had caused so much grief needed to be repealed.

However, simple acts of resistance always invite the state’s wrath. Since suicide is a culpable offence under Indian law punishable with imprisonment for one year, Irom has been released and re-arrested in annual cycles since she began her protest fast in 2000. However, in 2004 her cause suddenly gained momentum and many other Manipuri women publicly joined the call for repealing AFSPA.

The trigger for this increased mass mobilisation was another shocking incident shrouded under the cloak of AFSPA – the rape and shooting of Thangjam Manorama, a middle-aged Manipuri woman who was picked up from her home on 10 July 2004, on uncertain suspicions. The next day, her bullet-ridden body was found in a field near her village with an autopsy revealing semen traces.

She emerged as an icon of civil resistance.

Five days later, around 30 middle-aged women walked naked through the state’s capital, Imphal, to the headquarters of the specific unit of armed forces that was behind this horrific incident with a banner that read, “Indian Army, Rape Us.” In a separate move, Binodini Devi, an author of international acclaim, returned her Padma Shree award, the fourth highest civilian award in the country, to protest the killing.

It was just the beginning of growing attention to Irom’s protest; national and international headlines began picking up her story, and she emerged as an icon of civil resistance.

Over the next few years, other female activists from the region emerged who wrote, spoke, and started mainstreaming how AFSPA was being used specifically to target women. The argument that activists and academics such as Binalaxmi Nepram and Rita Manchanda put forth was that the ongoing conflict disproportionately targeted and harmed women. Over the next few years, repealing the AFSPA became a mainstream cause of the feminist movement in India.

The movement gained further traction with productions and plays in India’s independent theatre scene during the same period. For example, in 2011, The New York Times reported on the one-woman play Le Mashale, on Irom’s struggle, as having “gained a cult following over the past two years on India’s independent theater circuit.” More recently, in 2014, Bollywood, which is India’s answer to Hollywood, saw the commercial production and release of a film entitled Haider starring very popular actors and a storyline and dialogues directly criticizing the act.

This is a far shift out from the traditional song and dance family dramas that the industry typically churns out. Past productions with political themes had never been associated with commercial success and thus had tended to remain on the fringes with a limited release and lesser-known cast. The fact that mainstream Bollywood dedicated big budgets and star power to such a cause (and managed to make a success out of it) has added a popular culture amplification to what was probably otherwise just another social movement. This is a big win for activists against AFSPA.

Further grassroots and international mobilisation to challenge AFSPA

Since human rights violations under the act can be inflicted based on mere suspicion, it confers extraordinary powers on law enforcement agencies and personnel, which have in many instances led to state-sanctioned human rights abuses. The act thus feeds vicious spirals of violence. The South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre has noted, “the use of the AFSPA pushes the demand for more autonomy, giving the peoples of the North East more reason to want to secede from a state which enacts such powers and the agitation which ensues continues to justify the use of the AFSPA from the point of view of the Indian Government.”

You cannot bring peace by imposing AFSPA, but through justice, truth and reconciliation.

However, while popular support for the protest continues to surge, the government seems be rethinking its strategy. In October 2015, the high court in Meghalaya, another north-eastern state, directed the central government to consider enforcing AFSPA in parts of the state to help the local administration with a deteriorating law and order situation. However, the central government has instead decided to challenge this directive. Civilians, including many students, came out in large numbers for an anti-AFSPA march in November 2015 proclaiming, “…you cannot bring peace by imposing AFSPA, but through justice, truth and reconciliation.”

Meanwhile, 60 social activists from all over the country issued a joint statement against AFSPA in November 2015 stating:

“The AFSPA is widely considered to be a legislative measure unique in its absolute disregard of the rights of the residents against unlawful exercise of coercive power. The law exposes people to wanton and reckless use of force by security forces as it grants them absolute power and authority to use force. Over the years, a consensus has emerged on the AFSPA being a security measure of colonial origin in that it is a distinctively regressive tool, which sets up a military ecosystem where security forces act with impunity and whip up an environment of fear and terror in the hearts and minds of people living in these places. The use of the AFSPA as a substitute for routine policing and maintaining law and order is a dangerous development… this blatant and unilateral order does not serve the democratic fiber of the region.”

Though the act still remains in force in Manipur, the mobilisation around Irom’s protest fast bears testimony to how much Irom herself has managed to impact the national psyche and channelise popular support against this draconian legislation.

Testing India’s democratic sincerity

India’s quest for a sincere democracy, it seems, is marked by a history of repression.

While it may have been rolled back in some parts of the country, once enacted, the AFSPA has tended to stick for decades in various regions without any checks and balances put in place.

As a resource-rich region that buffers the mainland against China, Bangladesh and Burma, the north-east is quite vital to the economic and geo-strategic interests of India. However due to ongoing insurgencies, the region has continued to suffer from a development and governance deficit. The Documentation Centre noted in 2010, "...in such a situation strong-arm tactics will only help to further alienate the people.”

The beauty of civil resistance lies in its ability to enable everyone to participate.

The fact that the act has been in force for over 50 years in Manipur is a serious question mark on India’s democratic credentials. However, instead of making Irom’s fight about individuals in power, her efforts target the systemic source of repression – a law that curbs civil liberties and puts civilians directly at the mercy of other ordinary men and women, vested with extraordinary power. Her protest gained traction and has earned her the epithet of “Iron lady of Manipur.” Irom’s struggle has riled the government, rallied the masses, spawned other movements in related causes, and inspired victimised populations. Her means of protest, fasting, has won her not only fans but also admirers.

The beauty of civil resistance lies in its ability to enable everyone to participate since barriers to participation are low. For the region, the shock value of protests and other civil resistance tactics — and of the ability of these tactics to galvanise wider support — have ensured that nonviolent conflict is effective and may one day successfully push for the repeal of the AFSPA.

By amplifying voices from the region into the mainstream, Irom’s protest has set the ball rolling. Citizens of a democracy cannot truly be free as long as legislation continues to legitimise violence. 

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