National Situation

Speech in support of Irom Sharmila's epic Struggle

(This speech was delivered by the Radical Socialist representative at the meeting in solidarity with Irom Sharmila organised by the Nari Nirjatan Pratirodh Mancha on 7 December 2009 at Hazra Park, Calcutta)


Sushovan Dhar

Irom Sharmila Chanu civil rights activist, political activist, journalist and poet from Manipur, is on a hunger-strike since November 4, 2000, demanding the Government of India to withdraw the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, also otherwise known as AFSPA; from Manipur and other areas of India’s north east. This unparallel political protest started after the Assam Rifles gunned down ten innocent people who were waiting for their buses at a bus stand in Malom, Manipur on November 1, 2000. The incident, which is also known as the Malom Massacre, was a sequel to endless killings by the Indian armed forces in Manipur and also in many other parts of the North-East.
On November 4, Sharmila launched a political fast against the widespread repression unleashed against the people of Manipur by the Indian state. She had initially started the hunger-strike demanding the repeal of this draconian act in Manipur and has later extended the scope of her demand to all regions of India's north east where AFSPA has been imposed.
Three days after she started the hunger-strike, on 6 November 2000, she was arrested by the police and charged with “attempt to commit suicide”, which is illegitimate under section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. She was later transferred to judicial custody. With her determination not to take food nor water, her health deteriorated tremendously and the police forcibly used nasogastric intubation in order to keep her alive while under arrest. Since then Irom Sharmila has been under a ritual of release and arrest every year because under IPC section 309, a person who "attempt to commit suicide" is punishable ““with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year [or with fine, or with both]".
Sharmila’s hunger strike has inspired a lot of protests from Manipur, North-East and other parts of India against the AFSPA and the military highhandedness. Irom Sharmila’s legendary struggle for human rights has become an important symbol of the resistance of the Manipuri people who are fighting against their present day suffering at the hands of the Indian State. This has also meant extreme militarisation of the region and the promulgations of many a black law like AFSPA at the cost of the life and liberty of the people of this region.
It is stunning to see the silence of the mainstream Indian media about these issues of atrocities by the Indian state. Perhaps, they don’t find objects of ‘sensation’ in the pain and the distress of the people of Manipur as well as of North-East in the hands of Indian military and other security forces. It is in stark contrast to the coverage received by “terrorist acts”, in the mainstream media.  Possibly another consideration could be the questions of ‘national security’ and ‘sovereignty’, both of which are covert & user-friendly terms for Indian expansionism of which the Indian media is a powerful advocate and a vociferous proponent. The conspiracy of silence which had surrounded Iron Sharmila's struggle is not an exception. It is part of a general silence which surrounds developments in North-East which for all practical purposes exists beyond the ‘borders of our consciousnesses’.
The parliament of the “world's largest democracy” decided to enact the most draconian law, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in 1958. Ever since, it has been an unending story of massacres, rapes, torture and extra-judicial killings resorted to by the Indian Armed Forces against the people of the North-East in the name of counter-insurgency operations. This act is a naked imitation of the inhuman Armed Forces Special Ordinance in 1942 to crush the Indian freedom movement by the British imperialists. It is indeed a shame that the constitution of India, the “largest democracy” has been violated by AFSPA. The military budget has been increased every year and the government is keen to keep military-political apparatus over civilian rule in North-East denying all basic human rights. It is indeed a shameful truth for all of us calling ourselves citizens of the world’s largest democracy.
Section 4 of the AFSPA says “Special powers of the armed forces – any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank in the armed forces may, in a disturbed area – (a) If he is of opinion that it is necessary so to do for the maintenance of public order, after giving such due warning as he may consider necessary fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law or order for the time being in force in the disturbed area prohibiting the assembly of five or more persons or the carrying of weapons or of things capable of being used as weapons or of firearms, ammunition or explosive substances.” This section can be termed as a “statutory obscenity”. It occurs in no statute anywhere in any democracy and has been aptly called a “license to kill”. Not only does it not enjoin restraint explicitly, but says that the powers may be used “even to the causing of death”. It ignores the officer’s duty to respect the life of the citizen, omits this vital injunction and contains instead a carte blanche unheard of in any other statute in any other democracy – “even to the causing of death”.
AFSPA is such a dreadful creation that it makes an ordinary sepoy or a havildar of CRPF an all powerful demon. All rights, liberties, and constitutional safeguards given to all the citizens of India without any discrimination on the basis of caste, race, and place of birth, language and religion are severely violated and negated by the sections given in the AFSA, 1958. The existence of this law on the statue books has thus meant disallowing the people the right to protest, the right to legal redress or right of any lawful democratic activity. Ordinary people, who want to live a life of peace and tranquility, can thus easily be framed as ‘terrorists’ and ‘suspects’ linking them to banned organisations. Democratic and human rights activists who merely document the excesses by the Army or demand an end to army rule have also been picked up, tortured and killed. The continuation of this law in the last 51 years has effectively meant that under a formal democratic set up 39 million people residing in north east are forced to live under an undeclared emergency or a military rule to all intents and purposes.
It is therefore, not surprising that the people of Manipur summarily rejected the proposals by Justice Jeevan Reddy committee - appointed by the Prime Minister in 2004 in the aftermath of the militant protests in Manipur – as they feel that the Jeevan Reddy panel merely wanted the prerogatives of the armed forces transferred across-the-board onto another law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. If this holds true, then we will have a situation where the dreaded black law AFPSA which is basically applicable to North East and Jammu-Kashmir may be scrapped forthwith while the revised ULP act 1967 which incorporates all the necessary provisions of AFPSA would come into force. It would mean the whole of India may come under the ambit of a substitute of AFPSA.
I would like to conclude in support of the valiant struggle by the people of Manipur and North-East epitomized by none other than Irom Sharmila. Her grit and determination makes our struggle stronger and the demand to repeal Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958. In expressing our solidarity with her, we demand the immediate repeal of the AFSPA without its reintroduction under any other name, the removal of the military from playing a governing role in the area and the prosecution of army personnel for all cases of murder, rape, sexual violence and torture, and the punishment of all the guilty.
Long live the struggle of the people of Manipur!