By Bikram Bora:
Recently, I came across a post somewhere on the internet denoting Irom Sharmila as ‘anti-Indian’ and linking her with ‘naxals’ and ‘Maoists’. Now this has been an interesting development following the not-so-successful protest rally in Delhi demanding the repealing of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and thus bringing an end to the 11 year old struggle of Irom Sharmila.
Personally I am of the opinion that there have been a lot and prejudice and ambiguity surrounding the aforementioned act which is actually causing a battle using rhetorical devices rather than a legal and more humanitarian perspective based on dispassionate logic. AFSPA which is now prevalent in five states of North-East India (two districts of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura) along with Jammu and Kashmir is an act that came into existence in 1958. It was modeled on the ‘colonial’ Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance of 1942. The act allows any non-commissioned officer of ‘armed forces’ to fire upon civilians causing death, to search any premises without warrant or to detain any civilian on the grounds of ‘suspicion’ in states and regions of the republic termed as ‘disturbed areas’ and no judicial action of any sort can be taken against the personnel responsible. Now that is the synopsis of the act without going into details and technicalities which are anyway baffling to a commoner. What concerns us is that due to the immense power and immunity that these acts provide, a certain section of Indian Army and other armed forces commits massive abuse of it, leading to an alarming number of extrajudicial killings, torture, unjustified detaining, disappearance and even sexual offences including rape, while most of the victims being innocent civilians rather than insurgents.
The question that arises here, does AFSPA really respect the democratic fervour of the constitution and the nation that so pompously asserts the ‘fact’ of being the largest democracy in the world? In my opinion the answer will be in a terrifying negative. The act in fact violates the constitution in a very paradoxical manner, e.g. it violates article 21 (right to live) as it gives the other party the right to shoot, it violates article 14 (right to equality) as it is implied only in certain region of the country definitely implying a certain politico-regional bias, it violates article 22 (protection against detention and arrest) and also as many internationally accepted laws and codes of conduct including Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Customary Law and International Humanitarian Law. The intricacy of these laws doesn’t concern us, but if readers are willing to go for a healthy debate on them I can provide an outlet for that.
Now comes the question of justification of such an arbitrarily imposed law. The act was passed in the lower house in a haste and without further consultations, which should have been done in regard to a law which has every liability of causing loss of human lives, some of them (in fact, majority of them) may be innocent. The sole cause of the act has been given to the ‘disturbed area’ status of these states. Well, it is not implemented in the Naxal belt, however in terms of the magnitude of anti-state extremist activities; these regions are no less than North-East and Kashmir. And also, new insurgent outfits are sprouting almost every year regardless of the act prevailing, the scapegoats have been the civilians in these region, the cases of extra-judicial killing and rape in custody solely on the grounds of ‘suspicion’ (the definition of which has not been provided) is mounting on a terrifying scale. Loyalist-nationalists would probably put forward an opinion that these sorts of measures are needed to maintain ‘integrity’ of the country or to cope with any sort of ‘anti-state’ activities. The counter to that can be the statement of Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who stated that- “The essence of human life and dignity must not be compromised and that certain acts, whether carried out by State or non-state actors, are never justified no matter what the ends”. (sic) In democracy sworn by equality, no law is justified in curbing any form extremism which takes away the basic human rights and allows the killing of civilians with unadulterated judicial immunity. To put it blatantly and in a non-pedantic manner , no one has the right to take anyone’s life until and unless proven guilty of some offense and if capital punishment is prescribed in the concerned code of laws.
Secondly, often an eyebrow is raised when the sanctity of the armed forces is questioned and such a question often fall within the circle of the popular definition of ‘anti-Indianness’. The most basic fact which we need to take into account is that armed forces personnel are not devoid of human feelings and emotions; they are driven by same intrinsic human tendencies as anyone else. So, basically a law which puts unprecedented amount of power and immunity in their hands, it is a bitter truth that some amount of that power will definitely go for misuse. The finger is not pointed towards the armed forces, which is the basic component of the stability of sovereign state, but it is towards the act which makes them vulnerable and susceptible of being corrupt in regard to such instances.
A point that is intrinsically linked to the above one is that often a question raised regarding the magnitude of the atrocity committed by the armed forces and a perception is taken that these are not that grave and often exaggerated. Not going into statistics, let us consider some examples. In November, 2000, armed forces in Malom, Manipur killed a dozen of civilians on a bus stop while hunting for insurgents who had created a blast which had taken place at the same time, none of them were related to the insurgents. 12 people were killed in broad daylight without any legal procedure or any investigation; the victims included a teenager who was a recipient of National Bravery Award. This was the catalyst that triggered Irom Sharmila’s hunger strike. In 2004, a Manipuri (Meitei) lady was taken into custody by armed forces and soon she was found dead, shot through her genitalia. The reason was given that she was trying to escape. How can someone be shot in her private parts form behind when she is trying to escape? In this author’s home state Assam, there are numerous examples of rape of women and killing of young men during the turbulent 90’s, news paper extracts from that period will prove testimony to that. Same goes for Nagaland and Tripura. Any person in his senses will find it hard to digest how rape in regard to anti-insurgency activities, in fact under any circumstances, that too by state machinery is justifiable.
