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Home > Human Rights > The inhuman AFSPA is our way of handling insurgency

The inhuman AFSPA is our way of handling insurgency

by Antara Dev Sen, 17 November 2010

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(Published earlier in: Daily News and Analysis, November 4, 2010)

“Why aren’t you writing about Irom Sharmila?” demanded Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Laureate and Iranian human rights lawyer, in a media meet in Delhi in 2006. Sharmila had been fasting for six years protesting army atrocities in Manipur under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Ebadi’s vehement support had given a fillip to Sharmila’s protest. But the Government was unmoved.

This week, Sharmila completed ten years of her hunger strike. On 2 November 2000, Assam Rifles troops had arbitrarily shot dead 10 civilians waiting at a bus stop at Malom, Manipur. Sharmila, then a poet and human rights worker of 28, demanded a repeal of the inhuman Act and went on her fast unto death.

But the State would not grant Sharmila’s bhook hartal moral legitimacy. She was arrested for the crime of attempted suicide. For ten years she has been forcefully tube-fed in captivity. And the AFSPA, which allows the army to kill, rape and torture ordinary citizens with impunity, and has been in place in the Northeast since 1958, continues unabated in the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir.

This colonial legacy, that suspends citizens’ democratic rights, is the world’s largest democracy’s way of handling insurgency.

The government is wilfully disregarding three points here. First, repealing the AFSPA would be an important step to end the cycle of violence that has engulfed insurgency-prone areas, as state and non-state actors attack, kill and harm civilians in a macabre fight to the finish. The AFSPA has bred a military culture of torture, rape, extra-judicial killings, mysterious disappearances and arbitrary detention. The 2004 torture and killing of Thangjam Manorama by the Assam Rifles is one example.

The AFSPA breeds outrage, anger and helplessness that pushes hot-blooded youngsters to militancy. Manipur is now brimming with insurgent factions. Recently, the state media went on strike in the face of threats from militants. Bomb attacks and extortion rackets rule. Clearly, the AFSPA has failed to handle militancy.

And passionate protests have not helped. Not the demonstrations, petitioning the Supreme Court, appealing to the United Nations, even self-immolations by students and a naked protest march by middle-aged women. Even official recommendations from Government-appointed commissions have failed. The Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee, the Veerappa Moily Commission and the Working Group on Jammu and Kashmir led by Vice President Hamid Ansari have all recommended the AFSPA’s repeal. As a face saver, an Armed Forces (Special Powers) Amendment Bill is languishing in Parliament.

Second, the AFSPA signifies the insecurity of the Indian State that cannot deal with internal dissent. The army can take over for short periods in war zones, but must not replace democratic rule in general. For half a century, the State has relinquished its democratic duties in parts of India and given the army a free hand.

And finally, by devaluing the hunger strike of a civilian, the government is denigrating peaceful protest. We remember how swiftly it took political steps to break the 11-day fast of K. Chandrasekhar Rao (whose followers were not all peace-loving) demanding Telengana, a regional issue. But not for Sharmila’s decade-long fast for a national concern.

Fasting is the chosen tool of non-violent protest of the powerless. It has the moral muscle that Gandhi had used brilliantly during our freedom struggle. If even the world’s most remarkable hunger-strike is snubbed, what options do victims of state-sponsored atrocities have of registering dissent?