India's Iron Lady: A Lonely Fight Against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act

 
 

Earlier this month, Irom Sharmila ended her hunger strike. The Iron Lady of India had been fasting for 16 years—the longest fast in the world—demanding the repeal of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act or AFSPA in Manipur in northeast India.

Ending her fast with a lick of honey, Sharmila said she now wants to contest elections and become the chief minister of the state. This comes after years of being force-fed from confinement in a hospital room, and being arrested every year on charges of “attempting suicide.” With the fast not working, she has now decided to change tactics. “I have to change my strategy. Some people are seeing me as a strange woman because I want to join politics. They say politics is dirty, but so is society. I want to stand in the elections against the government,” she said.

Much as she desired an AFSPA-free Manipur, Sharmila also dreamt of a normal life. The 44-year-old also expressed her wish to get married to her Goan-British boyfriend, Desmond Coutinho, an idea that has not gone down well with the traditional Manipuri society.

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The end of the fast was greeted with mixed reactions. Most surprising was the hostility from people of her own community who were not willing to welcome her back, rendering her almost homeless. Many are outraged by her decision to be a part of the establishment that she abhorred all this while. Many are incensed with her decision to marry a non-Manipuri. Many are put off by the discovery that she’s only human. Many are mourning the loss of an icon, the most celebrated in the world, of the drawn-out struggle against a cruel military rule.

Yet, many remain hopeful for Sharmila; hopeful that AFSPA will one day be repealed.

License to Kill

Thounaojam Herojit, a police constable in Manipur, has confessed to killing more than a hundred people, most of them innocents and most of them in fake encounters. He was profiled by Raghu Karnad and Grace Jajo in a long-form piece, titled “Confessions of a Killer Policeman,” published in The Guardian on July 21.

They write:

“At first, he kept a tally of his kills in his head: “10, 11, 12 …” But his job, eliminating suspected militants, soon became routine. In Manipur, high in the welter of green hills that blur the border with Myanmar, nearly any young man could be a suspect, and there was no time to take them all to court.

It became a habit for Herojit to make his victims face him. He looked them in the eye when he pulled the trigger. Later he kept a diary, recording dates and names, and marking them: killed. Eventually there was a second notebook, then a third.”

Herojit’s actions were protected by the AFSPA.

A legacy of the British in India, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act gives the Indian Armed Forces legal immunity for their actions in  “disturbed areas”—Kashmir and Chhattisgarh are other examples. Officials cannot be prosecuted, or any legal proceeding taken against them for their actions on duty. In Manipur, where the seeds of insurgency were sown with its merger with India in 1949, the Act was put in place in 1958.

The Act has been criticized by rights bodies and in 2012, the United Nations asked India to repeal it, saying it had no role to play in a democracy.

In July this year, India’s Supreme Court ruled that over 1,500 cased of alleged fake encounters in Manipur must be investigated and warned against the use of excessive force even in areas under AFSPA.

The judgment said: “If members of our armed forces are deployed and employed to kill citizens of our country on the mere allegation or suspicion that they are the ‘enemy’ not only the rule of law, but our democracy would be in grave danger.”

The ruling came just as a leading Kashmiri insurgent was killed, triggering large-scale protests. The death toll of civilians has crossed 60. The use of pellet guns by the security forces, notwithstanding the appeals of rights groups, has blinded hundreds.

Non-Issue 

An activist and poet, a then-28-year-old Sharmila drew inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha and civil disobedience when she decided to go on a hunger strike after the Malom Massacre, in which 10 villagers were killed at a bus stop by the Assam Rifles. Her steadfast resolve in the face of the government criminalizing her hunger strike as attempted suicide—punishable under Indian laws—and threats from underground elements soon turned her into an icon of courage, the face of modern-day peaceful protests.

Despite being isolated, and ignored by the nation at large, Sharmila always sounded hopeful that her fast would bring results. Less than two years ago, she told Mint’s Shamik Bag in an interview: “Sooner or later I will get success.” If she complained of a lukewarm response or expressed her desire to lead a normal life, she had never betrayed thoughts of giving up. Her decision to end fast and join politics, therefore, may come as a surprise.

Or perhaps not, considering that Sharmila had long since been disillusioned with her movement. “People see my movement as a kind of festival, and when I am released from jail, every year people flock to get a glimpse of me as if it is a public procession of Lai Haroaba (a Manipuri festival),” she wrote in a piece titled “Sharmila in her Words,” posted by her partner Coutinho on saddahaq.com.