After having a dissection of the problematic that encapsulates the tricky nature of the law and how it is implemented, now we can divert our attention to Sharmila. After what has been termed as the Malom Massacre, Sharmila is on an indefinite hunger-strike for last eleven years. She has been charged under the offence of attempting suicide and been force fed through a nasal tube. Sharmila’s methodology can be termed in its best as ‘Gandhian’, in the way how the non-violent manners of protest are interpreted in the Indian psyche. A Gandhian can be anti-state, but Sharmila is not. There is a difference between anti-state and anti-nation, Sharmila is none. She has clearly pointed it out that her sole cause is for the repealing of the aforementioned act which now has earn the title ‘draconian’. She doesn’t want a change in the manner how the state apparatus including the armed forces are operated, but only wants that certain law to be removed on humanitarian grounds. Nor is she in any sympathy with any sort of insurgent elements. But unfortunately as her cause is striking the root of the obsession with armed forces created by Bollywood, the psyche of the ‘nation’ (if exists) is unwilling to accept her and often terms like ‘anti-Indian’ or ‘Naxal’, Maoist (though that has nothing to do with north-east, another instance of Great Indian Ignorance) are propelled towards her. Raising one’s voice against the atrocities that people are being subjected to by the state is not ‘anti-Indian’ (though there is no yardstick to measure the magnitude of ‘Anti-Indianness’). However, a certain very ‘patriotic’ section is relentless on terming her so. No matter how clearly and logically one argues with them, the problem of Manipur is not a ‘national’ problem like that of Anna’s (apologizing for the comparison) according to them. Well, the ‘nation’ consists of states like Manipur only; they have seemed to overlook that fact in their overtly passionate zeal for the ‘national cause’. And it is not just the case of Manipur; it is of Assam, of Kashmir and of many other states. A problem that persists in six or seven states of the union, that too in different corners, can certainly be of a ‘national dimension’. Let’s take Godhra misfortune, Ayodhya tension or the attack on Mumbai, these are political crises of the same magnitude, but both the nation and the media provided much more attention to them than this complex crisis related to Manipur and many other peripheral states. The ‘nation’ needs to encompass crises of grave magnitude in any part of the country as ‘national crisis’. But alas, India is a ‘democracy’, all are equal but some are more equal, Manipur will have to wait. And anyway, human rights violation can’t happen in a democracy , right, theoretically improbable, we have learnt that by sitting at the drawing rooms of our cozy flats in cities and our air-conditioned libraries in universities.
The state and the public psyche is always paranoid in regard to ‘foreign’ invasion to such an extent that the ‘China Card’ always comes handy when dealing with intricate details of law and order situations in frontier regions. The reason is given that North-East is located on a strategically vulnerable juncture with China and this law is needed in bringing ‘foreign elements’ out of India’s territory. It is clearly stated in AFSPA that it should be used in regions termed as ‘disturbed areas’, not ‘strategically vulnerable areas’, as often interpreted. But the attorney-general of India in 1991 was irresponsible enough to opine that AFSPA is in territories in which “infiltration of aliens into the territories mingling with the local pubic, and encouraging them towards secession”. What more pathetic can be than that! The states which felt the most brutal blow of AFSPA don’t even share boundary with China, Manipur is as far from the Chinese frontier as Chandigarh is!
Now we come to the point how the Indian Army and other state armed forces are viewed in these ‘disturbed regions’. Generally speaking, as a ‘nation’ the institution of army needs respect and full cooperation from the people in a reciprocal manner. But if the state imposes certain laws of suppressive nature, that institution for certain sort of colonial dominance in the periphery regions which makes the people feel alienated, then at the instant army loses its credibility. The presence of army in a sensitive frontier region is undeniable, but if state laws allow army to turn against its own people instead of concentrating on the borders, it is quite natural that people will feel disgruntled. If a certain section of the revered institution abuses the trust that is placed upon it, who is to blame if people is turned against the entire institution. As it is mentioned earlier, army personnel are not made up of stuff that can shake off all human emotions. The enormous responsibility of guarding the frontiers coupled with the task of maintenance of so-called integrity of the territory puts pressure on the army which is paramount. In that context, if it loses credibility, definitely it doesn’t bring a good sign for the democratic traditions we are trying to nourish in an otherwise troubled neighbourhood of the subcontinent. AFSPA doesn’t help army in any way other than putting a stain on its stature and breeding distrust towards it. To cope with intra-territorial insurgency, there are certain laws prescribed by the constitutional framework which are in fact quite adequate. Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention Act) 1985, Prevention of Terrorism Act 2002 and the amended Unlawful Activities (Prevention Act) 2004 provides ample scope for the armed forces to tackle with either insurgency or what has been termed as terrorism. To take either human rights issues into consideration or to fulfill the issues of equality of all citizens prescribed in the constitution, what the state needs to do is too make these laws more applicable and powerful and repeal AFSPA which is in fact a discriminatory law prevailing only in a few states of the country. One doesn’t necessarily need an emergency law which permits him to shoot civilians or provide brutal demonstration of his testosterones to cope with insurgency!
