On 5 November 2010, Ms. Irom Chanu Sharmila, a Manipuri poet and human rights defender, will complete ten years of her indefinite hunger strike in Imphal, Manipur state. Sharmila started her fast on 5 November 2000, the day infamous for the Malom massacre in Manipur. On that day, the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary unit stationed in the state, killed 10 civilians including women and children in an inhuman and vengeful act of retaliation, responding to an earlier ambush staged by the armed insurgents against the Assam Rifles.
A decade since the massacre, while the justice system of India is dragging its feet and has failed to finish even a preliminary inquiry into the incident, Sharmila has become the most powerful voice of democratic dissent in the country through her silent protest against armed violence, committed by the state and non-state actors. She has been insisting that she will end her fast only when the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) is repealed, a prerequisite to end armed insurgency in Manipur.
Sharmila’s unique protest follows Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of non-violence. It has withstood the test of time, and exemplifies the triumph of human spirit over the unbridled power of the state machinery. During the past 10 years, the state as well as the central government has tried everything at their disposal to force Sharmila to stop the fast. When these attempts failed, the government placed Sharmila in detention, keeping her in house arrest or confined to a small hospital room in Imphal, on the excuse that an attempt to commit suicide is a crime in the Indian Penal Code, 1860. At the moment Sharmila is detained in a room in the security ward of the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal. The state government has continuously denied her permission to freely meet visitors.
The AFSPA provides special powers to arrest, detain and kill civilians on mere suspicion. The Act also empowers the armed forces to search and destroy properties on mere suspicion in ‘disturbed areas’. It is widely used in the Northeastern states and in Jammu and Kashmir. Wherever AFSPA is in operation, enforced disappearances, extra-judicial executions, torture, rape and arbitrary detention are routinely reported.
In 1958 when the Union Home Minster introduced the law in the Parliament, he assured that the Act would be in operation for a mere 6 months. 52 years since then, the law is still in operation in states like Manipur. Despite the impunity provided by the law, the armed forces are not successful in reducing armed insurgency in places where AFSPA is enforced and on the contrary, it has increased. Violence committed with impunity by both the state and non-state actors have alienated the population from the state. There are compelling grounds to believe that some armed insurgent groups operate with the support of the state and central security agencies.
The people of Manipur has done everything humanely conceivable to register their protest against the AFSPA — naked protest by mothers, self immolation by student leader, mass demonstrations, petition to the Supreme Court, complaints to the United Nations are to name a few. Similar is the case with other citizens in rest of the Northeastern states and Jammu and Kashmir. Civil society groups including the media, political parties, jurists, expert groups appointed by the government and the United Nations have constantly called upon the government to withdraw AFSPA from Manipur and has held that the withdrawal of AFSPA is an essential requirement to end the culture of violence in Manipur. However the government has failed to pay heed to these considered opinions.
AFSPA provides statutory impunity to state security agencies. It negates the human rights framework envisaged in the constitution of India as well as the international human rights instruments India is party to. AFSPA is fundamentally a curse to freedom and undermines democratic values.
In 1997, the UN Human Rights Committee stated that by imposing AFSPA, the government of India is in fact using emergency powers without resorting to the procedures laid down in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. Again in 2007, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination unequivocally urged the government of India to repeal the Act within one year. During her visit to India in March 2009, the High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the government of India to repeal this Act.
The Committee to Review the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 setup by the Union Home Ministry led by Justice Jeevan Reddy, a former Judge of the Supreme Court; the Second Administrative Reforms Commission, headed by the current union law minister, Mr. Veerappa Moily; and the Working Group on Confidence-Building Measures in Jammu and Kashmir led by the present Vice President of India, Honourable Hamid Ansari, have all recommended the repealing of AFSPA. Since the last winter session of the Indian Parliament, an Armed Forces (Special Powers) Amendment Bill has been placed before the Parliament. However, the text of the Bill is not yet made public. To say the least, the people residing in the states where this draconian law is enforced are not consulted concerning this Bill.
Even though the inhuman nature of AFSPA has been exposed repeatedly proving that it is an ill-conceived law that perpetuates innumerable violence and inconsolable misery against the people, it is still enforced. On the other hand, Sharmila, the icon of protest against this law is treated like a petty criminal, charged for attempting to commit suicide. Her struggle lies not only in defending the basic and fundamental human rights of the people, but also questions the very foundations of Indian democracy which venerates Mahatma Gandhi and his principles of ahimsa or non-violence.
In Manipur, the Just Peace Foundation (JPF), in collaboration with the civil society of Manipur, is celebrating Sharmila’s indomitable spirit, her courage to hope for an end of violence amidst adversities, her unwavering stand for justice and her deep yearning for peace. A simple function at the Manipur Press Club will launch today the 100 days countdown to the completion of Sharmila’s decade-long fast. A series of cultural programs, literary and artistic activities, public meetings and rallies, and poster campaigns will mark the countdown which will culminate into a Festival of Hope, Justice and Peace from 2 to 6 November 2010.
The ALRC along with the JPF seeks your participation to make this noble effort a success. We request you to use this occasion to take all actions possible to collectively urge the government of India to repeal AFSPA. For your convenience the ALRC has created an online petition entitled “Repeal AFSPA NOW“. By signing the petition, you can send your views to the government of India demanding the repealing of this draconian law.
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About the ALRC: The Asian Legal Resource Centre is an independent regional non-governmental organisation holding general consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. It is the sister organisation of the Asian Human Rights Commission. The Hong Kong-based group seeks to strengthen and encourage positive action on legal and human rights issues at the local and national levels throughout Asia.