What is in an Epic Struggle? For brevity, let me say that some of the characteristics like severity of the cause, and popularity and duration of fight for or against it should be recorded in extraordinary scales in an Epic Struggle. And of course, successful it should be when it is entered in the pages of history.
Atrocities of the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) 1958 of India and their unacceptability in the light of the Indian Constitution and pertinent International Laws and Covenants have already attracted maximum derision from all circles. Irom Sharmila has earned the accolade, ‘Iron Lady of Manipur’ for her eleven year fast that no one in a population of 6 billion in this world has ever accomplished in the known human history. This is extraordinary! Manipuri mothers do not walk naked in the streets and city squares. But, the unique protest of 2004 by twelve Manipuri mothers presenting themselves naked at the gate of the Assam Rifles Compound in Imphal measured enough seismic scales to shake the conscience of the civilized world. They were protesting against the rapes and killings of innocent women perpetrated by Indian Army in the protective garb of the draconian Act. In spite of all these superlative descriptions, the movement against AFSPA is still languishing for an essential ingredient – political support from the affected states of the North East India.
Little was known about who Sharmila was when she started her fast unto death in 2000. So was the AFSPA. The local population, already too used to a life fraught with frequent news of army excesses yet illiterate about the deceitful Act was quite unprepared to appreciate Sharmila’s fight against the mighty Indian Army. She was just considered a Human Rights zealot miffed at one killing incident (Malom Army massacre of 2000) whose feat would fizzle out as the news of the incident gets stale. As things unfolded differently during the decade long fast, Sharmila’s struggle could muster support from civil societies and human rights activists. She has earned recognitions and awards from organizations based in other regions of India and abroad but interestingly, none from Manipur. Whatever is holding people in Manipur, particularly the politicians, back from openly joining the movement against AFSPA needs to be ferreted out.
Some people may think demanding repeal of AFSPA gets them the stigma of sympathizing with the insurgents who are operating under numerous conflicting groups and thereby making themselves unpopular among the people. Some local politicians, when they do not delve into the subject may not like to risk their career by getting into controversies. These fears are real in the present socio-political situation in Manipur but they are unfounded. A politician with some amount of social and political commitment to the people of the NE Region who can spare time to study AFSPA can free themselves from these fears and lead the movement to bring lasting peace to the region.
In the words of Late Laishram Achaw Singh, MP who fought against AFSPA Bill in the Lok Sabha debate in 1958, this Act was a “Lawless Law”. A score of legal experts have found AFSPA contravening several fundamental rights under Indian constitution especially Article 14 (Equality before Law) and Article 21 (Right to Life). AFSPA violates several international laws and covenants like; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (the ICCPR), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the UDHR), the Convention against Torture, the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, the UN Body of Principles for Protection of All Persons under any form of Detention, and the UN Principles on Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal and Summary Executions. The Jeevan Reddy Commission 2005 had recommended either repeal or amendment of the Act. The veracity of the Act has been time and time again questioned by the UN Human Rights Commission. A number of Public Interest Litigations against the Act have harangued the Supreme Court of India all these years. Do we need any more evidence to prove that AFSPA is unconstitutional, anti-people and partisan?
When cornered, the Home Ministry of India gives a simplistic argument that Army is called out by the State Government and the Defense Ministry deploys Indian Army in the NE Region on a “Warfooting” and as such it needs a protective cover like AFSPA. Home Minister Mr. Chidambaram probably was referring to this stand in his recent statement that he was waiting for a consensus on revisiting AFSPA. Through the lens of AFSPA this can be viewed as saying that unless the Indian Army is given ‘License to kill’ with full impunity, it cannot serve the people in the NE Region. Such a preposterous statement shows that the Government of India has run out of excuses for defending the draconian Act.
Captain Robert Semrau of the Canadian forces in Afghanistan was dismissed, demoted and awarded five years imprisonment for “mercy killing” of a seriously injured Taliban insurgent in a battlefield in Afghanistan in 2008. In another case, the Canadian parliament was rocked incessantly for a year in 2010 by stiff opposition demands for explanations of some cases of over detention of Afghan prisoners by Canadian forces in the war in Afghanistan.
If AFSPA is analyzed in the spirit of the above cases, the Government of India will have no other option but to repeal the Act. As custodian of the world’s largest democracy, India should uphold the supremacy of the judiciary and the primacy of the rule of law. Indian Army should be able to serve in the NE Region without AFSPA as others do elsewhere in the world. Dodging questions of a real plight of the people in the North East with sleight words will further alienate them from the mainstream India, making insurgency a never ending problem. Perhaps a paradigm shift is required in India’s way of tackling insurgency in the North East Region.
The memorandum that will be submitted to the President of India by the National Alliance for People’s Movement (NAPM) in December should be utilized as an opportunity for the Government of India to revisit AFSPA and repeal it. The people of the NE Region, especially the politicians should also take time to understand the harms of AFSPA and participate in the movement. If the mainstream Indians like Varun Gandhi and GK Pillai are speaking up against the Act, why not other politicians in the NE Region join as well to raise the voice to a crescendo? Organizations flanking Sharmila’s mission like Apunba Lup, Human Rights Alert and Just Foundation etc. need to strategize the movement to invigorate it in the final leg of one mile before the goal.
The movement against AFSPA should be made a people’s movement. Invoking Gandhian philosophy by a lone hunger striker addressing the plights of a fringe population of India in the North East will not make the struggle Epic.
Disclaimer: The author owns all responsibilities of this article. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect that of any organization he belongs.