Heeding Irom Sharmila’s argument

It’s been ten years since Irom Chanu Sharmila started her fast-unto-death. With no exceptions, hers would qualify to be the longest in the history of independent India. Liquid feeding through a tube attached to her nostrils keeps the 38-year old alive, although it is said to have weakened the resolve of the diminishing tribe of people who believe in peaceful modes of protest. The State has been accused of being inconsiderate and uncaring towards peaceful and Gandhian modes of protests. In reality, however, Ms Sharmila’s plea is caught in the gridlock between a seemingly accommodative political India and the obduracy of its armed forces.

It all started on November 2nd, 2000, the day paramilitary Assam Rifles personnel opened fire in panic after a blast went off at Malom, a small town about 15 km from Imphal, Manipur’s capital. Ten civilians waiting under a bus shed were killed and many others injured. Ms Sharmila, working as a volunteer for a human rights organisation, decided to go on a fast in protest the next day. Her demand was simple — withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which she, like many in her State, terms as draconian as it provides army personnel right to shoot and kill and get away without any punitive action. Her stand is supported by fact. The inquiry into the Malom incident has not ended till date. Fixing responsibility comes much later.

The AFSPA, promulgated to contain insurgency in neighbouring Nagaland in 1958 and introduced into Manipur in 1980, continues to be blamed for a number of killings of militants, former militants as well as civilians.

Interestingly, among the people who underline the need to make AFSPA more humane are Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Home Minister P Chidambaram. In 2004, shortly after the infamous Thangjam Manorama Devi episode — in which a woman militant cadre was allegedly raped and killed by the Assam Rifles personnel after being picked up from her residence in the outskirts of Imphal sending Manipur to a state of turmoil — the prime minister had assured the people of Manipur of efforts to make the Act humane. Such assurances have been periodically made since then. Speaking in April 2010, Mr Chidambaram indicated that he too is favour of replacing the AFSPA with a humane act. The inquiry into Manorama Devi killing too hasn’t concluded.

In 2004, New Delhi set up a committee under Justice B P Jeevan Reddy to review AFSPA. Over the next two years, the committee held intensive consultations with a wide spectrum of people and submitted its report to the government. Its recommendations have not been made officially public, but its contents are freely available. The committee had recommended, “The Act, for whatever reason, has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness. AFSPA should be repealed.” The committee also said that instead of the AFSPA, the challenges posed by insurgency and terrorism could be dealt by making a few changes to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.

The recommendations were subsequently examined by the second Administrative Reforms Commission, which submitted its report in 2007. The commission too observed that “the repeal of the AFPSA would remove the feeling of discrimination and alienation among the people of the northeastern states.” However, the decision is pending before the Cabinet, which continues to procrastinate, for reasons which are obvious.

The Indian Army — Assam Rifles consists of army personnel on loan to this para-military organisation — remains fiercely opposed to any tinkering with the Act. The Ministry of Defence maintains that AFSPA is an enabling legislation and is a mandatory pre-requisite for the armed forces to carry out internal security duties. In Manipur, where the Army, not the police, does bulk of the counter-insurgency operations, no one can expect to antagonise the men in olive green. Moreover, toning down AFSPA would also have its impact in Jammu & Kashmir, where too the Act is in operation. Withdrawing AFSPA is too much of a risk for the government which is critically unsure of its intentions and achievements in conflict theatres.

At one level, making the AFSPA the villain is unjustified. The Supreme Court in its verdict in the Naga People’s Movement of Human Rights (NPMHR) vs. Union of India, 1997 case underlined the sanctity of the Act. Indeed, the Manipur Police — which does not enjoy the protection under the AFSPA for its activities — too has shot and killed with some impunity. Most recently in July 2009, Manipur police commandos were photographed accompanying and then killing a former militant in an Imphal market, an episode that led to prolonged agitation. Educational institutions shut down for more than six months before an agreement between the state government and the agitating groups restored normalcy. Seven of the nine accused policemen were arrested, suspended, but subsequently were granted bail.

At the other level, it is difficult to understand how a phased withdrawal of AFSPA and consequent non-functioning of the army, would augment insurgent capacities in Manipur. The Manipur government, responding to popular demands, had thrown out AFSPA from seven assembly segments in Imphal West and Imphal East districts in 2004, much to the displeasure of the Army. Since then, Army has refused to operate in these areas. But even then, these areas have not really degenerated into becoming hubs of insurgency.

The security situation in Manipur, often judged on the basis of insurgency related fatalities, has certainly improved in 2010. Compared to 2008 and 2009 when 485 and 416 fatalities were reported in the state, Manipur recorded only 130 fatalities this year (as of mid-November). This throws up an opportunity to embark upon a risky, yet much needed task of assigning Manipur police the lead role in counter-insurgency duties. It also opens up the possibility of withdrawing AFSPA from few other areas in the state, where the army’s role can be tactically downgraded. Reassigning primacy to the army and bringing back the AFSPA, in case the situation worsens, would not be too difficult a task. Opportunities certainly exist to make a new beginning for the state, instead of condemning it to hopelessness in perpetuity.