Last week, when Irom Sharmila Chanu was selected for the Stree Shakti Award by KA Kunjila Smaraka Stree Shakti Trust, Kochi, she explained how she could not formally accept the award until she achieved her own goal, and freedom.
Chanu’s goal is to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) 1958, a controversial piece of legislation imposed in the north east region in India, extended in Jammu and Kashmir through AFSPA 1990. AFSPA grants extra ordinary powers to security forces deployed in ‘disturbed areas’, ranging from the power to shoot anyone on the grounds of suspicion, to arrest without warrant. It even provides a non-commissioned officer with impunity, because no case can be lodged against any security person working in an AFPA imposed region without prior authorisation from central government. From the facts available, it is evident that despite many reports of human rights violations, and even after requests from state governments to central government for permission to prosecute the soldiers responsible in civil courts, no such authorisations have been given. AFSPA is considered draconian by human rights groups, with many human rights violations by security forces reported in the regions where AFSPA has been imposed.
Irom Sharmila Chanu has gone on hunger strike in protest, demanding repeal of this Act. In India, hunger strikes are a common form of peaceful protest; a tool of the ‘father of nation’, Mahatma Gandhi. Irom Sharmila Chanu has entered her 15th year of hunger protest, but her aims are yet to be realised. She started her hunger strike in 2000 (then 28 years old) after the infamous ‘Malom massacre’ where 10 people were killed by Assam Rifles while they were waiting at a bus stand in Malom, in Imphal, Manipur. The victims included an 18-year old student and a 62-year old lady. Everybody knew that the soldiers who were responsible for this killing would be protected by AFSPA and, accordingly, that no case would be lodged against the soldiers.
Irom Sharmila, now known as the ‘Iron lady of Manipur’, has gained huge support. Her peaceful protest was completely ignored by government and at no point during the 15 years have they engaged in discussions with her regarding repeal of AFSPA. This is against the backdrop of national/international human rights groups, including UN bodies, asking the government of India to repeal AFSPA.
It is ironic that the government’s response to peaceful protest- the famous method of the father of nation- has been to lodge a case against Irom Sharmila under s. 309 of Indian Penal Code (IPC), the offence of ‘attempted suicide’. As a result of these charges, Irom Sharmila is facing arrest and hearings in the court. The government has force fed her through a nasal tube and kept her in the security ward of Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital, Manipur. She is isolated from her family and people; meeting her is a difficult task and requires permission from the jail authorities.
The state leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promised the people of Manipur that it would work to repeal the AFSPA if the party came to power in central government. Now in office for seven months, nothing has been done by the BJP government.
It is unfortunate that many people in India do not know about AFSPA and Irom Sharmila. They do not know how AFSPA is violating human rights in North East region and in J&K region and the many cases of fake killings, rapes and torture that have been reported.
At a time when resistance in many places across the world is by means of violence, it is Irom Sharmila who still has faith and hope in democracy, demonstrating her resistance through peaceful means. In the world’s biggest democracy, her hunger strike has the become longest in history. She is a living legend of non-violence and history will remember her.