Irom Chanu Sharmila has always made puzzling decisions, whether it is going on a hunger strike and steadfastly sticking to it for 16 whole years, or suddenly > calling it off and deciding to contest elections. Most remarkable, however, is how she remained in solitary confinement all these years, foregoing the sense of taste, unquestionably a fundamental need which adds texture and meaning to life, and stayed sane. Sanity for her certainly does not mean what it means to others — conforming to practised norms and standards.
India, in general, and Manipur, in particular, were caught unawares by her latest decision, but now as emotions settle, there is widespread agreement that the Iron Lady’s decision may be the most practical way forward, both for her and for the campaign. It was perhaps the people who were being unfair — and not Ms. Sharmila with her decision — by expecting her to always be their superhuman icon. There is, however, a touch of tragic surrender too in this realisation that certain conditions of life in India’s peripheries, loathsome as they may be, are destiny.
An immovable law The > Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA , is one such example. Nothing, it seems, can move the Central government to have this draconian Act repealed or moderated — not Ms. Sharmila’s hunger strike, not the periodic eruptions of violent street protests against it in Imphal or Srinagar, not even the recommendations of three high-powered panels set up by the Central government. These include the 2005 recommendations of the > Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission set up to “humanise the AFSPA”, as former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said; the 2005 Veerappa Moily-led second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC); and the > 2013 Justice J.S. Verma Committee set up in the wake of the December 16, 2012, Delhi rape case, looking into reforms to speed up as well as ensure conviction in rape cases.
While the Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission and the ARC had no doubt that the AFSPA had to go and that its provisions be incorporated into a civil Act, the Justice Verma report mentioned the Act as a part of a section on offences against women in conflict areas. “Sexual violence against women by members of the armed forces or uniformed personnel must be brought under the purview of ordinary criminal law,” the report said, adding that “there is an imminent need to review the continuance of AFSPA and AFSPA-like legal protocols in internal conflict areas as soon as possible.” This resonates with the ruling by the Supreme Court in July that the Army and police are not free to use excess force even under the AFSPA. However, none of these have made any real difference to the status of the AFSPA.
There is obviously a very strong lobby, not just of the military but also a prominent section of the Indian intelligentsia, which believes that the country cannot hold itself together without the use of its military. This is indeed a sad reflection on a country which calls itself a republic. What does it say about India that it does not trust, even after nearly seven decades of independence, its people or its police? If in a republic the military is an instrument of war, can it wage war on its own people?
It is true that there are many violent insurrections in India which must be met militarily, at least in the short run. But if the situation has not subsided even after so many years, isn’t there something seriously wrong with the nation itself?
Keeping internal order is the job of the police. And if the firepower of the police is felt to be inadequate sometimes, it is understandable that the military has to be called in its place. However, should not the military in such situations be seen as doing policing duty and therefore be put under the provisions of civil laws for as long as it performs these duties? If India thinks this is war, it should in all fairness allow international laws of war, such as the Geneva Conventions and Hague Conventions, to be invoked, allowing international bodies such as the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to intervene and moderate. And if it doesn’t think so, then what is wrong in asking the military to be governed by civil laws while on civil policing duties? In the mistrust of its own people and in the military aggression on its own people sanctioned by the AFSPA, India has inherited the DNA of the imperialist administration. Should not this vestige of injustice from the past be purged?
Need for a martyr This is the campaign that Ms. Sharmila has been advocating. The possible loss of focus of this campaign because of her changed stance now is what has given cause for anxiety for others in the campaign. Ms. Sharmila herself sounded exasperated last week when she spoke to the media about what she described as lack of support from the public. Here at least, in her longing for a positive outcome, she may have read too much into the public mind. The deluge of support messages and stunned responses to her decision is evidence of this. What the public could not do was emulate her. Nobody can.
The AFSPA campaign depended too much on Ms. Sharmila. This jolt should serve as a wake-up call for everyone in the campaign; they should realise how the cause must always remain greater than the leader, any leader. They must admit that there were many amongst them who were looking for a martyr in Ms. Sharmila, and are therefore now disappointed. This hunger for martyrs is a sign of Manipur’s weakness, where the cowardly try to shine in the reflected halo of those who have dared to court death. Courting death is nothing to be proud of, so there is nothing to be sad about Irom Sharmila abandoning her dance with death by starvation.
Pradip Phanjoubam is editor of Imphal Free Press and author of The Northeast Question: Conflicts and Frontiers.