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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 41, October 2, 2010

The Conspiracy of Silence

Wednesday 6 October 2010, by Nirmalya Biswas

[(Irom Sharmila Chanu will be completing ten years of her continuous fast, an exceptionally courageous feat in our country and the world, on November 4, 2010, that is, precisely a month from now. We are thus publishing the following article on Gandhi Jayanti as Sharmila is silently upholding the legacy of the Mahatma in the true Gandhian spirit shunning the glare of limelight.)]


I was then young in the early 1970s when I first heard the song “Blowin’ in the Wind” of Bob Dylan. The lyric still reverberates in my heart.

Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist

Before they’re allowed to be free?

Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head,

Pretending he just doesn’t see?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,

The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

The above lines are more expressive to me now than ever before when I introspect into the struggle of the brave hearts in Manipur who stand for their freedom and dignity. I wonder if anyone else in my family, my friends and students feel the way I do.

For people who are fortunate to reside in less disturbed regions in India, it is hard to conceive the extent of commotion, agitation and violence the people of Manipur have to put up with. Over the last ten years one woman has devoted herself to a non-violent struggle against the vile wickedness of the Army and the violent act of insurgency that have caused havoc to her homeland, Manipur. She is Irom Sharmila Chanu, the world’s longest-running hunger striker, and yet interestingly not many Indians outside her home State have any knowledge about her and the cause for which she is fasting. Why do people all over India not come across the struggle of the people of Manipur on the national news network? Denying recognition to Sharmila’s recluse extraordinary and heroic struggle is intentional. It is a part of the silence about the political developments in the North-East. Once the struggle of the people of Manipur is brought to limelight, one is shocked to believe how mercilessly the Government of India (GoI) can tyrannise its own people! There is no doubt that if the same brutal atrocities by the security forces in Manipur would have been perpetrated anywhere in ‘mainland India’ it would have become a cause of national outcry. It is highly derogatory for a democratic state to look the other way feigning as if all is well when violence ravages in one’s homeland.


ONE of the “Seven Sisters” that are India’s North-Eastern States, Manipur, a small hilly land on the Indo-Myanmar border, was an independent kingdom before being incorporated into the British Indian Empire in 1891. The first Kuki armed resistance against the colonial power broke out in 1917. In 1939, women revolted against the colonial power. Manipur recovered independence from British rule in August 1947. A constitutional monarchy was established under the Manipur State Constitution Act, 1947. People of Manipur exercised universal adult franchise by secret ballot in 1948. But when Manipur was annexed by India in 1949, the elected Legislative Assembly was dissolved. Manipur became a Union Territory of India in 1963 and an Indian State in 1972. Despite becoming a full-fledged State life hardly improved for the people of Manipur.

With an approximate population of three million, various ethnic groups, namely, the Meities, Pangals, Nagas and Kukis, coexist in Manipur. The people are ethnically and culturally distinct from the people of mainland India. About thirty different languages and dialects have been identified there. The forced merger with India in 1949, poverty and massive unemployment gave rise to insurgency. Since the annexation of Manipur the State witnessed intermittent upsurges attributed to extremist movements.

Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA)

THE GoI responded with a massive deployment of troops in Manipur under the draconian legislation titled Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 (AFSPA). It is an irony that the AFSPA in independent India inherited the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance, 1942 promulgated by Lord Linlithgow, the then British Viceroy and Governor-General, to suppress the ‘Quit India’ movement of 1942. In 1958 when the AFSPA was introduced in Parliament it was assured by the Union Home Minister that the Act would be operative in parts of Manipur declared ‘disturbed areas’ under the Act for a mere six months. Fiftytwo years since then the Act is still in force extensively in the North-Eastern States and in Jammu and Kashmir. The whole of Manipur was declared ‘disturbed area’ under the Act in 1980. About three million people have been living in North-East in a pseudo-democratic set-up under de facto military rule.

