What happens when the State, that is duty-bound to provide justice to its people, turns oppressor? None would know better than Manipur’s Irom Chanu Sharmila who has been on a fast for the last 12 years demanding repeal of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that provides unfettered power for the military in “disturbed areas”.
Irom Sharmila is not the first person in the country to go on an indefinite fast for a cause. While the country was outraged by a two-week fast by Anna Hazare, the silent battle of this lionheart has barely found any comparable reactions.
In addition to the virtual house arrest, crippling restrictions, intrusive monitoring and forced nasal feeding, Sharmila is forced to go through the charade of “annual booking” under IPC Section 309 — for attempting to commit suicide.
While appearing before a Delhi Court, where charges under this section have been framed against her, Sharmila said, “I do not want to commit suicide. Mine is only a non-violent protest. It is my demand to live as a human being.” Now, is that too much for an Indian citizen to ask for?
In 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the Centre would “sympathetically consider” arguments against AFSPA and appointed a committee headed by Justice Jeevan Reddy to submit a report on feasibility of replacing it by a “more humane Act.” The panel submitted its report in mid-2005 — one guesses that even after eight years the proposals are being ‘sympathetically considered’.
The military is vociferous in its defence of AFSPA, saying that lack of immunity from prosecution will blunt its operational edge in battling militancy. According to provisions of AFSPA, military personnel cannot be prosecuted for their actions in a disturbed area that requires implementation of AFSPA. The Central government, which takes a call on declaring an area requiring operation of AFSPA, cannot be challenged on its judgement in a court of law.
However, it is opposed by civil society organisations and human rights groups as it is allegedly abused for torture, ‘disappearances’ and fake ‘encounter’ killings. Literally every international organisation that is working in the area of human rights, including the United Nations, have criticised the AFSPA and has called for its removal.
In March 2012, UN Special Rapporteur Cristof Heyns, after a 12-day fact-finding mission in the disturbed areas, concluded that ASPA is a symbol of excessive state power and “has no role to play in a democracy”. Here, it would be noteworthy to mention that India has NOT ratified the UN Convention Against Torture and the International Convention for the Protection of All persons from Enforced Disappearance.
There is no doubting that military needs special legal provisions/concessions to act effectively against militancy/terrorism, but these should come along with safeguards that provide credible accountability.
Numerous examples in history illustrate clearly that alienation of local population never helped any military campaign. The security forces should be trained not only in tactics but also in sensitivity.
Those who abuse their immunity should be severely punished via internal disciplinary procedures. Unless faith of people is restored through effective and meaningful measures, AFSPA will continue to be a fountainhead for militancy and a blot on our commitment to enforcement of universal human rights.
Irom Sharmila can be shackled, but her ideas can’t be. Let not shrill calls of jingoism drown out the screams of our own.
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My interests lie in current affairs, social issues and political analysis. A strong believer of independent thinking and healthy scepticism.