The Iron Lady : On 2nd November 2000 Irom Chanu Sharmila, the ‘Iron Lady’ started a fast unto death, and today after 12 years her hunger strike still continues. She is constantly kept under state custody and forced fed through her nose to keep her from dying. The sheer will power and fortitude displayed by this brave lady is unparalleled in the history of the humankind. Every year Sharmila is produced before the court and sentenced to confinement under section 309 of the IPC “attempt to commit suicide.” Sheer ingenuity of the Indian state in devising tactics to suppress dissent deserves praise because even the British could not come up the with the idea that people staging hunger strike to protest could be slapped with the charge of attempt to commit suicide. Mahatma Gandhi was arrested several times by the British but never booked for attempting suicide through hunger strike!
A Colonial Law in free India Irom Sharmila is no violent terrorist; she has but one demand that the Indian state must enforce its own constitution in the ‘north-east’ and Kashmir by repealing the dreaded AFSPA. Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) gives impunity to the armed forces to search, arrest and execute any individual in the areas where it is in force. Under the provision of this act even a Non-Commissioned Officer can shoot to kill on the basis of mere suspicion. In the name of suppressing insurgency, terrible atrocities have been perpetrated upon the people of the ‘north-east’ and Kashmir. Under this act the army officers enjoy legal immunity for their actions. There can be no prosecution, suit or any other legal proceeding against anyone acting under this law. Originally meant to be introduced as an emergency law for six months, the law has been allowed to remain in force for 55 years. Probably very few people know that AFSPA is in fact a mutation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance promulgated by the British government on August 15 1942 to suppress the Quit India Movement. For the people of the areas where this law is in existence, democracy does not exist, for all practical purposes they have been living under the state of undeclared public emergency. Disappearances, abductions, attacks etc have become so frequent that they have begun to assume the air of normalcy.
The bogey of insurgency: The supporters of this draconian law try to justify it by raising the bogey of terrorism and insurgency. It is argued that without this law in place the insurgent groups would run amok and assume full control of the so called disturbed areas like the ‘north-east’ and Kashmir. Little attention is however paid to the fact that in most of the areas where this law is in place, insurgency has in fact increased since the law was put into force. When the law was first brought into being in 1958, Nagaland was the only state affected by insurgency, since then however insurgency movements have proliferated to all parts of the ‘north-east’ and Kashmir. Tyranny feeds insurgency, people do not become rebels out of love for violence, it is the unjust state polices, denial of democratic rights and equality and exploitation that turns them into rebels. If we cannot ensure equality and justice to a people, then what justifies keeping them bound to the nation through a colonial law?
Violations of Human Rights
In March 2012 Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions (SR EJE) released his report on his findings during his official visit to India which said that retaining a law such as AFSPA runs counter to the principles of democracy and human rights and its repeal will bring domestic law more in line with international standards, and send a strong message that the Government is committed to respect the right to life of all people in the country. Findings of the report reflected gross misuse of AFSPA leading to extra-judicial executions, detentions and crimes against women. There might be some who consider this report a malicious western agenda to malign the image of the world’s largest democracy, but the same charge cannot be leveled against the Supreme Court of India, which declared in April 2013 that a committee appointed by it found instances of fake encounter killings in Manipur. In March 2013 a Lieutenant Colonel along five other was arrested while attempting to smuggle drugs through Manipur-Myanmar border. These are just a few of the numerous reports and observations that reflect that AFSPA is being grossly misused by the vested interests within the army. Fake encounters, attacks and murders, when they happen, leave deep wounds upon entire communities. The trauma and depression are borne by entire generations; the May issue of Tehelka has a story which reveals that today the Kashmir valley has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. In 2004 when Manorma Devi incident surfaced, a group of middle aged mothers stripped naked and protested outside the headquarters of Assam Rifles with banners wrapped around their bodies that said “Indian Army ATTACK US”. Perhaps we cannot even imagine the kind of helpless rage that the people affected by AFSPA feel; what drives middle aged mothers to strip naked in public? Unfortunately most of us do not even know about the incident because it happened in the distant Manipur. One can only wonder what the public reaction would have been like, if a similar thing had happened in Delhi.
What Makes A Nation Great?
Can we measure the greatness of a nation through the number of peoples it can keep in utter subjection through the use of brute force? Surely when the people of this country fought against the British, they did not visualize a future when the India would treat its vulnerable and marginal sections in the same manner as her former masters did. A truly great nation would ensure that all its people get the right to determine their fates freely. Are we achieving greatness by turning the ‘north-east’ and Kashmir into a veritable barrack within which the army is allowed to run its writ? Today the ‘north-east’ and Kashmir are among the most militarized zones in the world. A truly enlightened army is the bulwark of the people’s rights, or else it is nothing more than a tool of suppression. In giving freedom to the unfree, we also assure freedom to the free. An army, that does not respect the freedom of some, cannot be expected to grant us any quarter when we ourselves turn dissenter for some reason. A people that keep the rest in subjection cannot themselves remain free for too long.
Scrap AFSPA Now!!
We love to look across the border and gleefully compare the virtues of our parliamentary democracy with the succession of military juntas that have ruled over Pakistan through most of its post-independence history. And yet, we never notice that we have ourselves consigned such vast areas of our country to military rule. Perhaps it would not be wrong to say that in India the idea of democracy has been completely hollowed out of its genuineness and come to denote hypocrisy. Howard Zinn an American Socialist historian said during the anti Vietnam War protests “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people”. A law like AFSPA has no right to exist in a civilized world. On 22nd of this month, Irom Sharmila would again be presented before Patiala Court, to be tried for ‘attempt to commit suicide’ and like every year the court would sentence her to imprisonment. In my opinion the only entity that would attempt suicide and succeed in committing it is our collective conscience.
Image Source: IANS