The AFSPA empowers the armed forces to shoot to kill (Section 4, a), arrest (Section 4, c) and search (Section 4, d) without a warrant on mere suspicion of disturbing public order. What constitutes ‘disturbing public order’ is nowhere defined in the Act. Moreover such authoritative powers, that previously rested with the rank of a Captain or above, were left in the hands of lower ranks under the Act. Section 5 of the AFSPA transgresses Article 22 of the Constitution of India by allowing the armed forces to detain persons arrested under the Act for an unlimited period without judicial review. Section 6 violates Article 32 of the Constitution by refusing to carry legal proceedings against the Army personnel without the prior ratification of the Central Government. The AFSPA denies equality before law ensured by Article 14 of the Constitution and similar provision in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which India has been a party since 1979. The Act is so designed as to contravene every norm of a civilised society. Wherever the AFSPA is in force whimsical detention, mysterious disappearances, despotic executions, torture and rape are routinely reported. The security forces are used to unleash firing indiscriminately during counter-insurgency operations killing innocent civilians. No one in the security forces has ever been taken to task for obvious violations of human rights.

Why has the AFSPA been in force for more than half-a-century in the region? Why is the Indian Army up in arms against its own countrymen in the region? Why is equality in the eyes of law denied to them? Why are the general laws in the country like the Indian Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code etc. not sufficient to ensure law and order in the region? Does it not stir up a feeling of estrangement from mainland India in their minds? These questions remain unanswered.

Malcom Massacre

ON November 1, 2000, in Malcom, a town located fifteen kilometres away from Imphal, the State capital of Manipur, ten innocent people waiting at a bus stop were gunned down by the Assam Rifles in retaliation to an insurgency attack. The gruesome photos of the dead bodies appeared in the local tabloids. There was absolutely nothing to suggest that any of the ten people was in any way linked to the insurgents. What was more shocking was that it was not the maiden incident of its kind, the streets of Manipur had witnessed many similar incidents of torture and killing of ordinary citizens. The people of Manipur demanded a magisterial inquiry into the incident. The security forces armed with the AFSPA, however, dismissed the demand of any such inquiry.

Experiments with Truth

THIS convinced Sharmila, then only twentyeight, that she should take a decision and act. On the evening of November 4, 2000, after taking blessings from her mother, she started her hunger strike as a mark of silent protest against state oppression. Nothing short of repealing of the AFSPA is her demand. Although Section 309 is a bailable offence, Sharmila refused to sign the bail-bonds, maintaining that she did not commit any offence since she had no plan to commit suicide. She felt that she had no other option but fasting because there was no other means to stop the violence of the armed forces against innocent people. She had never been produced before the court for trial. As the offence under Section 309 is punishable by a term of maximum one year only, she had been regularly released on completion of such term, only to be re-arrested immediately thereafter. The government continues to keep her under arrest and forcibly nose-feeds her.

Ten years into her protest Sharmila’s health has altogether been ruined. The World Medical Association in its Malta Declaration on Hunger Strikers resolved: “A hunger strike is not equivalent to suicide. Individuals who embark on hunger strikes aim to achieve goals important to them but generally hope and intend to survive.” Amnesty International also urged the GoI to release Irom Sharmila and withdraw the ongoing criminal proceedings against her under Section 309, IPC.

Irom Sharmila Chanu, the symbol of peace, upholds the 21st century legacy of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence. Instead of lifting up arms, she stands firm adhering to the principles of solidarity, the power of the powerless. She is called the ‘Iron Lady of Manipur’, a living legend of the people’s undying spirit echoing the voice of those who have been fighting over the years against the draconian AFSPA. Her movement has withstood the test of time. Eating daily meals is so fundamental to the survival of human beings that refusal to do so cause a severe jolt to the entire physiological system. She is convinced that self-sacrifice is indispensable to bring about genuine social change.