To people charged with nationalist feelings and to those who are unaware of the situations of either North-East or Kashmir in regard to a first-hand experience, questioning the revered institution of the army or supporting the cause of Sharmila might seem like a sort of ‘anti-Indian’ activity. If we seriously believe in upholding whatever variant of democracy we are experiencing, then we need to understand that questioning and arguing in fact makes democratic traditions more solid. Unquestioned authority leads to dictatorial and fascist regimes. Secondly, it is really not easy to understand what people in Manipur or Kashmir are experiencing for people living in ‘peaceful’ regions, without any fear, perfectly enjoying the harvest of a democratic, sovereign nation. So, without knowing the ground reality, just to make armchair assumptions of jingoistic nationalist kind that “AFSPA is needed to maintain integrity” or “Army is there to protect you” are actually very foolish. Integration and nation-building always comes ‘from below’, the inherent processes of people’s psyche by a mutual understanding of each other helps it to nurture; no draconian laws and state forces can forcibly solve these sorts of complex issues. In Manipur or in this author’s home state, Assam, one has to think twice before moving out of their houses after 9 in the evening, assembly of more than five persons in a public place is often prohibited, so does pillion riding on two-wheelers, in remote villages people live under constant fear of getting harassed either by the insurgents or the state forces. There are thousands of incidents where people who were detained by the army never came back home, hundreds of girls and women had to compromise with their dignity, the newspaper archives and the first-hand experience of people from those regions will stand testimony to that, if hardcore nationalists consider all these as conspiracy theories of some degree. Does that answer the question why people in Manipur or Kashmir always prefer to use the term ‘Indian Army’, not ‘our army’? Not to mention the infamous incidents of the naked protest of several Manipuri mothers holding a banner- “Indian army, rape us”. It is very easy to sit in the comforting grandeur and luxury of one’s metropolitan homes and air-conditioned university libraries and dictate the norms that should be followed in some faraway corner of the country of which one has no experience. And that is exactly what happens; the government does not involve people from these regions in the process of decision-making in regard to what policy should be deployed in their respective homelands. And people still want residents of these regions to be cooperative and ‘unquestioning patriots’, how double-standard can one be!
Though this author doesn’t subscribe to the hypothesis of any conscious effort of discrimination by ‘mainland Indians’ to ‘North-Easterners’, but still the reluctance to accept Sharmila in a magnitude similar to that of Hazare somehow validates that there is still some amount of ignorance, if not discrimination prevailing among a large section of the middle-classes of the country regarding the situation in either Manipur or Kashmir which in due course turns into either suspicion cuddled in jingoistic nationalism or xenophobic paranoia. The inability to accept the fact that Sharmila is as much a Gandhian as Anna is, if not better, reflects the psyche which is deeply rooted in the inability to accept the diversity of the nation. This stems from a very pre-colonial and even medieval notion of looking at the Indian identity which is not very accommodating. In fact, the media and Bollywood which shapes the psyche of a large majority of the nation doesn’t provide any help in this regard either. The protest rally and signature campaign that started in Jantar Mantar in Delhi demanding repealing of AFSPA almost went unnoticed. Undoubtedly, Sharmila or AFSPA doesn’t bring too much TRPs, it in fact reverses the entire process.
We don’t need to ‘deconstruct’ the image of the armed forces; we need to ‘reconstruct’ it. The armed forces are victim to the laws and acts in accordance to which they should act; it is the state which is the culprit. The army has enough power and right to act in accordance to the constitutional norms within and on the borders of our territorial domain. AFSPA is a dark spot in that, it not only violates the constitution, it violates the essence of life and the democratic fervour of the nation. Sharmila is just a symbolic representation of the aspiration to stabilize the entire structure which has been in fact completely disrupted by this draconian law. This is a call for the nation which is still young and still to evolve. By calling for a repeal of this colonial law, India can bring the ‘alienated’ section into the process of nation-building in a diversified paradigm. Jingoist nationalist can eat their hats now, nothing would stop this author from commenting that it is AFSPA which is ‘anti-Indian’, not Sharmila!
The author hails from Assam and presently pursuing his graduation from University of Delhi. All the views expressed here are entirely personal.
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