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Irom Sharmila Released and Rearrested: 9th Year of Struggle Against AFSPA

by Sumi Krishna, 12 March 2009

print version of this article print version, 12 March 2009

For over eight years, 36-year-old, Irom Chanu Sharmila has been in almost continuous detention in Imphal, in the north-eastern state of Manipur, for her refusal to take any food or drink by mouth till India’s draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA) is repealed from all of Manipur. Sharmila’s arrest under Indian criminal law (IPC Section 309) for attempted suicide is legally permissible for a maximum of one year at a time. In keeping with the law, yet again in 2009 she was released on 7 March and rearrested two days later on 9 March because she continues to fast.

Violence and corruption have engulfed Manipur for decades. The many communities who inhabit the oval, riverine valley and the surrounding hill ranges are caught in an unending spiral of conflict – between insurgents and the counter-insurgency forces, and among the proliferating ‘UGs’ (as the underground groups are called). With an estimated 30 UGs and 55,000 security forces for a population of under two and half million, Manipur may be the most heavily militarised space in the world. It is this militarisation that is being challenged by the women’s peace initiatives, various non-violent protests and the growing human rights movement in Manipur.

Sharmila’s unique protest began in November 2000 when 10 civilians at a bus stand in the small town of Malom, 15 km. from Imphal, were brutally shot dead by men of the Assam Rifles, in retaliation after a convoy of security forces had been ambushed by Manipuri insurgents. As a voluntary social worker Sharmila had earlier witnessed the agonising testimonies of women assaulted and raped by armed forces personnel. She had also been to Malom for a meeting to plan a peace rally but the massacre at the bus stop made her feel the need to do something more meaningful.

Throughout she has been supported by the Sharmila Kanba Lup (Save Sharmila Campaign) of the Meira Paibi, literally ‘women torch bearers’ who patrol the streets at night. The Meira Paibi are a wide grassroots network of traditional Meite women’s groups across towns and villages in the Manipur valley. They have rallied in protests against colonial oppression in British times and against male alcoholism and drug addiction in more recent years. And they were among the first to take up the human rights struggle against the might of the armed forces in Manipur. The Naga Women’s Union, Manipur (NWUM), an organisation of 16 Naga tribes across all the hill districts, is also with Sharmila and the Meira Paibi in the struggle against the AFSPA and the movement for peace.

The AFSPA is an ‘emergency’ legislation that should be reviewed every six months, but it has been in force in large parts of the north eastern states and Jammu and Kashmir for decades. The Act gives the Indian military and para-military forces unfettered powers to search and destroy any structure, to arrest or shoot to kill on mere suspicion, and it also grants them immunity from prosecution. This has resulted in gross human rights violations in all the areas where the AFSPA is in operation, including Manipur.

In 2004, when a young woman Thangjam Manorama was picked up from her house, possibly raped, then tortured, and killed by the Assam Rifles, the anger of the Meira Paibi exploded in a dramatic protest. A group of 12 elderly ima (mothers) stripped in front of the Assam Rifles quartered at Imphal’s historic Kangla Fort, with banners reading ‘Indian Army Rape Us’. This set off waves of shock and horrified protest with human rights activists and women’s groups speaking out strongly in Sharmila’s support. The Indian Association for Women’s Studies, for instance, has repeatedly called for the repeal of the AFSPA, as has a coalition of several women’s groups across the country.

In October 2006, when Sharmila was ritually released, she had flown undetected to New Delhi along with her brother and a couple of other activists, camping on the pavement near Jantar Mantar on Parliament Street, but was soon rearrested and sent to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences to be force-fed. Later she was taken back to Manipur. Year-after-year, the ritual of release and arrest are re-enacted.

Just before night-fall on 7 March 2009, after her release from the high-security ward of the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal, Sharmila walked to the market place less than a kilometre away where hundreds of Meira Paibi have been fasting in relays from 10 December 2008, the international Human Rights Day. As she walked, she was held up by 64-year-old S. Momen, co-convenor of the Sharmila Kanba Lup, and some of the other women who had been part of the naked protest five years ago. Accompanying the Meira Paibi in solidarity were nearly 100 others including some 50 visiting members of the Network of Women in Media-India.

Throughout the slow walk, Sharmila held her head high, her eyes closed perhaps because of the flashing cameras. She then sat wrapped in a blanket on the ground amidst the Meira Paibi, her uncombed hair framing a very pale, drawn face, piercing eyes and a wry smile. Eight years of confinement, a largely supine existence and being force-fed liquids through a nasal tube have clearly taken a toll on her health. No water passes her lips and she even cleans her teeth with dry cotton. She practices yoga regularly and writes poetry but has said she misses people, because all her interactions are strictly regulated and monitored.