In non-violence she finds the supremacy of moral force over armed force. To her, non-violence is very much an active spirit that works in the brave heart. It should never be misconstrued as something passive, powerless and meant for the weak. Sharmila’s struggle is a lone one, yet it follows the tradition of past and contemporary women’s movement in Manipur. She enjoys the support of many.

As a part of his life-long ‘experiments with truth’ Gandhiji observed fasting on a number of occasions trying to control his emotions rather than be controlled by them. Through fasting without break over the decade Sharmila is also contributing in a very special way. For her, fasting has a beneficial impact upon one’s own self. It brings about a change of attitude and behaviour of one’s opponent and helps to win over the oppressor.

Sacrifice of the Family

BORN on March 14, 1972, Irom Sharmila Chanu was the youngest of five brothers and four sisters. Her family is Meitei, the majority ethnic community of Manipur. The ancestral home is in Kongpal Kongkham Leikai, a village on the outskirts of Imphal. She grew up in a family which cultivated paddy. Women also wove cloth and grew vegetables. When she was born, her mother had been unable to breast-feed her. So her brothers took her to other local women who would act as wet nurses. The deal was that the brothers did the women’s chores while they fed their baby sister.

When Sharmila was school-going, her father Nanda Singh, a government servant passed away. Strong bonding within the community has infused her with the basic aspiration for common good, rather than satisfying self-interest. After completing school, Sharmila joined a course of journalism, began writing articles and poetry, worked with social organisations and attended a course in nature cure and yoga. Sharmila volunteered her services as an intern in a workshop which brought her close to many victims of violence. She was deeply concerned about the impact of the incessant violence on the lives of women. The shock acted as an impetus for her subsequent decision to go on indefinite fast since November 2000.

Sharmila’s brother lost a government job, because he had resolved to support her movement. Her family lived through acute financial hardship. But none of the sacrifices can match what Irom Sakhi, her seventyfive-year-old mother has endured all these ten years. She had never met her daughter since she undertook her fast least her emotional outburst on seeing her daughter may weaken the latter’s resolve. Another woman in the family who influenced Sharmila’s conscience was her paternal grandmother, Irom Tonsija Devi (1903-2008), who joined the Women’s War of 1939, a major anti-colonial struggle against British rule.

Public Support

IMMEDIATELY after her routine release Irom Sharmila Chanu escaped to New Delhi and headed for Rajghat to pay tribute to the memorial of her idol, Mahatma Gandhi, on October 2, 2006. Later that evening, she proceeded to Jantar Mantar for a protest demonstration. Students and human rights activists rallied around her. She was arrested in the midnight of October 6, 2006 and admitted to the All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) by the Delhi Police. She wrote fervently to the Prime Minister, the President and the Home Minister during that time. She got no reply from any of them.

Thousands of men, women and children marching through the streets of Imphal, raised the slogan—“Go Back Indian Army, Repeal AFPSA”. The protestors were tear-gassed, baton-charged, mercilessly caned and forced to roll on the road by the security forces who would never hesitate at the slightest pretence to open fire indiscriminately with a vengeance.

Human rights activists in India and abroad, namely, the National Alliance of People’s Movements, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Amnesty International, urged the GoI to repeal the Act. The government, however, refused to change its rigid stand.

Women as the Vanguards

MANIPUR has a rich heritage of people’s struggles, with women acting as vanguards. A woman plays the key role in the family, earns a living, fights for justice. However, she has been oppressed by patriarchal system of society. Over the years the sex ratio has been declining, and trafficking, rape, dowry and related crimes against women rising. Yet, working-class women have formed the backbone of many movements in Manipur. Irom Sharmila’s struggle has emerged out of the moral strength of women’s resistance against the ongoing oppression.

In the 1970s women organised themselves as a force against the government’s liberalised policy of licensing liquor trading. They organised ‘Nisha Bandh’ or anti-alcoholism groups. They carried torches or lanterns while patrolling at night, caught drunkards and imposed fines. They raided liquor vendors and set fire to their stock. From 1980 onwards, these women carrying flaming torches called Meira Paibis came to the forefront of the movements against military excesses. They kept vigil at night to defend their communities from harassment during search operations by the security forces. Over the years, virtually each community in Manipur formed a powerful dedicated women’s front.

