A sbcltr report on everything you need to know as her sixteen-year-old hunger strike comes to an end and the Iron Lady of Manipur gears for another battle—the 2017 assembly polls.
“I haven’t got anything from it. I am ending my fast today. I want to try a different agitation now. I will contest against the chief minister of Manipur in the upcoming state elections,” said Irom Sharmila at a hearing at a local court where she signed a bail bond of Rs. 10,000 today.
Called the Iron Lady of Manipur, the activist has been on a hunger strike since November 4, 2000 demanding the repeal of AFSPA in her home-state. There are rumours that political parties have sent her feelers, but she says she will contest the 2017 assembly elections from Khurai Assembly constituency as an independent candidate.
Abhirr VP, senior campaigner with Amnesty International India stated in a media release that “Irom Sharmila’s hunger strike over the last 16 years has been a testament to her passion for human rights, and her belief that a draconian law like the AFSPA has no place in any society. The government arrested her, confined her to a hospital room and force fed her for 16 years, seemingly to break her will. There was zero dialogue. A peaceful protest was criminalized.” The release also stated that activist’s decision to break her hunger strike gives India another chance to “start a dialogue and recongnise how the AFSPA had alienated Manipur for over 35 years.”
A Sixteen Year Battle
Sharmila began her protest after reports emerged that 10 civilians had been killed by security forces. That same year she was arrested by the Manipur government for attempting suicide. She later rubbished the charges, stating that she wanted to use fasting as a weapon to repeal AFSPA. The prosecution eventually failed to prove that she was trying to kill herself and the Chief Magistrate ordered for her release in February 2016. As she continued her fast, she was re-arrested on the same charges.
In her sixteen year old battle, the human rights activist has often sought the support of her peers, but has failed to incite the kind of ground response that would bring definite change. Even today, as she made her final court appearance, the absence of supporters was there for all to see. Save for some reporters and curious onlookers, there has been little consistent involvement with her personally on an every day level. A fact that she is well aware of, “many view me as strange person” she said, before stating that she would like to live up to her name of “Iron Lady of Manipur.”
Sharmila’s brother, I Shinghajit wrote an open letter appealing her to continue her fast, going as far as to state that she was being “influenced by external factors” to end her fast. Her mother Sakhi, refused to meet her.
Despite her family’s displeasure, at 16:15 today, Irom Sharmila tasted honey for the first time in sixteen years and declared her fast ended. Ever since her protest, she has become the center to all anti-AFSPA struggles, perhaps these are the reasons for her family’s displeasure. But for now, Sharmila is sure of her way forward.
AFSPA and The North East
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act grant special powers to the Indian Armed Forces in what each act terms “disturbed areas”. The act provides special powers to handle insurgents in the North East as well as Jammu and Kashmir. The AFSPA empowers the representative of the Central government, the governor to subsume the powers of the State government to declare “undefined” disturbed areas. It also empowers the non-commissioned officers of the armed forces to arrest without warrant, to destroy any structure that may be hiding absconders without any verification, to conduct search and seizure without warrant and to shoot even to the causing of death. No legal proceeding against abuse of such arbitrary powers can be initiated without the prior permission of the central government.
Assam and Manipur have been under AFSPA since 1958. It is to be noted that when the government first introduced the act, it accepted it as an emergency measure that was to be in operation for one year only.
58 years later, it is still in action.
Although last month, the Supreme Court stated that indefinite deployment of armed forces in the name of restoring normalcy under AFSPA “would mock at our democratic process”, apart from symbolising a failure of the civil administration and the armed forces.” The court also said that “ordinarily our armed forces should not be used against our countrymen and women” and that “every person carrying a weapon in a disturbed area cannot be labelled a militant or terrorist or insurgent” and be killed without any inquiry.
The court also ruled that over 1,500 cases of alleged fake encounters in Manipur, over the last 20 years, “must be investigated”. Since the late 1970s, according to the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association (EEVFAM), the petitioner in the current Supreme Court case, there have been 1,528 fake encounters in Manipur. AFSPA is often the reason cited by Human rights activists for the killings, saying that the law gives blanket protection to the Army and the Manipuri commandos. Human rights activists also allege that the unrecorded number of people disappearing is much higher than the official figures.