[This is an AHRC Article.]
Irom Sharmila Chanu’s story is a bizarre, almost schizophrenic, tale of absurdities. It has a woman who has not eaten a morsel for a full 13 years. It has a state that has kept her incarcerated for most part of all these years and is force feeding her through a tube in her nose. The fast has wasted her body from within. It has caused her to stop menstruating. Medical reports indicate severe damage to many of her internal organs.
Nothing of this, though, moves the state that claims to be the largest democracy of the world. Not even on the date when she entered fourteenth year of her fast this year. She had started her fast on 5 November 2000, after personnel of the Assam Rifles had shot dead 10 civilians waiting at a bus stop in Malom, Manipur. None of the rogues in uniform responsible for the massacre were punished. Thanks to the impunity provided to them by the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958, none of them would ever get.
The Act, imposed in Manipur since 1980, gives even a non commissioned officer of the security forces a statutory right to kill with impunity on mere suspicion. The Act, first enacted by the British colonialists, is an obvious negation of all that a democracy stands for and therefore doesn't deserve a place even in the statues books of India. And there it is, invoked on Indian citizenry with all the horrors it entails. Needless is to say that horrors include murder of democracy as a state can only be democratic or undemocratic, nothing in between. This is why Irom, while going on the fast, wanted nothing more than the Act getting repealed.
None of her demands are even remotely anti-India, despite the fact that one cannot wish away strong anti-India sentiments in all of the North East. She is demanding what the Indian constitution guarantees to all its citizens in the first place. Equality before law is the bedrock of her nonviolent protest, longest in human history. All she is asking for is an end to the culture of impunity. She is asking the Indian state to respect the law of the land instead of invoking draconian colonial laws over a section of its own citizenry. Is any of that demand illegal?
She wants the cessation of mindless violence inflicted on people of the North East, Manipuris in particular. She wanted an end of the culture of impunity that lets security personnel get away with everything from extrajudicial executions, abductions, torture including custodial rape and extortion. She wants to snatch her people back from the dehumanized existence that the ruthless cycle of self reinforcing violence has condemned them into.
The government of India, however, would have none of it even while conceding that AFSPA has got some real serious problems. The problems are so serious that Justice J S Verma Commission, formed after the brutal Delhi Gang rape that shook the conscience of the nation, would recommend taking sexual offences committed by the security personnel off the impunity provided to them by AFSPA. They would be serious enough to make Omar Abdullah, Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, demand its revocation and P Chidambaram, the then union home minister promise to revisit it.
The moves, though, almost always be scuttled by the army. Senior army officers like Lt. General B. S. Jaswal would assert that AFSPA is pious to ‘entire Indian Army and the government will bow down into inaction. Unfortunately, no one would ask exactly when did the secular democracy that India is turn into a theocracy to take recourse of religious language.
So the state will not listen to Irom. It needed not as Manipur has never caught the imagination of powers that may in Delhi. It was just an outpost in the past. Now it’s even worse of, a disturbed area to be reined in by brute force. Now it’s a no brainer that military understanding of ‘controlling’ a troublesome population on the peripheries of the nation inherently involves sexual assault as a weapon. It is precisely for this reason that the state would provide the personnel of Assam Rifles with condoms as an integral part of the travel kit to be used while on patrol duty, forget reining in the sexual predators in their uniforms.
The state had not bothered to listen to Irom for a full six years by the time the elderly mothers of Manipur would have had enough of the assaults and go to the headquarters of the Assam Rifles, disrobe themselves and hoist a banner reading “INDIAN ARMY RAPE US” on its iron gates. State would not listen to them as well. It would let security forces kill Sanjits, Rubinas, Manorama Devis and countless others. It would not even blink at the reports of 1500 fake encounters. It would not until the Supreme Court would take up the issue and find all six randomly chosen ones for investigations to be really fake and order a probe by the National Human Rights Commission, a measure too little and too late.
The state, meanwhile, will criminalize the conscience keeper and would arrest Irom for ‘attempting suicide’, a criminal offence under the law of the land. Irom would be an unlikely offender though, one respected by even the judge who would eventually put her on trial. “I respect you but the law of the land does not permit you to take your life,” is what Akash Jain, Metropolitan Magistrate of a Delhi court, would meekly admit while ordering to frame charges against 40-year-old Irom under section 309 (attempting to commit suicide).
She had pleaded ‘not guilty’ to the charges against her. ‘I love life. I do not want to take my life but I want justice and peace’ is what she had told the court. ‘I do not want to commit suicide. Mine is only a non-violent protest. It is my demand to live as a human being”, she had then calmly added. She assured the state that she would eat, again, if AFSPA is revoked. The Court, as expected, told her that the issue of revocation of an Act is a question of a ‘political process’ whereas it was concerned only with the ‘individual case’ it was dealing with.
The fast, therefore, would continue. So would atrocities committed on hapless citizens by the Indian armed forces. What no one would think about, though, is that not listening to sane voice of peace and harmony can merely give way to an unending circle of violence. More and more actors, both state and non state, would join the fray that gives huge, unaudited dividends to all concerned while inflicting unimaginable miseries on common people. The number of armed insurgent groups, commonly known as the underground, would proliferate with the corresponding suspicion of the state. The suspicion would lead to everything, from harassment to extrajudicial executions. The anger against the same would get new recruits to the underground.
The democracy would still not listen to Irom. It would not lend a sympathetic ear to the people it claims of being its own. It would keep Irom incarcerated while respecting her. If only it knew that Irom, perhaps, is its last chance at peace. It cannot win a war against its own people unless winning their hearts. Treating them as lesser, and unreliable, citizens is not going to let that happen. India would better save Irom, one of its worthiest daughters following in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation. India, therefore, can begin with accepting just, and absolutely legal, demand of Irom instead of defending murderers and rapists in uniforms.
The democracy would better remember that even the British colonials didn’t let Mahatma Gandhi starve to death. Period.