“She has realized that the fasting is going nowhere,” said Babloo Loitongbam, a rights activist and director of the Human Rights Alert, as quoted by The Indian Express. “The Satyagraha, which worked with the British, does not seem to have any impact on the Indian government at the Center.”

Apart from a creating a world record, the fast achieved little in real terms. Her voice never reverberated through the shaky corridors of power. She remained unacknowledged by New Delhi; not a single politician from the central government ever visited her. If Sharmila did strike at the nation’s conscience, her fight never became the mass movement that she had hoped for. The rallies and candlelight vigils that characterized anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare’s fast in 2011 were not to be hers.

“People remain spectators. Only about 20 of them give me company during release hours and remain vigilant when my health deteriorates. What I need from them is mass support and mass voice,” she told Mint in the December 2014 interview. “I’m intervening at my best level but I need [the] joining of hands. Why should we remain content as spectators?”

Sharmila’s cause never caught on with the people of “mainstream” India. And this is hardly surprising considering the general apathy of Indians toward the northeast. In “mainland India,” people from the northeast have been victims of racist attacks, lynching, and even rapes. Against this backdrop, AFSPA in Northeast India attracts little attention outside the immediate region.

Besides, in the context of the hyper-nationalist atmosphere pervading the country, especially in recent times, AFSPA is given a kind of moral sanction by people who view the separatists—there are 34 officially banned terror outfits in Manipur alone—as a threat to India’s integrity.

So, while Sharmila became popular for her courage, her cause remained a non-issue among those who could have mattered.

Lonely Exercise

For all practical purposes, Sharmila was undertaking a lonely exercise.

Whatever little backing she got came from her own people, especially women. Her supporters included the women who had staged a nude protest at the gate of the Kangla Fort in Imphal with a banner saying, “Indian Army, rape us,” in 2004. The demonstration was against the alleged rape and murder of a Manipuri woman, Thangjam Manorama, in a fake encounter.

The Imas (mothers) of the Meira Paibi, an influential network of Manipuri women, formed the Sharmila Kanba Lup (Save Sharmila Campaign) in 2008. They met and often conducted vigils in the shack outside the hospital where Sharmila was imprisoned. Many of them also observed token fasts. However, this was not enough to make the fast a mass movement; it remained a “local issue.”

Sharmila drew strength from the Imas, and stayed with them during her releases. But over time they also fell out with each other, pushing Sharmila into further loneliness. In her own words, the Meira Paibis were “brainwashed” and “not really awakened.” And the Imas said a laptop given by the authorities “changed her mind.” Sharmila complained that she did not have enough supporters; the Imas thought she was being ungrateful.

The Imas are hurt that Sharmila never consulted them before ending her fast. Could she have done so? “Of course she is allowed to get married — but after AFSPA is repealed,” Soibam Momon Leima, the Meira Paibi head, is quoted as saying in The Indian Express, a day before the end of the fast. What if the AFSPA is never lifted? This perhaps explains why Sharmila did not speak to them. She was only too aware of the pressure on her of the Imas, of the people of Manipur, who saw in her a hope of a continued fight against AFSPA and couldn’t let it go.

Sharmila was aware of, and pained by, the fact that she was merely an icon. People she inspired came from all over to see her at the hospital, told her kind words, and returned to their lives. Journalists hopped in for interviews, and went back to other headlines. Even the Imas had their lives, however bruised and traumatized, to go back to. She, as everyone’s conscience keeper, had to put up in a hospital room with her lonely fight for company; no food, no love, or even hopes of an end.

Of course, it was her choice. But there’s only so much consolation to be had from the thought when choice becomes duty and her fast is taken for granted. The unmistakable tinge of irony comes across in these words of hers: “Ten or 20 women under the banner of Sharmila’s Kanba Lup stay the night with me when I am released from jail, but when day breaks, they would all want me to be arrested by the police.”

Sharmila did not want to be a goddess. She did her best to make the most of her isolation, surrounding herself with books and pets, meeting visitors. But how long more could she have carried on like this, with an unresponsive government on the one hand and uncaring “spectators” on the other? The failure of the fast is not her failure. The governments failed her, the nation failed her, and the “mainlanders” failed her. There’s only so much a hunger striker can do.

She now says she wants to join politics, contest as an independent, and become the chief minister of Manipur. For the lack of clarity as yet, the decision looks like a cry in desperation, an escape from the exercise in futility that her hunger strike was turning into. How she will do in politics is a concern, now that she is even lonelier not fasting. A police official described her now as at her “most isolated and alone” in 16 years.

All these years Sharmila had not seen her mother in keeping with their pact to meet only after AFSPA is repealed.

They met last Friday.

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