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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 36, New Delhi, August 27, 2016

Irom Sharmila ends her Historic Hunger Strike for Human Security in Manipur

Sunday 28 August 2016

by Kadayam Subramanian

The young woman Irom Sharmila (30) went on an indefinite hunger strike on November 2, 2000 in protest against the killing of innocents by the paramilitary Assam Rifles (AR) under the protection of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), 1958. After nearly 16 years, Sharmila announced recently that she would be ending her historic hunger strike on August 9, 2016 in order to pursue her objectives through other peaceful means. In recent judgments, the Supreme Court of India has come out in support of human security in Manipur. This would strengthen the hands of Irom Sharmila and others in their struggle for justice in conflict-torn Manipur.

On November 2, 2000, a column of the Assam Rifles (AR), the ‘oldest paramilitary force’ in India, moving from the Imphal airport, resorted to indiscriminate firing near a bus stop at Malom killing ten innocent civilians. Irom Sharmila was at the bus stop but escaped unhurt.

The unprovoked firing by the men of the AR killing innocents led to the young Sharmila (30) going on an indefinite hunger strike demanding the removal from Manipur of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), 1958, a repressive special legislation, which had been in force in Manipur since 1958 ostensibly for counter-insurgency purposes.

Intrepid Sharmila refused to give up her hunger strike for nearly 16 years despite appeals from family, friends and supporters. She has been medically kept alive by the nasal drip. The AFSPA has not been repealed.

Sharmila’s indefinite hunger strike has not only been against the AFSPA but also in favour of the people’s right to live and, more recently, her own right to live and love.

The constitutionality and necessity of the AFSPA and its relationship to the historically unique paramilitary force, the Assam Rifles (AR), set up in 1835, has been debated. The AR continues to remain despite the creation of a multiplicity of other paramilitary forces in the subsequent period.

When the AFSPA was imposed on Manipur in 1958 for counterinsurgency functions, the AR was among the immediately available forces to implement the law. The distinguishing features of the AR are its military leadership and its command and control from New Delhi.

Manipur was a part of the then North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), whose possession by India, was contested by China. The region became a Union Territory of India in the mid-1960s. The budget and administrative control of the AR was transferred to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Government of India in New Dehi.

Under the Constitution of India, internal security is a State subject. The formation of several new States in the North-East in the early 1970s and the deployment of several new Central Para Military Forces (CPMFs) in the region tended to reduce the relevance of the AR, which developed an ‘identity crisis’. But it continues to exist and performs a largely negative role and enjoys immunity from prosecution under the provisions of the special law, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), 1958.

AFSPA in Manipur

Manipur has been a conflict-torn State ever since its controversial integration into India in 1949. Many insurgent groups operate in the State demanding autonomy and independence. The means adopted by the Indian state to restore stability in Manipur are regarded as having led to instability and insurgency. Most controversial has been the use of the special law, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), 1958.

The AFSPA was formulated by the British colonial regime in 1942 as an ‘emergency’ law. In 1958, it was adopted by independent India to deal with ‘disturbed’ conditions especially in North-East India. The 1958 Act was amended in 1972 and empowered ‘any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any officer of equivalent rank’ to use force even to the extent of causing death providing them immunity from prosecution. The AFSPA has been regarded asa ‘truly nasty and terrifying piece of legislation’.

When, in 1980, the Act was extended to the whole of Manipur, there were large protests and rallies by voluntary groups and other bodies including women’s groups. Several women were injured or killed during actions by security forces. The imposition of the Act had the effect of increasing the violent attacks by underground groups against the security forces. The AFSPA was described as a ‘national security tyranny’ since it violated the Indian Constitution as well as the international conventions and instruments to which India is a signatory. Significantly, the terminology employed in the Act conformed to the usage of the Army Act of 1950. The definition of the concept of ‘disturbed area’ was considered vague.

In 1987, the atrocities committed by the Assam Rifles while dealing with underground activities at Oinam were castigated by the Guwahati High Court which said that the security forces charged with maintaining law and order and ensuring peace had acted contrary to the law and had become entirely unaccountable.

The Malom massacre by the Assam Rifles on November 2, 2000, in which many innocents were killed, led to Irom Sharmila embarking on an indefinite hunger strike demanding the revocation of the AFSPA.

The brutal rape and killing by the AR personnel of Thangjam Manorama in July 2004 acting under the AFSPA, led to a group of women parading naked in protest against the AR in Imphal, the State Capital. The Government of India was forced to set up the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee, 2005. The five-member Committee, which had no woman, came out with a report castigating the AFSPA as a ‘symbol of oppression and an instrument of discrimi-nation and high-handedness’ and called for its repeal. The report was ignored.

Nari Rustomji, a senior civil servant, stated that attempts to restore stability in the region, mostly based on colonial precedents, had in fact aggravated instability. The imposition of heavy administrative control since independence had largely led to violence and armed insurgency, which was accepted as a normal pattern of life in the region.

As of 2008, in addition to the whole of Manipur (excluding the Imphal valley), several other parts of the North-East were declared ‘disturbed areas’ under the AFSPA. Some State Governors with military or police background and the officers who work under them, often acted against the interests of the State governments and even accused it of inaction and collusion with the insurgents. In effect, the State governments existed only under uneasy subjection to a hostile centralised controlling authority.

Despite the AFSPA, militant groups have flourished in Manipur and even grown in number. Officials argue that this justifies the law but others say that its continuance has led to the increase in the number of militant groups.

In November, 2009, a Manipur police commando was involved in the extrajudicial execution of a young woman named Rabina and a young man named Sanjit in the State Capital, Imphal. The police commando, when prosecuted, came out with a confession admitting that he had been responsible for the extrajudicial killing of over 100 people in the name of fighting insurgency.

Impunity of security forces, especially the AR, acting under the AFSPA, is the specific feature of conflict management in Manipur.

It is good news that the formidable woman activist Irom Sharmila is now free to lead her colleagues in civil society to fight for human security and peace in conflict-torn Manipur. Happily, the Supreme Court of India has recently come out with a judgment upholding the rule of law and human security in Manipur on the basis of a public interest litigation taken up by a voluntary agency. The Court has disapproved of extrajudicial killings by security forces such as the AR utilising the provisions of the AFSPA though they are performing a difficult but necessary duty.

The author was a Director General of police in North-East India and is the author of State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India, Routledge, 2016.