Ima’s Protest

WHERE does the feeling of impunity come from, if not from the AFSPA? One can recall the infamous case of Thangjam Manorama, a young woman. On a night of July 2004, the Assam Rifles, one the Indian paramilitary forces, arrested Manorama from her house. Her dead body was found with marks of scratch, deep injury of sharp blade, and deadly bullet wounds on her back. Meira Paibis staged an unprecedented protest against this barbaric act. Often in the past women have been sexually abused by the so-called protectors of law. It was a do-or-die situation for the Manipuri women. Their humiliation was beyond endurance. Twelve elderly women disrobed in public the outside the Kangla Fort where the regiments camped. The protestors carried a long white banner bearing the slogan – INDIAN ARMY, RAPE US—and shouted ‘Rape Us, Kill Us, Take Our Flesh’. Elderly women are addressed as ‘Ima’, which literally means mother, and are held in high respect in Manipur. Today Manipur is alive only because of its Imas. The nude protest of these elderly women activists electrified the masses and within no time the protests against the Army reached new heights. In the wake of intense mass agitation the Government of Manipur ordered a Commission of Inquiry headed by a retired district sessions judge just to give an eye-wash. The authority of the Commission was challenged in the Gauhati High Court by the Assam Rifles under Section 6 of the AFSPA which contains “No prosecution, suit or other legal proceeding shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the central government against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of powers conferred by this Act.” In June 2005 the court declared its verdict in conformity with the provisions of the AFSPA and dismissed the Commission.

Jeevan Reddy Commssion

IN 2004, following the death of Manorama Devi and the indefinite fast undertaken by Irom Sharmila Chanu, the Central Government accordingly set up a five-member Committee under the Chairmanship of Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy, a former judge of the Supreme Court, to review the provisions of the AFSPA. The Reddy Committee submitted its report in June 2005 asserting that “the Act, for whatever reason, has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and instrument of discrimination and high handedness ………It is highly desirable and advisable to repeal the Act altogether.” A careful perusal of the report, of course, reveals that despite its recommendation for repealing the AFSPA the Committee simultaneously suggested incorporation of the same in the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. The govern-ment, however, remained unmoved.


MORE than five decades since the AFSPA was promulgated to combat the Naga movement in 1958, violence and insurgencies have grown manifold in Manipur. Many innocent young men, who had no ties with the rebels, were also apprehended by the authority and tortured. The Act has almost ruined the lives of successive generations in Manipur by censuring their free thinking and restricting their free movement.

In late November 2006, Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian activist and Nobel Laureate, met Sharmila in the AIIMS to proclaim the full support for the latter’s indomitable struggle against the AFSPA. She further assured that she would take up the issue at the United Nations Human Rights Council. Ms Ebadi emphatically warned while speaking to the mediapersons then: “If Sharmila dies, Parliament is directly responsible. If she dies, courts and judiciary are responsible, the military is responsible…… The Prime Minister and the President are responsible for doing nothing ….. If she dies, each one of you journalists is responsible because you did not do your duty…..”

The people of Manipur have done whatever is humanly conceivable to fight against the AFSPA over the years—mass conventions, meetings, demonstrations, submitting memoranda to the Governor, petitioning the Supreme Court and filing complaints to the United Nations, self-immolation by a student leader, continuous relay hunger strike and nude protest by mothers. Adhering to the path of peace may not be easy, but the people of Manipur are desperately in need of it so that their future generations belonging to all races and faiths can live together in peace and equality rather than hurling cannon balls at each other, on the lines of what Dylan wrote and sang in his famous lyrics:

Yes, ’n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly

Before they’re forever banned?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,

The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

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