The unique nature of her protest has brought into sharp focus the limitations of an all-or-nothing agenda.

What can one say of a woman who has steadfastly refused to eat for 10 years, is under arrest (though not tried) on charges of attempt to commit suicide, and has been kept alive by forced nasal feeding by the state? On November 4, 2010, Irom Chanu Sharmila completes 10 years of her self-imposed ordeal, with no sign when, or even whether, it will ever end. The ordeal began on that day, in 2000, three days after personnel of the 8 Assam Rifles (AR) opened indiscriminate fire on a group of villagers waiting at a roadside bus shelter at Malom village, near Imphal airport, and killed 10, one of them a pregnant woman.

Earlier in the day, an AR patrol party had been attacked by a bomb set off by remote control by “insurgents”. That they were not identified is no surprise, given the very nature of insurgency and criminality in the state and, indeed, in the region. No security personnel were injured. In retaliation, a part of never-ending anti-insurgency operations, apart from the 10 who were killed, 34 people, in no way connected with the bomb attack, were beaten up.

The incident was widely reported by the media in Imphal and a joint action committee formed. The government too ordered a magisterial inquiry, with a mandate that it should submit a report in three weeks. If found unsatisfactory, the government promised a judicial inquiry. It also announced ex-gratia payment. Words, words, words.

Considering the situation that has been prevalent in Manipur for years, the incident, not the first of its kind and which has been followed by other horrible outrages, could well have been forgotten. Everyone, both government and human rights activists, knows that protests are of no avail, that the perpetrators of atrocities and violence will never be brought to book. Whatever internal checks and balances exist within the security forces, its personnel are provided blanket protection and immunity for their actions, under the provisions of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA).

Origins of AFSPA

The origins of this fearsome legislation go back to the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance, 1942, promulgated by the colonial government during the Second World War in the context of the freedom struggle led primarily by the Indian National Congress. Over the years, it has undergone minor verbal changes, retaining the substance and even the language of the original ordinance. While the AFSPA (1958, 1972) covers Assam and Manipur, by a simple notification, its provisions can be extended to the rest of the region, including Nagaland where it was once operative, till the ceasefire and the talks with both factions of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). Assam has its own state legislation (Assam Disturbed Areas Act, 1955) which is a clone of, more accurately the model for, since it pre-dates AFSPA, the central legislation, with the state police having the same powers and enjoying the same immunity as the armed forces under the AFSPA. The Act was extended to Jammu and Kashmir with the passing of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (Jammu and Kashmir), 1990. (See, “Burdens of the Past”, and “The Laws and the Language”, Frontline, August 28-September 10, 2004).

However, unknown to either the government or, perhaps, even to the Joint Action Committee, a 28-year-old woman, who hailed from an ordinary rural background and with some experience of human rights activism, felt that enough was enough. Like virtually everyone in Manipur, she knew that the crux of the problem lay in the AFSPA.

Irom Sharmila decided to go on an indefinite fast three days after the incident at Malom, with the objective of securing the withdrawal of AFSPA Act from the state and, in course of time, from the statute books.

The rest is history, but a history with no seeming end to the ordeal of the young woman and, more so, to the people of Manipur and the region, and in the last 20 years to Jammu and Kashmir. Its lessons are ambiguous. For, 10 years into the hunger strike, what has the protest achieved?

Irom Sharmila was nearly four years into her indefinite fast when Thangjam Manorama, a young Manipuri woman, was taken away from her home at night by security forces on suspicion of being an insurgent, then raped, tortured and killed. This provoked more protests, with elderly women disrobing in public before Kangla in the heart of Imphal. For Manipur, and especially the Valley, which was occupied by security forces, it is a site of profound historical, political and spiritual significance. They dared the security forces to kill them. Yes, Kangla was returned to civilian control; but AFSPA remains.

It was Agatha Sangma, Union Minister of State, Ministry of Rural Development and from the North-East region, and one who sympathised with the cause Sharmila was espousing, who released a book on Irom Sharmila in New Delhi in September last year. After the speeches and photographs that appeared in the media the following day, the issue sank without a trace, at least in Delhi.

An image and symbol

Irom Sharmila's achievement is that she has become an image and a symbol of the pain and tragic memories not merely of her people but of democrats everywhere. But this symbol is now imprisoned by the very power of what it symbolises, and the forces she has released.

The unique nature of her protest has also brought into sharp focus the limitations of an all-or-nothing agenda. While she remains steadfast in the resolve she made 10 years ago (“I will not eat until the AFSPA is withdrawn from Manipur”), neither she nor her supporters have an answer to a state and a system in Imphal and Delhi that remain unrelenting and indifferent. Even in Imphal, she has become a fixture, a fact of life and an object of curiosity even if she symbolises the pain and suffering of living under the AFSPA. Above all, the objective she has set forth to attain remains elusive.

At a personal level, 10 years of the most unnatural kind of life — constant public exposure, moving from prison to hospital and court and, above all, the forced nasal feeding — has, according to medical opinion, done irreparable damage to her organs. Even if some kind of a compromise were to be reached, like the farcical alternative of ‘AFSPA with a human face' as an acceptable face-saver, she will never be able to lead a normal life.

The AFSPA has taken an immense human toll. Under its umbrella, many people have literally got away with murder. However, it has also taken its toll on a vibrant young woman, without physically killing her.

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