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Updated: September 23, 2009 18:13 IST

Ordinary woman, extraordinary will

M. S. PRABHAKARA
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On November 2, 2000, ten persons, all civilians, were killed when personnel of 8 Assam Rifles indiscriminately opened fire on them as they were at a roadside bus shelter at Malom, a village near Imphal airport.

The ‘provocation’ for this attack was that earlier in the day, a patrol party of AR was the target of a bomb set off by some unidentified insurgents. With several insurgent groups active in the State, any one of them could have set off the bomb. None of the AR personnel was killed or injured in the attack; nor indeed anyone else. And yet, in a gratuitous retaliatory act the AR personnel vented their rage on innocent civilians. This pattern of gratuitous violence and counter-violence is well-established in Manipur, indeed in other insurgency-prone areas of the region too. In one of the most notorious incidents of this kind, in March 1984, suspected People’s Liberation Army insurgents fired upon two CRPF personnel as they were watching a volleyball match at the Heirangoithong grounds in Imphal, killing one and snatching their weapons. In instant retaliation, CRPF personnel at the main camp atop a hillock overlooking the volleyball grounds fired into the crowd of several thousand people killing 13 persons and injuring over 30. An inquiry commission found that the CRPF men had fired on the unarmed crowd “in order to avenge the death of their colleague,” and held the platoon commander guilty of failing to control his men.

Dreadful legislation

And yet, nothing has happened to those held responsible by such commissions of inquiry because of a fearsome legislation called Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act, 1958, as amended in 1972. It provides immunity against prosecution to armed forces personnel engaged in anti-insurgency operations in areas declared ‘disturbed’, even if they have killed some people — all in the course of duty. Heirangoithong, like Patsoi near Imphal in April 1980 and Oinam in Senapati district in July 1987, has become a byword for such a pattern of violence and counter-violence. Malom 2000 was therefore the rule, not the exception. And yet Malom is unique because Irom Sharmila, a 28 year old human rights activist who was so troubled by the killings that three days after the incident, embarked on a fast that continues to this day. She is now 37. Over these nine years, she has been arrested on charges of attempt to commit suicide, detained in hospitals and prisons in Imphal and Delhi, force-fed by a nasal tube. Leaders from the Chief Minister downwards have pleaded with her, in vain, to give up her fast. Despite the tremendous physical and psychological damage she has suffered because of her prolonged fasting, and the consequent forced feeding by the nasal route, she remains steadfast, firm in the vow she made to herself when she began her fast: “I will not eat until the AFSPA is withdrawn from Manipur.”

Commitment

The book under review tells the moving story of how this very ordinary woman from a humble rural background has become an icon for human rights activists everywhere. And yet, Sharmila’s intervention was neither simple-minded nor reflexive; it was informed by her profound commitment to human rights. The book situates Sharmila in the context of her training as a human rights activist, and also as part of a long tradition of militant interventions by Manipuri women at crucial periods in Manipur’s history. It was on September 5 the book was released in Delhi by Agatha Sangma, a Union Minister of State who is sympathetic to Irom Sharmila and her cause. Just a day earlier, the AR authorities in Manipur were vigorously defending the AFPSA and insisting that the law was absolutely essential for controlling insurgency. This sequence reflects the contradictions that underline the unwillingness of the state to recognise that ‘laws’ like the AFPSA, far from helping to control insurgency, have only further brutalised the security forces as well as the insurgents, apart from enabling the emergence of other insurgencies. Violence, as always, feeds on violence.

BURNING BRIGHT — Irom Sharmila and the Struggle for Peace in Manipur: Deepti Priya Mehrotra; Penguin Books, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 275.

Keywords: ManipurArmed forcesSharmila

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