Irom Sharmila Chanu and the fight to end impunity in Manipur

(Compiled from a statement and petition of the Asian Human Rights Commission: AHRC-STM-017-2010,

Menghaobi, alias Ms Irom Sharmila Chanu, known as Manipur’s beacon of peace and hope, received the Lifetime Achievement Award on 26 January 2010. Sharmila shares the award with Mr Tenzing Tsude, Professor Hassan Mansoor, Fr Claude, Mr Abhay Sahoo, Mr Prasanta Paikray, Mr Cherkadi Rama Chandra Rao, Mr H Ganapati Appa Sagara, Ms Anasuyamma Allalasandra and Mr Himanshu Kumar.

The award is organized by a collective of Indian NGOs and was presented in a ceremony held at Bangalore. Unable to be present during the ceremony, since she is held in house arrest in Manipur, Sharmila, accepting the award, sent a letter to the Union Minister of Law and Justice, Dr Veerappa Moily, reproduced below:

Message from Ms Irom Sharmila Chanu
The Civil Society Submit 2010
Bangalore, 24-26 January

The tranquility or disorderliness of a society is dependent on the relationship between the civil society and it Rulers. Just like the relationship between the King and the Queen bees on the one hand and their numerous offspring on the other. The offspring build a hive in accordance to the directives of the Rulers. And they all settle together happily inside the hive with plenty of food, honey and in the safety of a secured shelter.

But this pristine peace is not eternal. As the offspring matures and assumes multiple roles, contestation and competition crops up. One tries to outsmart
the other right besides the much coveted Couple. The harmony of the hive is disturbed. The inevitable intermittent fractional fighting leads to dilapidation of the hive and ultimately ruined the bees.

The role of civil society within a nation, much like the offspring bees, is enormous. They are the very backbone of the nation. The capacity to stand united by overcoming our narrow sectarian interest, by realizing the common good in building up a just social order and by our commitment to work hard to achieve this higher goal is the only way to bring about emancipation in our society. These virtues alone can make our dream of Justice—social, economic and political — come true. This alone can abolish starvation and poverty that has been chronically plaguing our society.

I am of the firm belief that it will also heighten Nature’s Beauty. And Her Beauty will ultimately harmonize with mankind’s well being. And in the same manner as honey contributes towards our well being and wax enhances the beauty of our cloths, an organically-evolved, value-based civil-society can bring about a Civilized Universe wherein all our fundamental rights and basic freedoms can be realized in its true sense.

My warmest regards to each and every one of you who have contributed toward sustaining this hope for a just-world order! From the confines of my hospital bed in Imphal, I wish the Civil Society Summit 2010 a Grand Success!

Also known as the Iron Lady of Manipur, a human rights activist, journalist and poet living in Manipur, Sharmila’s birthday is on March 14. The Asian Human Rights Commission has initiated an online signature campaign to support her 10 year hunger strike and to demand the government of India and the Manipur state government end impunity in the state. The campaign also urges the government to withdraw the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) from Manipur.

Irom Sharmila ChanuSharmila is on an indefinite fast since 4 November 2000, protesting against the violence committed by state and non-state actors in Manipur. Her protest also demands an immediate end to impunity in the state, for which the withdrawal of the martial law, the AFSPA, is a prerequisite. The government has not withdrawn the law; neither has Sharmila stopped her fast.

Within a few days into the fast, Sharmila’s health deteriorated. Fearing adverse political repercussion and failing to admit defeat, the government arrested Sharmila and detained her under section 309 of the penal code, a provision penalizing the attempt to commit suicide. The government of Manipur is now force-feeding her through a nasogastric tube. Sharmila has been in this state for the past 10 years, confined under police custody in her small room in Manipur.

As Sharmila’s protest gained publicity, several persons wanted to visit her and express their solidarity with the cause of ordinary Manipuri people that she represents. However, the government has denied her any visitors.

In the meantime, Manipur has become increasingly militarized. Each day innocent persons are killed by underground militant groups as well as state agents. Most of these incidents are not investigated or even registered as extrajudicial executions. In 2009, Manipur’s Director General of Police, Mr Joy Kumar Singh, openly stated in an interview that his officers had killed more than 260 persons in 11 months, insisting they were all ‘terrorists’.

There is no credible data available from Manipur that provides a reasonable estimate concerning the number of deaths and/or other forms of human rights violations. The state government, with overwhelming support from the central government, is relatively successful in silencing human rights activists in the state. The arrest and detention of Mr Jiten Yumnam is the latest of these cases. For further details please see AHRC-STM-010-2010.

Extrajudicial execution is not legalized in India, yet it happens every day in states like Manipur. National institutions like the National Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court of India have expressed concern about the increasing number of extrajudicial executions reported in the country, to no effect.

The AFSPA is one more addition to the overall impunity framework that has contributed to the deterioration of the rule of law in Manipur. A number of national bodies including the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee, the Second Administrative Reforms Commission and the Prime Minister’s Working Group on Confidence-Building Measures in Jammu and Kashmir have recommended that a law like AFSPA will only facilitate violence and not prevent it.

The ongoing armed conflict in Manipur has only benefited two categories of individuals. The underground militant groups use the conflict to create a climate of fear so that they can extract resources from citizens and receive support from foreign entities that encourage internal disturbances in India. It also benefits politicians like the Chief Minister of Manipur, who in the past two decades has become one of the richest persons in the state. He has reportedly used the conflict as a catalyst for his political and economic growth. Not too long ago the Chief Minister was a petty contractor who paid extortion money to militant groups.

Caught between the two evils are the ordinary people of Manipur, forsaken by state and central institutions.