Her elder brother Irom Singhajit, who now manages the Just Peace Foundation, recollects that as a child she was quiet, somewhat solitary, sensitive and inward-looking, with compassion and a poetic sensibility. Speaking softly after her release, Sharmila’s comments made in the Meitei language were lyrical and the ‘mothers’ were often moved to tears. Here is a rough transliteration put together from the recollections of some of the bilingual listeners:

[Question: Are you tired?] ‘I am not tired. I have the strength to walk the streets of Imphal. Will you be able to keep up with me?

Words cannot express my deep gratitude when I see you all waiting for me here. You have renewed my courage. I will continue my campaign till the draconian AFPSA is repealed throughout Manipur.

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day. As the world observes this day, there is a very beautiful place on earth, with lofty hills and the clear flowing water in the streams, where the flowers bloom, a place on earth where one woman is being kept in solitary confinement. Isn’t this ironic?

This time [the release] feels different because you all are here. When I come here and see the Meira Paibi and women from other parts of India, I hope that they will take with them this story and our voices.

The government spends so much energy, so much money, to keep me alive through artificial means. All that energy, all our energy could be channelised productively.

Every year, like clock-work, I come to the waiting hands of the ima. Will you be able to save me this time? What is the end, the purpose, because nobody cares?’

Septuagenarian K. Taruni, convenor of the Sharmila Kanba Lup, replied: ‘We have been on hunger-strike, fasting for 88 days. What more can be done? There are the laws of the land, the might of the state. If a thousand mothers would join you on an indefinite hunger-strike they would be forced to listen. I can join you because I am old, but I am one. Where do I find a thousand women? They have children, responsibilities.’

When Sharmila spoke of her own mother, Irom Sakhi, who she had not met for years, many wept:

‘I had made a pact with my mother, which I have broken. [That they would not meet till Sharmila had fulfilled her mission and the AFSPA was repealed.] Last year when she was lying critically ill in JN Hospital, I went to see her. It was not an easy decision. I paced the corridors outside her ward for hours like a pendulum before I stepped into my mother’s domain. My mother said: “Why have you come here?” I had no answer.’

The struggles have had some results. Kangla Fort, a symbol of Meitei identity and for centuries the seat of the royal family that ruled Manipur, had been seized by the British in 1891, and taken over by the Indian army after Manipur was controversially merged with the Union of India in 1949. The fort has now been returned to the civil administration; the Assam Rifles have been moved out of the fort area and the water in the moats is clean.

The Indian government also appointed a committee headed by retired Supreme Court Justice and former Chair of the Law Commission Jeevan Reddy to examine the demand for repeal of the AFSPA. The report, submitted in 2005, sought to balance the views of the armed forces and different sections of the people. It has not been officially released but was made public by the national daily, ‘The Hindu’. The report recommended repeal of AFSPA, while strengthening the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) that applies to the rest of India. In 2006, KG Kannabiran, national President of PUCL, writing in ‘Combat Law’ said ‘the unanimous opinion in the north east is that the AFPSA should be scrapped’ but was dismayed that the Jeevan Reddy Committee had not evolved a ‘democratic and political method of resolving the problems’ of the region.

Indeed, it seems that the repressive provisions of the special law, the AFSPA have been transferred to the general law, the UAPA. As amended in December 2008, the UAPA provides for arrest, search and seizure on suspicion, pre-trial detention to 180 days, denial of bail on various grounds, and so on. The law renders anyone and everyone suspicious. Human rights activists like Babloo Loitongbam of the Human Rights Alert (HRA), Imphal, do not think the UAPA is relevant to Manipur and are continuing to campaign against the AFSPA.

Human rights abuses continue unabated. Sharmila is reported to have told a group of MPs of the Manipur People’s Party who visited her in hospital in January 2009:

‘I am being kept alive but there is no let up in the killing of innocent people under the immunity granted by the AFSPA.’

In fact, there is evidence that 90 persons (security forces, insurgents and civilians) have been killed in Manipur in just two months, January and February 2009. Most devastating was the kidnapping, bludgeoning and killing of Kishen Singh Thingam, an upright and committed Manipur civil service officer and two others by a section of the Naga underground (NSCN-IM) in the hill district of Ukhrul in mid-February 2009. Kishen Singh an idealistic government official, well known as the founder and editor of the journal ‘Alternative Perspectives’, had given up teaching first at Delhi University and later at a Manipur college to serve the people more directly. Kishen’s Singh’s bereaved wife told us, ‘Like me there are thousands of young widows of men who have been killed without rational grounds, and numerous children orphaned, spoiling their future.’ She had no words to express the pain and agony of the widows of Manipur.

On the evening of 7 March, Irom Sharmila clasped the hands of journalist Anjulika Thingam, a cousin of Kishen Singh, and said to her, the Meira Paibi and all of us clustered around:

‘I heard about your brother. There is more to life than death.

A dew drop on a lotus leaf is just blown away by the breeze. I don’t want to end my life [like a dew drop] without a purpose.’