ByÂ Atharva Pandit:
In early November of 2000, a couple of farmers and villagers huddled near a bus stop, some were going about their daily work, others waiting for the occasional bus to arrive. However, these ten unarmed and innocent common folk, going about their daily business, could never actually complete it. They were gunned down by a unit of Assam Rifles soon after, a massacre which would go down in history as the Malom Massacre, and also one of the many which was carried out by the armed forces active inside the North-Eastern region of India, crawling comfortably under the blanket of Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The Assam Rifles unit’s explanation was that the ten villagers were gunned down on the “suspicions” of being militants. But facts tell otherwise: the massacre was, in fact, an act of revenge by the Rifles since some insurgents had blown up a road through which the security forces’ jeep was passing by, and the farmers ended up bearing the brunt of a separatist movement which, by that time, had begun to wane.
But what this massacre, one of the countless carried out by armed forces inside North-East, also did was to start a silent act of protest. And the propagator of this protest was the peace activist Irom Chanu Sharmila, who was at Malom during the said massacre and who decided at that point of time that enough was enough. The bloodshed, and the continuation of the atrocities, coupled with the fact that the Indian government was ignorant towards the brutality of AFSPA and deemed it as necessary, forced Irom to start the fast, and thus the battle which continues till date. Sharmila has been the banner of hope for not just the people of Manipur, but the whole of North-Eastern region of India, which remains largely ignored and isolated. Her story is that of a simple girl from an ignored land, marred by violence and insurgent activities, trying to gain a foothold in the murky waters of justice. But justice, as they say, is never offered up on a plate. One needs to seek it, and Sharmila has been trying just that. Her battle has been exhaustive- try to live without a morsel for six hours and some wouldn’t be able to for four, but Irom has been doing it for the past 14 years, pleading for support, protesting, seeking attention. The attention, however, is minimal, and nothing compared to what other stories not as important, and sometimes not really even important, receive. The only one time the press did give her any attention was to report on her personal life, which is to say, her love for Desmond Coutinho, who read Sharmila’s story in a book, and wrote a letter to her, thus starting a regular correspondence of sort, and thus, his love affair. Supporters or Sharmila were apparently “irked”. They considered the love affair as something which went against her image of being a “saint”, while Sharmila herself tries to explain that she is no saint at all, she is a regular human being who is fighting for justice. Apart from this one stupid episode, the press has been silent, as is the government.
The subject of Irom Sharmila’s fury is the AFSPA, as the Act is more commonly known. The Act allows for any Commissioned Officer, Warrant Officer, Non-commissioned officer or any person of equivalent rank serving in the security forces and posted inside a “disturbed” area, as declared by the Governor of the said state, to enforce his special powers in case it is seen necessary for the maintenance of public order. This act also allows the security forces active inside the troubled North-Eastern regions to repel any act of terrorism by any method deemed necessary as long as it is within the legal framework so as to maintain peace by repelling the militant and separatist forces believed to be active in the region, although it is commonly pointed out that the insurgency in the region has dropped considerably since the past few years and necessity of armed forces has declined and is not really needed. Especially so since, in a parallel to the case argued in Kashmir Valley as well, armed forces turn out to be a menace for the locals, a far-cry from their objective of protection and maintenance of peace. Human Rights reports have recorded testimonies of those tortured and they go on to point out that the security forces do not even leave out little children and teenagers from their wrath and horrific torture techniques, as the testimony of a fourteen year old Manipuri child goes on to show. She states that the armed forces tortured her by “pouring water into my nostrils until the water came out of my ears” proceeding to stamping her thighs and projecting her to electric shocks. Whole of villages have been burnt by the security forces because they suspected villagers to be hiding militants. Rapes, tortures and massacres like those of Malom have been recorded and presented in front of the governments, stating that the armed forces provided as protection have established a military regime, one of torture and mass killings. The Act has been responsible for the curtailing democratic rights of those living in the North-East, and has created an atmosphere of fear inside the minds of the locals, something which is the opposite of what the armed forces were supposed to do. Several different committees have tried to repeal the act, including the Justice Reddy Committee and the Administrative Reforms Commission while the Planning Commission had, in fact, in its 12th Five-Year Plan asked for a review of the AFSPA, but all this has come to no significant effect. The fact remains that the soldiers serving in these zones have abused the constitutional power, and they haven’t even been brought before the court, let alone punished. All this points to the fact that the act needs to go.
Indian government, however, looks anything but an institution willing to acknowledge that mature insurgency movements in the North East, which had found themselves against the very nation in which they were accommodated, are on a decline. As the statistical point of view proves: the total number of casualties in 2008 in the North-East were deemed to be 1561, which decreased to 252 in 2013, according to a report by the Ministry of Home Affairs. This signifies a sizable decrease, and yet, the Indian government insists on continuation of the AFSPA’s occupation in the North-East, thus, also, insisting on the continuation of misery for its people.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident writer and novelist, once asked, “If you desired to change the world, where would you start? With yourself or others?” Irom Sharmila has been trying, for the past one and a half-decade, not to change the world, but only a part of her nation, and she has started from changing herself. Yet, to no avail. It seemed like a small, and yet significant gesture on the part of the government when, on August 19th, they released Sharmila who was held inside the Jawaharlal Nehru hospital in Imphal, being forced-fed and accused of attempted suicide. Reporters flocked around Sharmila, trying to record statements from the frail and tired woman that the crusader has become. They probably expected words of triumph, or sensational declarations, but Sharmila just urged everyone to support her cause, and that was it. She was freed, and she continued fasting, although this time minus the tube through which she was painfully fed liquefied food- not for long, however, since three days later, she was rearrested and was back in judicial custody.
One should realize that her fight is a non-violent effort to bring violence down, and that she is the only ray of hope in a land which has been forgotten by the nation it claims to be a part of. The media wakes up only once in a while, only when they smell a “scoop”. At other times, however, the North-East and the struggle of its people remains ignored, thriving in the dark. Irom Sharmila, if nothing, deserves far, far better than what she has been subjected to for the past fourteen years- ignorance and constant denial. She is going hungry for some 57 million North-Easterners’ freedom from misery and violence, daily abuses, disappearances and fake encounters, and the least we can do is to voice her cause, respect it, and grant it all the support it deserves.